Last year, during our travels, Patrick and I revisited Sunshine School and the Dhakal family in Bhaktapur, Nepal, a peaceful village located about 1 hour from Kathmandu. In 2002, I lived with the Dhakals and was a volunteer English teacher for their school. When I first arrived in 2002, I remember feeling overwhelmed at “how” I would teach English to these children. Neeru Dhakal, the principal and founder of Sunshine School, and simply an amazing and generous being, kept asking me “what” I would do to help the students. She told me about the previous volunteer Maria, another beautiful young soul and talented musician from California, who somehow organized a full production of the Pied Piper. I say “somehow” because anyone who has visited Nepal understands just how long it takes to do anything there. (It took Patrick and I three full days to find a hammer and the correct type of nails, ones that would go into concrete walls without bending, to hang canvas murals we brought for the school.)
I had classes with Grades 4-10, and occasionally Grade 3. Many of the classrooms were dark and overcrowded. I began playing games with the students that I learned in ESL training, but I quickly became bored. We played pictionary one day where I whispered the name of a Hindu or Buddhist diety into a student’s ear, but they were so good at drawing them, and the class was so quick to correctly guess them, that it only took a few days to zip thru the several million dieties. After a few weeks of getting to know my new students and being humbled over and over in a foreign land, I (or maybe it was even a friend who suggested it via email…) thought I should simply make art with the kids. That is what I knew best after all.
For them, art classes had meant copying in their notebooks whatever the teacher drew on the blackboard. Many of them were excellent “copiers”, but all the drawings looked the same. And really, as I discovered, simply having conversations with them improved their English dramatically. And art was the perfect way to connect with them. We began drawing the temples “on location” in Durbur Square or the flowers in the garden. At first they were nervous but they quickly became excited and giggly and started drawing in their own distinct and unique styles, like Bina’s wedding cake temple or Ujjwal’s circusY temples and houses. We painted a 45 foot long mural of a vast Nepali landscape on the brick wall in the courtyard. The kids painted their houses, including details of their animals and families, and also the mysterious parts of Nepal they hadn’t visited, like Sargamatha, known to us as Mount Everest.
I got an idea to have a show of their work in Kansas City so the kids could teach my friends about their culture. They drew themselves, each other, their families, temples, traditional Nepali weddings, traditions, dress, and more. It was so beautiful to watch the kids express themselves in their art. They were so proud, and I seemed to know them much more as they made pictures. When I returned home, I held a one-night silent auction at my friend Ali’s restaurant, and many friends from Hallmark and KC came to playfully bid for the creations that most resonated with them. The generous donations from that night, and all the kids’ offerings, helped the school move into a better, more Sunshin-Y school and expand their programs. When we returned last year, I was so happy to see that a talented Nepali artist is now teaching art classes a couple times a week at the school.