The story around Rato Bangala was that, even if you don’t do any other teachers’ homework, Miss Perry’s homework had to be done. Not because everyone was terrified of her, but because she worked so hard planning the classes it seemed wrong to not work as hard yourself.
It seemed a bit scary to go back and visit her, for who knows she may have changed in the years. She may no longer be the Miss Perry I knew. But my fears were unfounded. She was still the thin, wry, bespectacled teacher (sans a mug of coffee). Amidst the boisterous Rato Bangala students getting ready for their Dashain break, I discovered that her physical appearance was not the only thing that remained constant.
We, I to be truthful, had always assumed that she had majored in education, so when she married a Nepalese she started teaching in Nepal. Our (my) assumption was far from correct. As a student in Carlton College in Northfield, Minnesota, she majored in Sociology and Anthropology. In her senior year’s winter trimester at Carlton she chose to spend the trimester in Nepal. When she came to Nepal and learnt the language allowing her to communicate with people, she fell in love- with Nepal. And the rest, as clichéd as it sounds, is history.
She had not planned to go directly to graduate school. Instead, she wanted to get some life experience, and figure out what she wanted to do. After coming to Nepal she decided to look for a job, and she “fell into teaching”. Teaching was a profession she was familiar with. Her father was a Physic professor, her mother a lab supervisor at Holy Cross College.
Her first job in Nepal was as a teacher in ELI (English Language Institute) USAID’s English program. She taught in the morning shift from July 1989 to December 1990. It was in 1990, during the democracy movement that the students, when protesting the fee hike, physically threatened one of the teachers. When the US embassy learned about the physical threat, they shut down the ELI program, and Miss Perry along with the other teachers was let go.
After her stint in ELI she went on to teach at Rupy’s International. She enjoyed working in Rupy’s International; however due to some problems, she had to leave the job after five years teaching in the “red room” (four-and five-year-olds). Though it pained her to do so because she was not a quitter and has “never quit”, she left Rupy’s International. As for teaching in Rato Bangala, she narrates, she “fell into it” as well.
While working at Rupy’s International she was also working at a winter camp run by Joti Sherchan. It was during one of the winter camps that she met Punyasheel Gautam who was then teaching at Rato Bangala. When she mentioned that she had quit her job at Rupy’s International he persuaded her to join Rato Bangala. After a casual but taxing interview with Shanta and Milan Dixit over breakfast she got a job as a co-teacher for third grade. Though it meant a substantial decrease in her salary she accepted the job. She started teaching at Rato Bangala in 1996, where she taught third grade for a year, then ninth grade the next year. Fast-forward ten years she was also teaching ‘A’ level after teaching ninth and tenth grades for nearly a decade.
Teaching is a taxing job, especially teaching sixteen year olds who think they know everything, and the world is at their feet. Though there are teachers who stick true to their path, there are teachers who have changed their profession after a decade or so of teaching. As a self proclaimed “conservative at heart” Miss Perry finds it very difficult to change, and this is what she credits as the reason for her being a teacher for so long. But it’s her love for learning and discovering new things, as well as the joy she gets “inspiring other people to have the same passion for learning and rooting out what ever information they want” that motivates her to teach.
When asked about her best achievement she was quick to respond “my daughter because she is so normal and sociable, where as I am not.” But when asked to share her best achievement as a teacher it was difficult for her to pinpoint any particular event.
It’s not that there is no particular event that she can be proud of; on 2012 she won Battey National Educator of the year, an award administered by DePauw University to recognize a teacher who inspired a current DePauw Honor Scholar while attending high school. And the day I interviewed her, she shared, that she received a package from Smith College, which contained an essay where her previous student had called her an inspirational figure. These awards and recognition though mean a lot to her but it is not something she would label as achievements, for they have just made her self-conscious about the way she teaches. After winning the award she states that she has started to feel insecure about her teaching and have frequent nightmares about teaching. In theses nightmares she goes, “ to class with a tray, and in the tray I should have a handout for the class but I can t find it. I am throwing everything out in the floor and the kids are looking at me with these huge eyes.”
As a teacher, she discloses that she thinks it’s not what she does during class that is her biggest achievement, but rather how her students have been inspired to change how they “perceive their world”. A big achievement for her is when she can get students to “subscribe to Word-a-Day, watch Al Jazeera’s documentaries or read the International Herald Tribune every day.” Her biggest achievement she continues is, “when I can inspire some kids in my class to be self learners.”
As someone who always gives the best that she can, there are times when she wonders why she chose this particular profession. Doubt usually arises “ when I see utter boredom in my class. After a class like that I walk out of the class thinking, why did I choose teaching?”
What has kept her teaching in Rato Bangala for so long is the fact that she likes the environment, and her colleagues in Rato Bangala as well as the flexibility the school gives her. She has “toyed” with the idea of becoming an author or uprooting herself and teaching in a different country. What stops her is that she likes her life as it is. For the last couple of years, she has been thinking of going back to school, but then she questions, “What would I do with it (degree)?”
What would she do? That is a good question. With her thirst for information she would indisputably make a great student. But somehow- maybe because I have always seen her as a teacher, I can hardly picture her in the other side of the desk. As she joked she could still be cycling to Rato Bangala even when she is 70. But the ensuing years would be filled, encouraging her students to be self-thinkers and learners with a mind of their own, which they don’t feel shy to share. Something, though they may not remember exactly how it happened, to be treasured.