- Nikhil Dhawan
This is a follow-up to my last post, in case you haven’t read it.
Friday, May 19 at approximately 7:00 in the morning, I published the original article about the school where I was teaching. Within six hours of publishing, we had raised half of what was needed to put a soundproof ceiling over the heads of almost 200 students at Sunrise English Boarding School in Lalitpur, Nepal. By the end of that weekend we had reached our goal, and nearly a week later we had significantly surpassed it (by about 70%). This is all thanks to you earthly angels.
But what's a story without the reaction of the children whom all this was for? The principal and I had agreed that we wouldn't reveal how this project had been funded until my final day at the school.
It’s Friday, June 9th and reality has set in on me. I could hardly sleep the night before in anticipation of my last day after eight life-altering weeks. As always, time had flown by without a hint of warning. The room was dark as I woke up in a cold sweat. I rushed up to the terrace to greet the morning sun and make myself a cup of adrak chai (ginger tea). The host family, sweet as ever, asked me how I felt, as they too knew it was my last day and our time together was abruptly coming to an end. While getting ready for work and school respectively, we all chatted about the fun we had in the prior weeks. The topics of discussion included Nikhil Upreti (a Nepali actor who everyone adored), Bollywood, Hollywood, the NBA (the finals were underway, and the Warriors led the series 3-0 at the time) and, of course, my eventual return to Nepal to visit them and make everyone a cup of haldi dood (turmeric milk) again. It's quickly approaching everyone's time to leave so we gather around for a quick hug and a group picture before heading our separate ways. I make a conscious effort to withhold tears. The Shrestha family treated me as one of their own, and I would surely miss them, but I wasn't ready for heavy emotions yet—I still had a long day ahead of me at the school.
It was a hot and sunny morning in Lalitpur that day. The sky was clear, and the roosters were cock-a-doodle-doo'ing. The dirt path, which I took to the school every day, was no different than the weeks before. My perception, however, was altered. I was acutely aware that I wouldn't be walking this route from home to school for a long time, if ever. I stayed hyped during my walk and listened to "Make Them Gold" by CHVRCHES on my headphones. "We are made up of our mistakes, we are falling but not alone...we will take the best parts of ourselves and make them gold."
Upon reaching the school, I was greeted with the daily "Namaste sir" by the door staff. As I walked in several children ran up to me and asked for what they ask for every day since I bought it for them, the basketball. I went directly to the staff room, took out the basketball, had the children line up about 5 feet from the basket and started our daily game. If you make it, you keep shooting, if you miss, you go to the back of the line, and the next person goes. Considering basketball is not a sport many children grow up with in Nepal, I was extremely proud of these students' improvement over the course of the eight weeks. The first day, no one made more than two in a row. By the last day, there were several students who were making somewhere between 7-9 in a row. The best part was that they would all cheer each other on when someone started gaining momentum. The children would chant "chee chay ram, chee chay ram, chee chay ram" as the shooter was making his fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh. I never knew what it meant, and I always forgot to ask. I just smiled, joined the chanting, laughed, and kept my job as the rebounder/passer.
The bell rings, and the children start running around in zigzag formation like chickens with their heads cut off. It seems frenzied, but it's no different than the traffic patterns in India or Nepal, organized chaos. The students are instructed into their classrooms by the principal because it's too hot outside to hold assembly that morning. The faculty and students have also planned a surprise assembly at the end of the day, but I wasn't aware of that just yet. I had my own plans brewing.
Since we raised more funds than we needed for the ceiling, I had decided to secretly start more improvement projects for the school without telling anyone. A couple of weeks earlier, once I realized we had passed our fundraising goal, I was with the tenth-grade students in their Social Studies class. They were learning about development, including developing villages, cities, etc. At that moment a few things occurred to me. The students in tenth grade had been at Sunrise for several years and probably had a good idea of what needed to be improved at the school (from a students perspective). Additionally, most of them had younger brothers and sisters that would be at Sunrise for a few more years and reap the benefits of said improvements. I took advantage of that moment and asked the students if they were willing to do a project for me. I reviewed the development chapter with them and asked them to create a development plan for the school. The hypothetical situation I created for them was that the school is your village and you need to make sure it's hygienic, sustainable, and has everything you or your brothers and sisters will ever need. After a little bit of whining and complaining, the tenth-grade girls agreed to do the project. The boys didn’t seem interested from the beginning, so I didn’t force the issue. The girls' only complaint was that they had done projects like this in the past, but no one ever followed through to make any changes because funds were never available. I didn’t want to give anything away, so I told them not to worry about the result, but to focus on the journey of the project.
