COLLIERVILLE, Tenn. — As Sept. 1 drew nearer and many in her faith were making plans to celebrate the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, Maryam Chaudhary, a 15-year-old freshman at Collierville High School was faced with a decision.
Either spend the day in prayer followed by fellowship with family, friends and gifts — or go to school.
It’s not a simple dilemma.
Religious holidays are counted by Collierville Schools as an excused absence, as are illnesses or a doctor’s appointment.
For students, those excused absences are like gold.
High school students with an average score of 90 percent or above in a class are allowed to skip that final exam if they have three or fewer excused absences. With a fourth excused absence, you take the exam, regardless of your grade.
But most Christian children don’t have to choose between going to school and celebrating a religious holiday. There is no school on Christian holidays like Christmas and Good Friday.
“And I’m not going to lie. It was devastating. When you want to be with your family and friends. You want to give gifts. You want to get gifts,” Maryam said. “You want to be with your family and having a good time. I was shocked that the school system would be discriminating against all these other religions.”
Maryam took her complaint to the school board at its last meeting, without her parents there for support.
“She’s good at talking. Her English is better than mine,” said her mother, Shanza Chaudhary.
Maryam was also sad to miss Eid, Chaudhary said.
“We usually go for prayer in the morning. All of the community gets together in one place and we pray,” she said.
This year they convened at the Memphis Cook Convention Center.
But was Maryam was too worried about the possibility of having an unavoidable absence that would mean she’d have to take her exams.
“It was a big thing,” Chaudhary said.
Facing the school board wasn’t easy.
“I was extremely nervous. I thought, they’re not going to take me seriously,” she said.
But they did, said Collierville Superintendent John Aitken, and the policy will in all likelihood be reviewed.
“Anytime somebody comes and ask us to revisit, we study it. I don’t think it will happen this year,” he said. “We look at all our policies every year and we do an annual review.”
Maryam isn’t finished. She plans on speaking to the school board again at its 6:30 p.m. Tuesday meeting, only this time she’ll come armed with 230 signatures on a petition that asks the board to reconsider the excused absence policy.
“Some are Christian kids that do support my cause. Some are kids who have different religions than that, and some are adults,” Maryam said.
One signature is from Aaron Hill, 15, a Jewish CHS freshman.
He signed the petition because, like Maryam, he may also have to decide between celebrating a religious holiday and going to school, something his Christian classmates don’t have to do.
“Others deserve to celebrate in the proper way too,” Aaron said. said. “I’m not sure if I’m going to miss any days this year. I just want to get good attendance.”
Maryam is hopeful that her petition will persuade the school board to take action. It’s her first attempt at helping to foster change.
But it might not be her last.
“I want to be a lawyer,” she said.
Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com