Hello again, this is Laxmi — welcome back to our blogs. This post is a continuation of my previous blog about my difficult road to education as a girl in 1950s Nepal. If you haven’t had a chance to read that yet, you might find it interesting. In that post, I talked about my background a little bit, and also the environment for girls in Nepal at that time. I also talked about how my formal education got started.
I was very happy with the fact that I was now officially starting school, but I was also sad because all of my cousin sisters and other girls from the village were still busy working in the fields, collecting firewood, tending cattle and goats and doing other work around the house. My father wanted me to focus only on school and I was not allowed to work at home even though I wanted to help around the house.
The many challenges of school life
I was spared from the difficult work around the house and fields, but school wasn’t exactly easy either. We had morning school during the summer months. Classes started at 6 AM and ended at noon. As we had to walk more than four miles, we needed to leave home around four in the morning. I and three other boys set out for school from the village, followed by some other boys down the road. My mother woke up early and could tell it was time to get ready by looking at the position of the North Star in the sky. She would wake up, and along with other women of the village, go to the forest in search of firewood or loads of grass for the cattle. I also woke up at the same time, ate some food and then began the long journey to school. Despite all this, we were never late for school. There were separate entrances for boys and girls, and the buildings housing the schools were separated by a very high wall. I met up with the other village boys after school and we would walk back home — tired and hungry.
What made school even more difficult for me was the fact that I started school in Grade 8 … as a 10 year old. As you can imagine, my first day in school was a bit overwhelming. Everything I saw was a strange sight for me. The bench and desk, the nicely dressed city girls, the classroom, the sight and sounds of students studying loudly in a collective voice, and everything seemed foreign to me. The students in my class were also surprised to see me because I was much younger than they were. I was admitted in grade eight because that is where my father wanted me to start, and the school system had no questions to ask about that. There was no standard of enrollment, and probably no expectations that I would succeed in school. I remember how out of place I felt then and have trouble imagining how I managed to start school in the eighth grade. Most of the students in the class were very kind and helpful though, and I still remember their faces and names. I am sure that many of them are living successful and productive lives.
Off to a bad start
Despite the kindness of my schoolmates, I could not cope with the academic requirements. I was able to pick up subjects like History, Geography, Civics, and Nepali pretty quickly, but Math and Science were extremely challenging for me. Teachers saw my difficulty in learning Math and just ignored me and moved on with other students. At the time, I was just happy that the teachers did not ask me for my homework in these classes. I didn’t realize then that the teachers probably didn’t really expect much out of me. I had a lot of difficulties in doing my homework. I did not understand the material and what was asked to be done at home. I could not even explain what I was being taught at times and I did not have the necessary school materials, thus my father was not able to help. Students who could not turn in their homework were punished by being hit with a bamboo cane in the palm of their hands. I was one of the lucky ones to receive those frequently.
The only class where I did not have much trouble was English. My father bought me all of the necessary books and always encouraged me to study English. I do feel like I could have done better in courses like Math and Sciences if I had the necessary materials and support from an earlier age. In school, my classmates used to talk about movies, film stars, and many things I did not understand. I was alone on many levels because I was not of their age group nor was equal to their academic or economic level. I just used to look at them, admire them and wanted to be friends with them. I was not able to speak with them. They used to call me LATI, literally meaning dumb or without voice. The impact has lasted all my life. Even until this day I am introverted in nature because of that experience. In my first year, despite my best efforts, I could not overcome all of these challenges, and I failed.
Failing from school in my first year was very disheartening, and many people within my village and even some of the teachers seemed to think that I was wasting my time and that I should just give up. My father wouldn’t have it though, and he insisted that I take the class over again and give it another try. I was happy that my father supported me, and I wanted to repay this support by doing better. In my second attempt, I was a lot more familiar with the academic requirements and I felt less alien in school. I had given up trying to learn Algebra and Geometry, but began picking up slowly on Arithmetic. I also improved on the other classes where I was having difficulty. With a lot of hard work, I was finally able to pass the grade. I felt pride in me for being able to overcome the learning challenges, but also to show people who thought I couldn’t do it that if given a proper chance, I could.
Homework wasn’t the only thing I had to overcome
There were many people in the village that made noise about me going to school because they did not think it was right for a girl to go to school. They had a very firm idea of what a girl should and should not do. During that time my cousins and other girls around the age of thirteen or fourteen were given away in marriage, and I guess they expected the same for me. On the way to school, people used to tease me because I was walking with a bunch of boys. My parents must have heard many negative comments by those people about sending me to school along with the boys of the village, but my parents never let me know. I am also sure that there were quite a few people who told my father that he was wasting money by sending me to school. I was very lucky that my father was a little bit stubborn.
Besides the social challenges, there were physical challenges like walking for many hours (2 hours in the dark in the morning and 2 to 3 hours in the summer heat in the afternoon) without food until reaching home late in the afternoon. I knew, however, that my female cousins and friends were working long hours in that same sun without any hope of a different life. I am so glad I got to make those longs walks to school.
The cost of education was another problem. A lot of course books were required for the classes, and my father could not provide for all of them. I do wonder if I was a son whether that would have been a problem or not, but I don’t dwell on that. I was just happy to be afforded school. Teachers would ask all students to open their books before starting class. Students who did not have a book were punished by ordering them to stand up on the bench for 10 to 15 minutes or in some cases the whole class period. I was one of those students frequently standing on the bench.
With a great deal of struggle, I completed high school (tenth grade in Nepal) and also passed the School Leaving Certificate (SLC) examination at the age of fourteen, on my second attempt. I had graduated high school. It was a source of pride for my family that I was the first woman to pass the SLC exam from that area. My school days were difficult days, but I had made it. Because of my grandfather’s interest in teaching me Nepali and Sanskrit and my father’s desire to send me to school, I had achieved something that no girl from that area had ever done. I now had options that none of my girl cousins or friends had. I felt like I could go anywhere from here.
In this day and age, there are still far too many girls that never realize the dream of finishing school. While enrollment in primary school has gone up in Nepal, many girls, especially in rural areas, drop out too early and don’t get the benefits of education. They will continue to live in a cycle of poverty and discrimination. With the right support, these girls would be able to continue their education and pull themselves and their families out of poverty. Thanks to the support of my family, I was able to forge a different path than that of a typical rural Nepali girl at that time. In my next blog, I will write about exactly where that path took me after high school.
Thank you for continuing to read my stories : )