If I’m tired of talking about one thing it’s my work. As soon as I see a friend, the first thing that is asked is,
So, how’s your school?
I tell and retell stories about teachers interrupting my classes, the headsir walking out of the office while I’m talking to him, and just the generally unwelcoming tone that the school held towards me for the past six months. I stuck around, taught my classes, played some basketball, all until something finally gave—me.
But there was no traumatic conclusion at the school, just a final in a long series of deterrents by the faculty to my presence at the school. It was time to leave when the school informed me that I would not be allowed to be absent during a bandha, which is in direct violation of the school’s agreement with Peace Corps.
And to get Peace Corps/Nepal to do anything, all you have to add to any request is the word ‘security.’ After a series of days with nothing to do until I had talked with my Peace Corps office and finally the Country Director, David O’Conner, my transfer from the Kanya School to the Bal Mandir School was final.
I’m not sure what the full story of my experience at the Kanya School will be quite yet, but it’ll surely be augmented with my confusion to exactly why the faculty was so hostile to me there. Why I was never even partially accepted as a person, let alone an educator? I’ve been to lots of schools in Nepal.
When stepping in to meet the headsir or headmiss I’ve always been greeted with smiles and a pleasant tone, which I never received at the girls’ school. Quite opposite. The faculty often ignored me, perhaps following the example the headsir made by treating me highly visible and aggressive disrespect.
I met up with the school’s old headsir not long ago. He told me that he left the school because there were several faculty members coming to teach at the girls’ school that he felt he couldn’t work with and so he requested a transfer that was granted, transplanting the faculty and headsir of one school with those of another.
The Bal Mandir School is a government subsidized school for dalit children. The students are the opposite of privileged; many are domestic servants, children of rickshaw drivers, and dalit.
The caste system is essentially the same thing as the class system, except for it’s explicitly religious.
Caste dictates what opportunities are available. If you’re low caste, a dalit, then you’re future is probably in street sweeping, being a servant, driving a rickshaw, or as some other physical laborer. The Bal Mandir School is lower primary, first through fifth grade, and the students are unlikely to get further education.
After the transfer was finalized and Peace Corps made the appropriate phone calls, I was psyched to being teaching again. Having too much free time definitely wore on me after a while.
Ironically, my office phoned me to let me know that I’d be welcomed at my new school; however, in the coming week the school would be giving half-yearly exams, so I wouldn’t be able to begin teaching for another week. Still, I had something to prepare for and didn’t feel like I was wasting my time waiting on paperwork to be signed.
The next day I went to the school to visit with the headmiss and meet the teachers and students. While I had made several visits to the school when Robin was teaching there, this was the first time to come with professional responsibilities.
I couldn’t ignore the teachers to play with the students, but had to assume the role of politician, pandering to the teachers while relating with the students.
Nepali teachers are inherently insecure in front of students because they only way they feel they can control a class is by threatening physical violence. Probably the most effective way I influence teachers is by merely being friendly and comfortable with the students in and outside of the classroom.
Anyhow, so I showed up at the school. It’s such a dynamic change from the girls’ school, with its warm interior, tended garden, and classic façade. The Bal Mandir School hides a ways from the road behind a dilapidated gate and in the midst of rubble and overgrown shrubs.
The impression I got from every previous visit was,
This place is poor.
The students react to me pretty much the same as at the girls’ school: they’re excited to meet me, but too shy to be direct, which results in students running up to me and surrounding me, but not being able to squeak out a single word.
The significant change is in the faculty. After coming into the office and sitting down, I knew immediately by something the headmiss did that this was the best move for me to make: she spoke to me. We talked about the classes I’d be teaching and what she could expect from me, what I expected from her blah, blah, and blah.
All the same stuff was said two or three times at my old school to little avail, so I thought that I should just save my energy for a later date and hope that she would—gulp—just accept my energy and presence at the school as a good thing.
Next week I’ll begin teaching. At my old school I was teaching 4th and 5th grade English, which I’ll be doing at this school as well. The major change is that I’ve decided to teach a 3rd grade English class as well. Hmm. It should be interesting, but I’m here to challenge myself, right? So let’s see what these 3rd graders are made of.
The first day I went to school with the intention of teaching, school was canceled because a teacher in the region had died. This is a common practice in schools in Nepal and happened a few times at the girls’ school. Usually a teacher goes to the classes and tells them they have chutti.
But instead the Bal Mandir teachers assembled the students in the large room which constitutes most of the school (I teach 5th grade on a stage and 4th grade in a common area where all the students pass through on their way to the toilet) and explained to the students that a teacher had passed away.
They teachers told the students of the great achievements of a person that none of us knew, outside of his employment as an educator.
The teacher then told the students the name of the teacher,
Keeshab Thapa. The students repeated the name back.
The headmiss asked,
What was his name? They replied,
She asked again,
What was his name?
Keeshab Thapa, the students repeated a third time.
Then, a moment of silence was observed and the students were sent home.
Most stayed after and played in the neighboring field, since many were domestic servants who were given enough free time during the day to come to school, or just some of it.
Anyhow, school is more of refuge from the harsh reality of dalit life in Nepal for these kids, and even if classes weren’t to be held, they would stay into the afternoon when they were expected home.
As I left I stopped a played with the kids. The teachers passed smiling at me and understanding far better than I may ever the significance of idle moments like this in the lives of these children.
It may be said that my intentions in joining the Peace Corps were never altruistic; however, the circumstances of these days are causing an awful lot of my actions to be so.