Stranger in the class room

4th April 2003 at 01:00
Irrational hatred can increase in a climate of war. Gerald Haigh suggests an assembly that underlines the need for more tolerance

The war that our nation has embarked on brings obvious anxieties.

We shouldn't overlook the danger of increased irrational hatred between races, religions and cultures. Tensions have already appeared in schools, and the groundswell of populist feeling about refugees and asylum-seekers adds to misunderstanding and intolerance.

In our school communities we may think we can't do much to stave off these side-effects of war, but we should try to prevent the overturning of the good work on tolerance and understanding that teachers have been engaged in for years.

The assembly we suggest here in outline won't change everyone overnight.

But assemblies are important vehicles by which teachers explain a school's values - that all human beings are of equal worth regardless of race and culture, and that respect, dignity and justice should govern all our dealings with each other.

Introduction Talk to children about similarities and differences between the people they know. Their loved ones and friends share many qualities - those of kindness, good humour and determination, to name but a few. Yet they're also very different in all sorts of ways - in appearance, personality, preferences; again, talk about these and encourage anecdotes and examples.

These differences enrich our lives and are to be celebrated. Emphasise the way that the quality of school life is enhanced by differences - people who are good at different things, who like different things and use their talents and special abilities to help and encourage others. The story which follows tells of a child - perhaps an asylum-seeker, perhaps someone from a family in a refuge, it's deliberately not made entirely clear - who is rejected in class. The parent of one of the other pupils lets her son know how she feels about this.

Story Satnam was sitting at the kitchen table starting to do his homework.

"Everything OK at school today?" asked his Mum.

"Fine," said Satnam. "Only I didn't like sitting next to the new boy."

"You have a new boy in class?" said Mum. "Who is that?"

"He's strange. He doesn't speak English very well. I don't like him."

His mum frowned. "Oh," she said. "And why don't you like him?"

"He's just strange. He doesn't make friends with anybody. He turns away when anyone talks to him, and sometimes he goes off to have lessons with some other children like him. He's just different. I don't like him sitting near me."

His mum put down the towels she was folding and came and sat opposite Satnam. She didn't like what she was hearing and she wanted to concentrate on the conversation.

"I asked you why you don't like him sitting near you," said his mum.

"Oh, I don't know. He lives in that hostel. I think his family's had to come there because there was some trouble where they lived before. But none of us like the kids from the hostel. They can't speak English. And they shouldn't be here. Our class isn't the same with him in it."

Satnam's mum shook her head.

"What's his name?" she said Satnam frowned. "Can't remember," he said. "Why?"

"Satnam," his Mum went on. "What is your religion?"

Satnam looked at his Mum. He couldn't work out why she'd asked him that question.

"What?" he said.

His Mum asked again. "Satnam, what is your religion?"

"I'm a Sikh," said Satnam. "We all are in our family."

"Right," said his Mum. "And who started the Sikh religion?"

Satnam knew that one. He had learned it at the temple. "Guru Nanak," he said. "Why?"

"Well," said his Mum, "let me remind you of some things about Guru Nanak.

He believed that all human beings are equal before God. He told us to help all people who need our help. And here's a new boy in your school, probably lonely, not very good at English, and you don't even know his name."

Satnam stared at her, surprised. "It's a long, funny name. We can't even say it," he said.

His mum shook her head. "I imagine he can say it. And his family can say it. If they can say it, then so can you. It's just lazy not to learn to say someone's name. It shows lack of respect."

She shook her head again, then she said: "Let me tell you something about your father."

"What about him?" said Satnam.

"When I first met him, he had a job with the council. He quite liked it, and the other people working there liked him - but they couldn't be bothered to learn his name. They called him 'Jimmy' all the time. Your Dad learned to put up with it. And I don't think the others even thought there was anything wrong in what they were doing. Sometimes they made fun of him a bit and imitated his accent, and looked in his lunchbox and asked if he was eating curry. They didn't mean any harm, but he found it hurtful. Do you like the idea of your father being called 'Jimmy' at work and being laughed at?"

Satnam smiled nervously, a bit embarrassed. He loved and respected his father, and couldn't imagine how anyone would treat him badly. "Did Dad get mad with everybody at work?" he said.

Mum laughed. "You know your father," she said. "He's more for letting his politeness and gentle nature speak for itself. So when they got curious about the food he took for his lunch, he used to take extra and offer it to them to try."

Satnam thought for a moment. "So I have to make friends with this new boy, do I?"

"Maybe, maybe not," said Mum. "But at least you can be polite and pleasant to him and call him by his name. We have our religion to teach us how to behave to others. So do other people - Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews. But really all you have to do is remember that we are all human beings, part of humanity, all together on Spaceship Earth. If we know what's good for us, we'll stick together."


Every religion has powerful things to say about how we should treat each other. Guru Nanak spoke out against injustice, and to this day every Sikh temple has a kitchen which will give food to all who are in need, regardless of religion or nationality or social class. Jews are called upon to respect other faiths and work with them. Islam says that Muslims must be truthful and just in all their dealings because that is how they will convert others to Islam. And Jesus challenged his followers to "Love your neighbours as much as you love yourselves". He followed this up by pointing out that your "neighbour" isn't necessarily the person you feel most comfortable with.

Gerald Haigh is editor of pfp Publishing's Primary Assembly File

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