Like the English School, the next school we visited in Kathmandu, has its locked gate. This was a public school, named after Mihendra Bir Bikram Shah, King of Nepal from 1955 to 1972. As we drove up, it was recess, and behind the iron bars were dozens of students in their uniforms milling and playing around the dirt schoolyard. The van that was bringing us to the school for the visit had to pause at the gate, not just for it to be opened, but also so that two women hoping to sell their bushels of oranges to the schoolchildren could move their wares. It was not an easy process; the women were old, moved with difficulty, and clearly subsisted on the meagre proceeds of their sales, which might net them ten or twenty cents a day.
It was a poor school, but exceptional in its history. It was founded to teach the children of refugees who fled Tibet when the Chinese took over Tibet in the late 1950s. Our host, well-versed in the history and politics of the region, spoke with authority on the subject. “The wealthy Tibetans went with the Dalai Lama to India, where their government in exile was established. The poor people had no choice but to stay behind in Tibet. The middle class, business people, professionals and entrepreneurs, fled to Nepal, mainly to Kathmandu. They were given some land on which to create their tent city, but they had nothing. And then they needed a school.”
When the school was created, the authorities searched far and wide for someone to oversee it. It was a fruitless search, and for some time the school could not open because of a lack of teachers, and a lack of a Head. It was not a desirable place to carve out a career, amid penniless refugees who were looked down upon, considered inferior by the residents of Kathmandu. Their manners and habits were unappreciated, despite the sympathy with which they were viewed in principle. Finally, from all the educators in Nepal one sole woman stepped forward, offering to do the job of running the school. That was in the early 1960’s. Having retired over a decade ago, she was making a special appearance at the school to greet us, colourful and slow-moving in her dress sari as we got down from the van. Her son, in blue jeans and a work shirt, is now the Head of the School; she sits on the Board.
After some greetings, and a spirited welcome marked by generous speeches on both sides, we went to visit one of the classes with the Head and a few others, about whose positions and role I was uncertain. I think our visit was a break from the challenge that clearly could wear them down if they let it. Our visit was to a grade nine class. Inside the room, there seemed to be no electricity; the only light came in through the open, unglazed windows. The school day ended at four p.m. for part of the year, and then changed to three p.m. in winter so that the students still had daylight in which to do their work. They all wore a uniform which was relatively smart. Their school uniform, apparently, is the dressiest clothing the pupils own. They are in desks behind benches, with three or four to a bench, depending on the size of the pupils. Girls, being smaller, could fit four to a desk. Grade nine is the second last year of high school. Despite the poverty and want evident in the room and in the rest of the school, smiles and bright eyes still lit up the faces, orderly and hopeful.
After this visit, we retired to the office of the Head, which also served as a sort of staff common room for the male teachers it seemed. I did notice one bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, not lit, with some thin electric wires of the sort that you might find inside a flashlight running along the wall. I suspected it had been jury-rigged, and got its power from an unauthorized source.
It is hard to know where to begin an exchange of thoughts and questions in a school so clearly on the edge of oblivion. It was a good reminder, though, that the essential orientation of a school is the future; it is from these spirits that the future will be built. The teachers are committed and dutiful – their work, in fact, is so admirable as to defy measure. I conveyed this to the Head, his mother, and the other staff who were in the room, all of them male. “What are the most important issues you have to deal with?” I asked.
The school no longer educates Tibetans; it now educates those of Nepali descent. The Tibetans have gotten on with their middle class lives, working hard, establishing themselves as business people, traders, and functionaries of different types. They have a very nice school of their own now. Our host who had arranged the visit, and who has known the school for a long time, is well acquainted with a successful Tibetan who had graduated from this school decades ago. Asking him why he didn’t give back to his former school, to improve it, he said he gave his financial support to the Tibetan school, which his children attended. Would they go back to Tibet if one day the Dalai Lama were restored, I asked? I got a jaundiced look in return. Hardly: it was a hard and penurious life under the monks, a theocracy that cared little for the earthly condition of the rest of the populace. The Tibetans who remained behind don’t like the Chinese, true, but they certainly don’t want the monks back. And those Tibetans who have now made their life in Nepal view it as superior to anything they can remember. The only people who want the Dalai Lama back are the government in exile, my host said, since they have much to gain by such a move. That’s why the Chinese thought they would be welcomed with open arms. But things didn’t work out that way, for other reasons. But don’t kid yourself if you think a popular uprising is going to put the Dalai Lama back on the throne, she said. And indeed, if you read the history books, you discover that life in the old Tibet was not an enviable existence. A tortured history, for sure.
The Nepali in this school were among the poorest. “Just up the street there is another public school, much nicer, but that is for the sweepers, and these kids aren’t sweepers.”
Throughout Nepal there are many trades and jobs, all layered into a persistent and slowly-fading caste system. One of the jobs is sweeping the streets, sidewalks and buildings – there are thousands of sweepers in Kathmandu who have their brooms made of straw, sweeping debris and dust into the gutter. Apparently, their children go to their own school, which has some advantages lacking in the King Mahendra’s School.
Every question and answer illuminated another facet of Nepalese life.
Back to my original question: what were the issues? Issues? Well, simple attendance was one. Some days or weeks the families decided to keep the students at home to work, to add to the family’s income. Then there was the issue of materials – no textbooks, no workbooks, nothing for teachers to use. I repeated how admirable was the work they all did.
Then one of the other staff offered his views. It turns out he had been a teacher at the school for over twenty years; he was the uncle of the current Head. He pulled up a chair and sat a few feet away, hunched over intently. The problem, he said, is money. The government doesn’t allocate money, the school can’t charge fees like many of the other schools, and it can’t raise money. Once the government puts the people first instead of themselves, that might change, but it was going to be very difficult.
He clearly had a point, one which was shared by everyone, and not just in that room. After this visit we went to the official staff room, which was populated by the female teachers, all in their saris. Nepal is about eighty per cent Hindu. In this room a low wattage fluorescent light flickered on the wall. Then we visited the Grade Ten classroom, the pride and joy of the school. A similar physical aspect to the earlier classroom: no light except what came in through the open, unglazed windows. I would hate to be a student on the dark side of the room, where there were no windows at all. Three or four students crammed onto each bench, with perhaps one textbook to share among them. The Head was proud of the fact that some of his students would be going on to the next level, to become engineers, accountants, doctors and all the other futures that we hope for our pupils. I thanked them all for the visit, and we said warm farewells to the Head, his staff, and the school’s founder.
Of all the schools visited, this one affected us most. One felt, here, that education, and the future, is hanging by a thread. By contrast, the persistence of the educational spirit, and persistence of hope, the belief in the future that shapes all schools, was inspiring. My last view out the back of the van was of the school’s founder, in her bright orange and red sari, smiling and lifting her weathered hand to wave us away.