During a recent public speaking session at The Reading Room, one of the exercises given to the children was to pick their own topics, gather their thoughts for about five minutes, and then deliver a speech on it.
The idea was to understand that when they pick topics on their own and talk about the things that they relate to their speech delivery would usually be more fluent and smoother as against when they are needed to find data on an unfamiliar topic and then present it. It was the simplest way to represent the effectiveness of being thorough and prepared on speech delivery and fluency—to be so thorough about your topic that it is as simple as talking about your favourite things.
As the event progressed, one of the boys came forward slowly, still thinking of a good topic he would like to speak about. With the intention of helping this boy, another boy suggested: ‘speak about being a Muslim!’
And then, a sudden hush fell in the room—a sudden hush that is now becoming all too familiar whenever religion is involved. We seem to be treating religion with exactly as much taboo as topics relating to the human body, especially the reproductive system—which is sad, for both cases. We all know how topics of taboo actually work around children. Whereas the moment you normalize something and convert it into a ‘boring everywhere thing’, children quickly lose interest.
Every time religion comes up in either a conversation with my child or in the sessions, and this sudden hush descends, my go-to is to remain completely nonchalant, smiling, and normal like it is an everyday thing. It exists. All around. And it needn’t be given too much importance. That is the message we are trying to spread here at The Reading Room. It is not a bad thing to talk about. It is not wrong or taboo. It is just someone’s personal choice and there is no need to really talk about it. I treat every such instance as an opportunity to normalize the existence of religion in the world around while making it seem like a mundane everyday thing that doesn’t really need to be discussed or blown up.
Of course, while talking to children who come from different backgrounds with their own leanings and learning, maintaining the balance becomes essential—let’s respect everyone’s belief, understand that it is personal and never confuse it for identity.
So, to quickly wipe away that hush, one of our storytellers asked in a calm, even amused voice, ‘Why did you think that would be a good topic?’
The boy replied, ‘Because he is one, I thought it will be an interesting topic.’ Always remember, eight out of 10 times, kids do not mean malice. They really are just sweet and curious.
So, our storyteller went on to ask him, ‘What about you? Why did you not think that was an important point for you to talk about? Or for George, or Gayathri, or anybody else who spoke before?’
He blinked. Then he said, ‘Because they are not Muslims.’
‘So, everyone else is a person that talks about books, football, Avengers, art, and all their favourite things. They don’t have to talk about temples or churches or the Gods they pray to?’, the storyteller inquired, still smiling.
Now, you could see the realization dawning on his face, all the while no one has criticized or scolded him. ‘Yeah. That is not okay,’ he replied.
The storyteller pointed at a girl and said, ‘Let’s play a game. Who is she? And what do you know about her, then?’
‘That’s Jo. She LOVES Harry Potter,’ he said, rolling his eyes.
‘And, that boy?’
‘Prem. Always talks about football.’
‘And, this boy here?’
‘Ameen? He draws very well in his notebooks,’ he said.
‘So, how about Ameen speak on drawing then? What do you say, Ameen?’
‘Yes. My speech will be about drawing.’
And with that, the hush vanished.
Every time we have these conversations at The Reading Room, and yes, we are willing to have them a million times over if that is what it takes, there is a sense of satisfaction. If we change even one view that day, if we hold up a mirror of equality and acceptance to one new mind, we know we are on the right path.