Allie, Sophie and I slipped into our sandals, waving and calling goodbyes to our students who were slowly filing into the narrow staircase of Roots to Fruits Language School. A few lingered, calling to us and laughing; a general sense of invigoration and exhaustion filled the room. Moments before we’d ended our class, giving homework not because we’d suggested it but because our students had asked for it.
Today was our first lesson with Roots to Fruits as English teachers. We arrived a bit late because of meetings at Yantra House, and when we finally got to the building, flustered, we didn’t realize it was the right place until we heard voices calling and looked up to see a group of young men leaning over the balcony, smiling widely and waving for us to come up. Laughing we climbed the stairs and found ourselves in the middle of seeming crowd of people, all of whom were apparently waiting for us. Tsering had told us to expect ten people… it ended up being 18. As Tsering showed us our classroom and everyone piled in, we stared at each other, completely unprepared for the reality of teaching English. Tsering smiled when I asked her what we should do, saying, “I don’t know, it’s your class.” The entire classroom full of people looked at us expectantly. Tsering told us that perhaps we could start by introducing ourselves, and it was like being unfrozen. I was first to go, saying my name (I’ve gone with “Sara” here because one of our language partners told me it’s easier to say) and that we were students with SIT. As Sophie and Allie went, I hurriedly wrote our names upon the whiteboard. Afterward Sophie provided the next idea, asking the students their names. We went around the room, hearing names and where they were from, along with if they wanted to learn anything particularly. Everyone was generally shy, with two young men acting as the voices for the group at large. It was interesting to notice how the group sat down; men were on our left while women were on our right, with a group of louder young men sitting at the back left. The women were generally quieter than the men, yet they each were obviously intensely interested in learning.
One young woman told us she was interested in dance and we grabbed onto that, jumping into an explanation of the first kind of dance I could think of: swing dance. Neither Allie nor Sophie knew how to dance, though, so I ended up trying to mime swing dance by myself in front of the entire class. People began to laugh, and as we went through more kinds of dance like jazz and hip hop, describing it and trying to show the dance, the students became more and more relaxed, I think, and began to laugh more. To tell the truth, I think the best move was the sprinkler but I’m not sure if the laughter was at the dance move or in pure embarrassment for me.
After a while of discussing dance, something didn’t feel like it flowed, so we asked if the students would prefer conversation groups instead. The reaction was unanimously yes, so Allie broke the group into three and each of us went with one. My group included two young women, two young men and an older man.
This is where teaching began to click. I’m not sure if it can even really be called teaching because I was learning as much if not more than they; I asked a question and the students went around, answering. When we found an interesting subject we stayed on it, all of us discussing and adding our own thoughts. We talked about politics, spirituality and religion (which was notable because they’d never heard the word spirituality; I’m not sure they are linguistically separate concepts in Nepali), food (we talked about how spice is hard for Americans to digest), books, music, soccer… after a while it didn’t feel like a classroom setting anymore, more like a group of friends chatting.
Allie caught my attention and asked if we should wrap up soon; I checked my phone and found it’d been over an hour since we’d begun the class, and we’d expected to teach for an hour at most. We stood up, laughing with the students as the words, “It’s five already?!” rippled throughout the classroom. Allie’s group asked if we’d assign homework ~ this is when it hit home, I think, that they truly were here to learn. Roots to Fruits is an NGO that teaches languages for free; some of our students lived many miles away. The meaning of what our group was doing struck me. We hastily came up with the idea to assign a written paragraph, about either family, occupation, or dreams, and told the students it was completely optional but if they did it, we’d check it for errors. Tsering poked her head through the doorway then and asked if we’d come back tomorrow; we told her we would let her know by tonight but that we’d definitely be back next week.
As we walked home, Allie and Sophie being led by one student to find notebooks which we needed for class, myself walking to meet Jennifer at a cafe by the stupa in order to write our assigned discussion project for tomorrow, I felt a sense of calm. I do not want to be reliant upon this work, this feeling, but there must be something to the rightness of it all. In Buddhism as I understand it, emptiness and impermanence are key concepts; the feelings I get result from causes which are impermanent and thus will eventually result in suffering once they’re no more. Yet I deeply feel, resonating in my being, that I am meant to be doing the kind of work we did today. Meaning itself seems to be paradoxical to Buddhism yet both discuss concepts I’ve found as true as I can judge; perhaps there’s no truth except that which each of us finds.