Step one; list all of the improvements the school needs to make for the students.
-Lights for classrooms
-First aid box
Step two; prioritize based on sustainability and achievability.
-First aid box
-Lights for classrooms
Step three; explain in detail why these things need to be improved.
-The students currently get their drinking water from the government tap, which isn't always running and sometimes, before lunch, the water is finished for the day. Hygienic water is necessary for all human beings for survival, and without enough water, students become unhealthy and sick.
-We need a first aid box for emergency purposes. We used to have one, but we don't know where it is anymore. It's not the school's fault, some students probably misplaced it, but we need a new one.
-The classrooms don’t have electricity or light for dark, cloudy days. Now that we have a ceiling, there may be even less light, so we’ll probably need lighting soon.
-The pond was created as a rain overflow, so the school doesn't flood. The problem is the mosquitoes are attracted to the pond and diseases can grow from there, so we need to find a way to make it hygienic.
Step four; create a budget and timeline for the project (I had them skip this step). For the record, this was all after the soundproof ceiling was already underway, so they mentioned they would have added that to the list, but they saw that it was already being taken care of by the school.
They weren’t the only ones working on this project, however. Before assigning it to them, I was evaluating the same steps on my own and came up with two common answers (excluding the ceiling, of course): drinking water and lights for the classrooms. So on the morning of June 9th after the students began their day, I snuck away from the school and hopped on a local bus towards Jawalakhel.
By this point, I had informed the principal of my new project, and he had been helping me along the way. As a matter of fact, the principal was a huge help because, before my arrival, he had dug up a well at the school that gave the school access to over 500 liters of well water a day. The only problem now; the water wasn't suitable for drinking, only for washing your hands. This led me to believe that we weren't far from achieving our goal; we just needed to be efficient with the remaining funds. I spent a few days researching water filters and companies that tested if the water was potable. A couple of weeks before leaving the school, I had found a company that lab tested water on ten different standards and regulations including magnesium, iron, E Coli, etc. After getting the well water tested, we found that we needed a particular type of filter that could be found a few kilometers away. That brings me to the reason I snuck away from school on my final day with the children, to buy the water filter with some of the extra money received from the earthly angels.
I get back to the school, hide the water filter/purifier in the principals’ office, and start making my rounds of the classrooms. Not to sound completely ridiculous, but for a few moments that day I felt like Kobe Bryant on his farewell tour. I walked into every classroom with my camera and all the children would stand up and greet me with their singsong, “Good Afternoon Nikhil Sir!” I was humbled and felt loved. Kobe spent 20 years playing the game of basketball at an insanely high level and entertained millions of people around the world. I spent just under two months with only about 200 students and yet I felt an incredible rush of emotions from this farewell. The children were all too adorable and made it impossible not to smile. That day, however, there was a heaviness hiding behind my smile.
The end of the school day is quickly approaching (as is the end of this incredibly long post). I get word from some of the students that there's a surprise farewell party that has been organized for me at the end of that day. Classes typically concluded at 3:50 pm, but on June 9th the principal called everyone to the assembly ground by 3:15. I come to know that students from grades 8-10 had organized performances for the farewell party, which of course, had been set up in secret.
As the entire school gathers on the ground, the clouds start to gather in the sky. What was once a bright, sunny, and hot day, is suddenly becoming cloudy, muggy, and dark. The principal takes the microphone and begins his speech, voice slightly cracking. "Good afternoon children, we are gathered here today to say farewell to our good friend Nikhil sir." It sounds like a funeral, but it's not, and yet it starts to feels like one. My heart starts beating faster. "As you all know, Nikhil sir has been here for the last eight weeks, but time has gone by so quickly. Of course, he taught you in the classrooms, but what you don’t know is what his friends and family have done for you beyond the classroom.” I look down and away from everyone, avoiding eye contact at all costs. I can't swallow. "On his own, he decided that we need a better ceiling for the school, so he started a fundraiser…" I look up at him, crack a smile, eyes watering, and look back down. I try to inhale, but seemingly there's no oxygen. "After the ceiling was completed, there were still extra funds from the campaign because his family and friends were so gracious. Nikhil took some of the remaining funds and got the school a water filtration system, so we will now have constant drinking water without depending on the government tap." I hear a rumble of thunder in the distance. I can't tell if it's real, or in my head. Whatever it was, it fit the moment. The principal concludes his speech by handing me a token of love in the form of an 8-inch Stupa with my name written on it. I thank and hug him, then turn to embrace the vice principal. I see tears running down her cheeks, and she's shaking her head. This entire time I understand their emotion, but I'm unable to take credit for why they're thanking me. What no one understands is that I'm just the bridge. All I did was connect people who are willing to give, with a school that needed it. I'm just the in-betweener executing on a plan. It's the earthly angels who deserve the credit. YOU are the ones that helped put the ceiling over their heads and gave them access to drinking water. YOU are the people who created these emotions and made the students and faculty at Sunrise cry. I'm the bridge.
