The sights and flavors of India were on display in Hamilton High School teacher Travis Blome's ninth-grade Global Studies class last week, as several local teenagers gave a presentation on the clothing, culture and food of the world's second most populous nation.
When students first entered the class, they were greeted by student Antara Mason, who was originally adopted from India. She wore a full-length black burka, which covered her entire body except her eyes, a piece of clothing worn by devout Muslim women and common in many areas of India.
Later, Mason asked her peers what they first thought when they entered the room. Many answered that they were a little taken aback. The goal for Mason and fellow presenters Rebecca and Pamela Fawns in their "Across the World in 90 Minutes" program was to gauge how comfortable students would be if they encountered a devout Muslim woman wearing a "strange outfit" in their midst and to reflect on cultural perceptions.
"You couldn't tell, but I was smiling the entire time," Mason said.
The goal for the presenters was to increase the understanding of and engagement in learning about cultures, increase communication skills and provide an opportunity for youth to develop and use leadership skills like presentation, program development and facilitation skills.
"The need for our youth and community to learn about cultures is critical, given our global economy, and it's neat to see in rural Montana such dedicated and knowledgeable youth take such an interest in sharing and leading this kind of a program," said program coordinator Wendi Fawns.
The girls also gave the students a lesson on eating Indian cuisine in the traditional way - by hand. They were given rice, carrots in Indian spices and pickled mangoes, along with a healthy dollop of yogurt to eat with their fingers.
"In India, it is considered rude if you don't leave a messy plate," Pamela Fawns explained.
That part was easy for the students, as they swirled the foods together with their fingers, just as hundreds of millions of Indians do every day. The hard part was learning to drink water without having it touch their lips.
When Indian farmers come back from work in the fields, they share a single cup from a well, so they have learned to not let the cup touch their lips, Fawns explained. It's easier said than done, as several of the kids choked on the water before they perfected the technique.
The girls gave a slideshow presentation on the clothing, artwork, literature and culture of India as well. The most fascinating part of the day was when they had three volunteers dress in burkas, and walk down the hall to another classroom to surprise other students and see how they would react to someone in Muslim garb.
Many of the unsuspecting Hamilton students looked surprised, even shocked, and most just giggled. It was an interesting experiment in cultural perceptions, as many of the students wrote down in their comments after the class.
"The support from Hamilton High School for this program has been great," Wendi Fawns said. "Over the six years that this program has been in place, it has changed from a largely visual presentation format using slides and artifacts to a much more participatory format based on observations and direction of the teen leadership."
There will be a free Indian dinner hosted by Community Cooking Connections in Hamilton coming up in March, so watch the events section in the Ravalli Republic for more specific information.
Reach reporter David Erickson at 363-3300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.