Distance Can't Stop a Lower School Tradition

“How many of you had to give up a big Diwali family celebration this year because of the pandemic?”

Over a Zoom call (because of the pandemic), four out of four hands go up.

Those four students—Dilan ’31, Milen ’29, Alina ’32, and Noah ’32—had to give something else up, too: the Lower School’s Diwali celebration, which in the past few years has become a tradition. Normally there’s a student-performed play telling the story of the Festival of Light,  which celebrates the culmination of good over evil, peace over cruelty, and light over darkness. That option was out for this year, so some Lower School parents went to work to preserve the tradition in a virtual way.

“Other parents had worked so hard the past two years to even get it into the Lower School that we felt like if we skipped even a year, that momentum would be lost—and we did not want that to happen,” said Rupal McMillan (P ’32). “It was definitely a challenge, but we made it happen.”

They made it happen by putting together a video of students reading Amma, Tell Me About Diwali, by Bhakti Mathur. Thanks to the magic of the movies, there was also a mashup video of students “passing” a diya, a lamp that signifies the triumph of light over darkness, to one another while they shared what they liked best about Diwali (eating and exchanging sweets was high on the list). Kindergarten teacher Denise Coffin led a small session about the commonalities between Diwali and the Quaker concept of Inner Light. To round things off, there was a virtual dance party as students learned about two styles of Indian dance.

Some of the students participating in the celebration were hesitant at first. “It made me feel a little bit frustrated, I guess,” said Dilan. “I really wanted to have a play at School like last year.”

“I was like, ‘Why? WHYYYYYY?’” said Milen. “I didn’t understand how we’re actually going to do the Diwali celebration. And then my mom told me about it and I was like, ‘Okay, yeah, I understand that.’ I didn’t want to do it virtually, but we had to right now.”

Rachna Bhatt (P’ 32) found that the virtual celebration offered options that an in-person celebration might not have. “We wanted to make it very multifaceted so that some children who may not connect with a story could connect with the art or the music or the dance,” Bhatt said. “It was actually a really great opportunity to do something different.” Even older students—including some Middle Schoolers who participated in the assembly during their Lower School years—were able to join in, something that wouldn’t have been possible in a normal year.

Many Lower School departments incorporated lessons about Diwali into their curricula. In art, students made rangoli, colorful art traditionally made at Diwali, and students were encouraged to share information about Diwali and Indian culture in their classrooms.

“I made these posters about Indian stuff, like Indian jewelry, Indian clothes, the Indian flag, and the national animals,” Milen said. “My sister made a poster of the Taj Mahal, and I also got to show that to my classmates.”

“I just feel proud to be part of the Sidwell community that wants to learn about new cultures, new holidays, new traditions,” said Omna Bhattacharya (P ’31). “And for my son, I saw when we did the dance portion of the assembly, he was stunned to see that everybody was dancing, because he usually sees that only at family parties. I could see in his face how proud he felt—‘Look at my friends! They’re doing Indian dancing with me!’”

“My daughter is so proud of her Indian heritage and being able to share it gives her great confidence in the classroom and it really makes her feel welcome,” said Omna , continuing to explain that the School recognizing Diwali embodies what Lower School principal Adele Paynter refers to as “mirrors and windows,” a concept that helps ensure students can see themselves and their culture reflected in the classroom, while students from a different culture can look in and learn. “The ability to embrace that and showcase that,” said Paynter, “is a testament to what Sidwell believes about showing the light in every person and in every child.”

“I think it was better to do it on Zoom than to have nothing for Diwali,” said Alina. “Because the Diwali play is still fun, and I like sharing my culture with other people.”

“You still get to celebrate,” Noah agreed. 

Remember how all of the students missed out on the traditional large family celebrations? The Lower School’s Diwali celebration helped out with that, too.

“For me, it really helped because it was like seeing another family,” said Milen. “Maybe just virtually, but it just made me feel like another regular Diwali.”

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