Being a Jewish Chinese student, I’ve heard pretty much any joke imaginable of how “hard-working and studious” I must be. That being said, it still came as a surprise when I was expected to attend school on Rosh HaShanah simply to complete a math exam. Or, that if I wasn’t present at a Saturday rehearsal, I wouldn’t be able to participate in the school play, despite it also being Purim on that day. The truth is, not enough schools acknowledge and accommodate students’ needs, regardless of whether these needs are religious exemptions, learning disabilities or even mental illnesses.
Most schools in Hong Kong, with the exception of some local schools, do not have a specific religious alignment, but the default for many education systems seems to reflect Christianity. For example, school rules against seemingly harmless actions such as wearing hats indoors have roots in Christian etiquette and tradition. Naturally incorporating religion into schooling systems isn’t problematic, until students who don’t follow these religious views are treated differently, or more accurately, not differently. For everyone to be treated equitably, suitable accommodations are necessary. No school in Hong Kong would dare schedule a major exam on Easter, and if there was a Christian fasting period, you could be sure any sporting events would be postponed until the end of it. So, it should only be natural that the same respect is given towards Jewish, Muslim or any other religiously affiliated holiday. You may have assumed that these arrangements would be made, but unfortunately, this is not the case as any deviation from what is considered the norm is punished with indifference.
Aside from religious differences, schools today tend to neglect the existence of learning disabilities. Previously, the possibility of a neurological issue was paid little to no attention, but more research and focus on this area has led to more awareness and now, we are beginning to acknowledge that disabilities affect people of all kinds and ages. Yet, the majority of schooling systems deem students with these learning differences as lazy or due to a lack of effort. Many examination boards offer extra time and other exam accommodations for students with these exigencies, but not without a thorough report and assessment results which may be difficult and costly to obtain. This also doesn’t change the fact that aside from taking medication, there isn’t much a student with a disorder can do to make the situation better, and it isn’t fair of teachers or the school board to expect these student to learn or perform in the same way as a neurotypical student.
Nowadays, schools that care more about results than students’ mental health is far from just an overused film trope. It is much too real and affects an increasing number of students every year. So many schools prioritize grades and facilitate unhealthy or destructive behavior, such as severe lack of sleep or eating unhealthily, all for the sake of retaining the school’s image. This utopian ideal of “perfection” becomes an addiction that cannot be satiated by something as trivial as test scores. Countless studies and statistics show that students in this day and age are under more pressure than ever before to achieve the impossible, making it no surprise that mental disorders such as anxiety and depression are becoming an epidemic in the majority of schools. Nevertheless, schools continue treating mental health issues as if some foreign, abstract concept that doesn’t affect their students whatsoever. The detachment to such a relevant problem simply reinforces this culture of ignorance and apathy about the subject.
Overall, while there are too many complex issues at play for there to be an immediate, universal solution, nothing can be done until schools can learn to acknowledge, value and treat children as individuals. Students’ worth shouldn’t be gauged by productivity or how similar they are to their peers. Rather, students should be viewed as individuals who will shape the future. But this cannot be done if the things that make children different and special are eradicated or punished. A school should be a place to encourage the natural human desire to learn and create as opposed to suppressing it with hostility and apathy.
Charlotte Hoi Yi Leong is a junior at German Swiss International School in Hong Kong. She is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.