Up at 6, breakfast at 7, walk to school at 8. The girls are lining up in the courtyard in preparation for the morning ceremony—exercises, prayers, a song—youngest to oldest, a small sea of navy blue and red. Knee-highs, leggings, pleated skirts, shirts, sweaters and scarves, black shoes, backpacks, the occasional hat and bows of cobalt blue tied at the end of thick black braids. We follow the merry chatter up the old staircase to class three.
“Good morning, teachers!” they chant in unison as we walk into the room, each girl standing at her desk.
“Good morning!” Their enthusiasm is infectious. “How are you?”
“We are fine,” they chant, again in unison, standing until we ask them to sit. “Thank you,” replies the chorus. How can two syllables sound so melodic?
Like most homes and buildings in Kathmandu, the 4-story Mary Ward School in Jhamsikhel has no heat. We bring the girls back to the courtyard and work in small groups on the sunny concrete. Yesterday we read them a Curious George book and talked about the parts of a story. Today they are creating their own “Curious George” adventures. We’ve prepared scenarios—George at the temple, the market, the doctor’s office, on the bus—eight settings designed to ignite their imaginations.
The students work in packs. If one has an idea, all four use it. If one girl doesn’t like the idea, they all dismiss it. There’s a lot of staring into space, scrunching faces, fiddling with pencils. I recognize the angst: the first sentence is the hardest. Rulers are used to draw lines on blank paper to prevent sloping sentences. With backs curled, heads down and noses aimed at the page, the girls finally begin to write—slowly, deliberately—and then erase what they have written. They try again. And erase again. The desire for perfection feels obsessive, even to my standards. We witness uniformity, orderliness and conformity, the rewards of rote learning. We move from group to group, hoping to help them step out of the box and make friends with words that come out of nowhere.
Assisted by prompts and encouraged by laughter, the stories unfold: George gets married in the temple, steals bananas at the market, sees the needle and escapes from the doctor’s office, drives the bus off the road to his tragic death. Their struggle with imaginary thought is transformed by their ease with illustration. Detailed artwork drawn to scale and filled with color bring life to the stories written in fragmented English.
I’m transfixed by the girl in the white skirt and knitted cap and her animated friend with the engaging smile. I can tell they’re smart. I watch their small hands write, draw and color as they whisper ideas, look up and smile, then return to their work. Later, when we match the list of sponsors with girls, I write my name next to Simrika and Sajina, class three.
“Ask us anything you want,” I tell the 8th grade girls five minutes before class ends. It’s week two of the trip. We’ve moved to the Mary Ward School in Lubhu, a poor village situated on the rim of Kathmandu. I’m curious: what are they thinking, what do they want to know.
“We’ll talk about whatever you want,” we tell them. Silence. The girls in the corner exchange glances, daring the other to ask a question, but say nothing. The entire class looks at us and waits. Stillness permeates the room, and then a girl in the front row raises her hand.
“Tell us a story about Ali.”
I’m certain I smiled. I expected questions about life in the U.S., where we live, maybe American teenagers or computers, movies or food, the price of our plane ticket, but specifically Ali? Not so much. They know she was born in Korea—a country they have heard of—and that she was adopted. They’ve seen her picture. I’ve told them she is smart and funny, that she loves music, but cannot walk or talk.
I look at the faces looking at me. I find their beauty extraordinary. I have no idea what I’m going to say. I think of my daughter at their age.
“When Ali was 16, her class took a trip to New York City, the largest city in America.”
I’ve got them. Not one wandering eye, not one fidgety teenager.
I tell them about the busyness of New York—the noise and the buildings and the sheer size of it—and how four boys were assigned to carry Ali in her wheelchair up and down the steps to the train that runs under the city. I place my hands on the bars of a make-believe wheelchair, flex my arms hidden under layers of clothing, and strain the muscles in my face to show the effort required to lift the chair with her in it. I tell them how gentle the boys were, how careful not to drop her.
“The group went all over New York this way for eight days. Carrying Ali down to the train and then up the steps to see the city. She went everywhere they went. She did everything they did.”
Time’s up. Lynn and I gather our supplies, say goodbye, and go to the next class. Later, after lunch, the girl who asked for a story asks if she can keep a photo of Ali from the album. She hands me her Curious George book.
“Please give this to Ali,” she says. A leaf from the schoolyard is taped on the front cover.
I hadn’t thought about that New York trip in years but there it was, residing in my bones along with nearly 25 years of feelings, details and images. My experience of Ali is like breathing. Natural, assumed, sometimes intentional, an act that sustains and gives life and, on rare occasion, has felt large enough to crush the very core of who I am. That night, in my journal, I ask the question I have been asking since we arrived in Kathmandu: What have I come here to learn?
The things that matter most in our lives are not fantastic or grand. They are the moments when we touch one another. – Jack Kornfield