By this point, the students were emotional but also ready to put on their performances. In the meantime, I spoke to the guy controlling the audio and asked him to play a song for me after all the performances were complete. After three beautiful performances, a fourth song came on. No one knew why the song was playing, but I thought I should leave the students with one last fun surprise (to lighten the mood maybe). The beat dropped, the trumpet sounded and "Batameez Dil" was in full effect. I ran onto the ground where the performances happened, and I danced my heart out for about a minute and a half. The students cheered and roared and screamed and sang and all I could do was smile with blurred vision. After the surprise performance, the principal asked me to speak, but the clouds were splitting open, and thick raindrops started falling from the sky. At that moment, I was still too emotional to talk, so I asked that we wait a couple of minutes and take some pictures in the meantime. I had a banner made for all the earthly angels who contributed to the campaign and made all of this a reality. I thought it would be precious for all the contributors to see the picture of the children with the banner, so we waited for the rain to slow and quickly took a couple of pictures. As soon as we were done, the rain let its reigns loose and came down full steam. We all ran for cover (and some of us hid our tears with raindrops).
It was time to say goodbye. But first, the tenth-grade girls (the ones who did the Social Studies development project) came up to me and began to thank me. "Nikhil sir you didn't tell us that you…" Their voices start cracking. I avoid eye contact again; I can't breathe again. They don't hide their emotions. "We just want to say thank you so much, sir." Tears are rolling down their faces, tissues being passed around. I can no longer contain myself. Drip, drip, drip. I look at them and smile. "Don't thank me; it wasn't just me. Look at all those names. It was them!" Their crying continues. "But, we're going to miss you, sir." I'm speechless at this point. I'm obviously going to miss them too. But saying it doesn't change the reality. I suddenly don't want to leave. And I'm already planning my return to the school, but it'll never be the same. All of this happened without anticipation or proper planning. It just happened by being present in every moment and being aware of what was going on and where improvements needed to happen. It was made possible by the earthly angels. It became a reality because life intended for it to happen. I smile, and I tell them to keep up their good work and that I'll come back and visit them someday. I say that I have faith in them and the future of the country because of people like them. The school bus arrives. The rain is falling heavier than before. The students, mid-cry, have to rush to the bus. They're reluctant to leave, and I don't want to see them go, but that's life, impermanent.
They hop on the school bus, and I start walking away in the pouring rain. I finally let my emotions out as I walk alone.
Thank you, earthly angels.
Note: You’re all earthly angels. Thank you for your continued support and for taking the time and reading my posts. Whether your name is on the list of contributors or not, your words of encouragement still mean the world to me. So, thank you ALL.
List of contributors: Mya Athwal, Sundeep Boreedy,Barbie Dangond, Roopa Desa, Ripu & Sunita Dhawan, Jitin & Anshita Dhawan, Neetu G., Ryan & Anashe Heredia, Tony & Olivia Heredia, Fiona Higgins, Priyanka Hiteshi, Ami Jain, Jeet & Gilu Jogani, Atman & Kanika Kadakia, Puneet Kalra, Karanpreet Kaur, Sumir & Kiran Kaytee, Aanchal Kohli, Haika Lara, Naveed Merchant, Durgesh Nagar, S.P., Swati Panchal, Sabina Pannu, Kim Patel, Divya Rani, Jonade & Samina Saleem, Ambika Sanjana, Sapna Sharma, Sumit Sharma, Gunu Singh, Pallavi Singh, Chau Tong, Rashi Weise, Patti Wilcox, Anonymous x 3
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