Commentary: For some Hindu students, a cost to being different

By Nimai Shukla

It was third grade, and I had just finished my school cafeteria favorite - Italian dunkers, or French bread topped with marinara and cheese. My best friend was absent that day, so I wandered around the playground looking for someone to play with.

Suddenly, I felt a rough hand grab hold of me and pull me onto the stairs at the top of the playset. It was an old friend, one I hadn't played with lately. I saw two of my classmates climb down from the top and block my escape.

"Read this and swear on it," the leader said, holding up a pocket-size Bible.

I refused - holding off until I could ad-lib a random sentence with some choice third-grade words for my brutish classmates. They all strained their eyes to see where I had gotten my sentence from, leaving them momentarily distracted.

With lightning quickness, I sprang, disappearing under the playset. They fanned out trying to find me, but I inconspicuously walked to a recess aide and alerted her to my problem. I walked to the edge of the playground where I couldn't be seen and watched as she got to the bully and started taking him inside. To this day, I can remember his bawling words: "I was just trying to help him."

This went on for a couple of weeks at my school in Minnesota, and each time I'd find the recess aide. Each time, he'd say he was trying to "help me" or "save me." I can still hear my parents telling me what to do - saying I should always tell an adult and never resort to hitting.

And I remember how it ended. After the counselor got involved, we would have to meet and talk. But it didn't help much. I just started avoiding the bully, which was hard since we were in the same class, and never talked to him again.

I never figured out why he thought he had to help me, other than my being different from him and most of the other kids in my class. It could have been the lesson on important festivals of different world religions a few weeks earlier that made him realize I was Hindu. Perhaps it was because I was openly vegetarian. Maybe it was what he learned about Hinduism in church or from his parents.

What happened to me happens to so many other kids. A recent report by the Hindu American Foundation sadly proves this. The report found that one in three Hindu students is bullied after lessons about Hinduism in school. It also found that one in eight students reported that a teacher made sarcastic remarks about Hinduism in class. None of this is surprising given all of the stereotypes about Hinduism in the classroom, on school playgrounds, and in pop culture and the news.

I was lucky to be in a school that dealt with bullying immediately rather than pushing it aside and saying, "Kids will be kids." I was lucky to have a supportive family that always asked about my day at every dinner and did not call me a wuss for being bullied. Most importantly, I learned how to treat people with the respect they deserve.

No one should be made to feel as if they don't belong because they may look different, think differently, or pray differently. Because I'm different, I've learned to appreciate difference. I've also learned something everyone should know: Always treat people the way I want to be treated.

Nimai Shukla is an eighth-grade student at Welsh Valley Middle School in Narberth. For more information on the study, visit www.hafsite.org.

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