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School on Top of the World

November, 2007
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  If someone had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, like most children living in central Florida in the 80’s, I would have said “an astronaut!” Never in a million years would I have guessed I would be a Montessori teacher in Beijing, China. 

  Having come here nearly 8 years ago to teach some swimming lessons and travel around Asia a bit, my life took an amazing turn upon arrival with the help of a persistent, visionary woman with a gut instinct.

  To test the waters, I visited my first Montessori classroom for an observation. It was a kindergarten class of children between the ages of 3 and 5 all working away diligently. The classroom was so bright, the materials beautiful, and the children peacefully working, learning anything and everything from simple addition to matching the flags of the countries of Asia. At that moment I was hooked and knew I had found my passion.

  Fast forward to present day and it is that same passion that has led me to Lhasa, Tibet to try and create some of that magic I felt during my first experiences inside a Montessori class for children who may have not otherwise had a chance at an education. 

  The first I had heard of the project to open a non-profit kindergarten in Lhasa was back in January, 2007. I remember sitting around a table in the hutong of Laurence Brahm, an NGO activist, author, lawyer and political economist, while he poured over blue prints and his “vision” for what he saw as an opportunity to educate the children of Nyetang, a small village just outside Lhasa. The original intention of the meeting was simple: look over some plans and give ideas on what might work in setting up a small school in rural Lhasa. I had first met Laurence two years before, as his son Xiao Long’s kindergarten teacher. By the end of the hour meeting, I was already calling my travel agent and booking my flight to Lhasa to help bring his vision to life.

  Like most good ideas, the Nyetang School came from rather humble beginnings. A man by the name of Beru Knyentse Rinpoche, renowned worldwide as one of the highest ranking Tibetan Buddhist teachers of meditation, simply wanted to “build a small school for poor rural children in his village.” After traveling many years around the world, Rinpoche returned to his home village and became deeply saddened by the lack of opportunity for the children of his hometown. Many had never been to school before, and with both parents likely working to make a meager 2000 RMB a year, many children turned to begging in order to help provide for their families. Rinpoche felt he owed it to these children to give them a chance at a better life. It was then that two NGOs from Hong Kong, the Shambhala Foundation and the Tharjay Charitable Foundation, jointly undertook the project to raise funds and build the first non-profit progressive elementary school on the rooftop of the world back in 2004.

   My journey began in March with a head full of ideas as I boarded the plane bound for Lhasa. This first trip of many was designed more as a fact-finding mission. The school was not open yet, although there was a large buzz of anticipation in the village. I went out armed with a notebook full of inventories for art supplies to be sourced, furniture to be made, and materials to be bought. Having never been to Lhasa, I had no idea what to expect besides a bit of altitude sickness and a bright blue sky. Little did I know how humbling this next week would be?

  Our first stop from the airport was to the Doma Lakang Monastery for a few welcome blessings and then onto the school. Traveling up a little dirt road, just off the two-lane highway everyone must take from the airport to downtown Lhasa, sat the Nyetang School.
It was a beautiful understated building that I am sure thousands of pilgrims and tourists alike had driven by without a second thought. Once inside, I started to get a sense of just how large a task this was going to be. What I found behind the front doors was an empty shell waiting for transformation and the love and warmth of children to bring its spirit alive. From the outside the school looked bright and inviting, inside however, presented our first challenge. All of the classrooms were less than 30 m2. Freedom of movement is one of the key components to a Montessori environment and 30 m2 didn’t really lend itself to much of that! After an hour of sketching out furniture layouts, where the children’s cubbies might go, or where they will hang their coats, we had come up with a plan to join three small rooms into one giant classroom for the children to flow through during the day.

  For the next week, I and the two qualified Tibetan teachers, Drohma and Kalsang, scoured the city in search of resources and visited other local  schools. It was a very eye-opening experience for me to step outside of my “expat bubble” and to see firsthand the stark contrasts between the international schools’ abundance of wealth and supplies and the inability for many of these schools to even be able to provide heated classrooms and adequate light to study by! I looked down at my notebook with the pages of ideas and thought “what use are coat pegs and shoe cubbies if these children have to wear their coats to class and only have one pair of shoes!” It was an “a-ha moment” I will never forget.

  My second trip came in July, 2007. This trip had an entirely different feel! This time I was prepared! Sunscreen and thirty-five kilograms of art supplies in hand, we made our now traditional stop by the Doma Lakang Monastery and then back to the school.

  In the few months I was away, there were a lot of renovations and changes made. The biggest of which, was the addition of children! Even bumbling up the dirt road you could feel the energy of the school, it had come to life! I arrived during recess and was immediately swarmed by more than 100 beaming faces. While still in the early stages of development, the Nyetang School is up and running! The children are now able to sit at desks while they study Tibetan, Chinese and English. The school is largely maintained by the community of Nyetang. Grateful for the opportunity to send their children to school, many families donate rice and vegetables, as well as someone to cook each day, to provide hot lunches for the students. The spirit of community doesn’t end there. The Gedun Choephel Artist Guild, a commune of young artists in Lhasa, volunteered their time at the school and painted murals and conducted a few Picture 081art classes. The spirit of sharing and giving that this opportunity has spun has proven endless.

   I am now returned to Beijing motivated to do something more than just give a few ideas, it was an opportunity to share with the MSB community and get our children involved too. Our goal in the near future is to solidify this link by establishing more communications between the children themselves. In the year to come we are hoping to set up a pen pal system where children from both schools share with each other what their lives are like by drawing pictures or writing letters. Currently in my class, I have many photos that I have taken during my travels in Lhasa displayed and plan to return to Lhasa with just as many photos of our class in Beijing to share the children of Nyetang.

  Particularly at this time of year, when many of us are counting our blessings and giving thanks, we can also spread the wealth to those who may not be so fortunate through the vocation of teaching.


By Natasha McKenzie, the International Montessori School of Beijing

  To help with the Nyetang School, please check out the website www.shambhala-ngo.org. With the ongoing need for school supplies such as pencils, paper, paints, crayons, scissors, we are constantly looking for ways to raise funds and awareness.

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