Savita must carefully unpack her single school uniform from her tattered backpack each morning at 5:00 am, one of the only places she may keep the cotton blouse, tie, and gray wool skirt clean after she has scrubbed it and aired it dry each night. She is any student in Nepal, and she knows the sacrifice which must be made for a new one.
Savita’s parents might make as little as $30 USD each month (about 2500 rupees) but pay as much as $20 per month for her schooling. The uniform, books, and supplies are extra. But private schools in Nepal may be the only place she knows she will have the chance to pass the exit exam this year, her sophomore year, and the one chance she may have to earning a job.
As a Gurung, Savita knows that her ethnicity will not harm her chances; she is not one of the caste of untouchables, the dalits, who—while sometimes afforded government education by little-trained and less-funded teachers—may never receive the status a diploma affords in any event. The caste system in Nepal was declared illegal in the 1950s, but this does not change the practice.
Savita changes from her Nightmare Before Christmas t-shirt/nightshirt (she does not know what it refers to) into the uniform, inspecting it for stains, marks, a stray thread which might cause a run in the fabric. She washes her black shoes and dons them, and then she spends the next three hours completing her homework in between making the family breakfast: tea for everyone upon waking, a larger Nepali breakfast of vegetable curry, dhal baht, roti, and warmed milk by 9:00 am.
The homework is long and painstaking for the eight subjects that are part of her school day, especially English, her third language after Nepali and Hindi. But it is all rote: read the passage, answer the questions, read the passage, answer the questions. She ignores her small brother’s frantic grabs at one of her three pencils and dutifully places the answers in the book. She will not receive full marks if it is incomplete, even though it is unlikely the teacher will check it for correctness.
Savita may walk to school alone, but she will meet friends along the way. If she is in Pokhara, she will walk through puddles of litter and mud, dodge the blasts of diesel smoke from motley icon’ed Tata trucks which slug their way along the pot-holed roads to the markets and machine shops, and try not to perspire too much in the sweltering city heat. If she is from the small village of Hansapur, her walk may take two hours to the school in the hills. She will skirt rice paddies carved into the muddy hillsides, carry an umbrella against the unpredictable rains, and hope to miss the occasional landslide.
In any event, her home has electricity most hours of the day and the pumps offer water when there is some. Her evening “shower” is a washcloth and pail of water. If she wishes to drink the water, it must be boiled. Whether she leaves her home this morning at 8:00 am (leaving breakfast prepared for her family) or 9:00 am (missing breakfast herself in order to catch a weathered and smoke-coated public bus which will wind its way partly to her school), she will arrive to school clean, promptly, and offer a smiling “Good morning, Sir,” in English to each of the teachers she encounters. She will quickly deposit her books in her classroom and join the school in the main courtyard for morning assembly.
First the elementary and then the secondary students will sing the Nepali anthem in unison, the sports teacher banging for student attention on a small tin drum. This morning Savita is one of six girls chosen to lead the school in the school pledge. She assembles dutifully in front of the 500 secondary students, head dropped bashfully, and recites quickly. Afterwards, the students walk in line, separated male and female back to their rooms.
The room (15’ x 30’) belong to the 40 students, such as they are. At Savita’s private school, one of the finest in the nation, bare electrical wires hang from a tin and plaster ceiling; they may once have offered a light bulb or a fan. The chalkboard at the front of the concrete room is chipped and is nearly impossible to read, though it is still covered with yesterday’s eighth-period lesson on cell formation. There will be no handouts. The walls are bare, covered in an old paint (which is better than many schools), and the windows are open-air, allowing in either rain, damp breezes, or—in the winter—chills. In the Hansapur schools, the windows are divided by iron bars to protect against potential thieves of the room’s valuables (there are none) and tigers.
Her first period teacher offers “maths” spoken in broken English. He has learned the language in his own private schooling in Nepal, but has never heard a native English speaker. As a result, his sentences are simple, with repeated demands of “Yes?” to insist that the students hear. One boy’s head is shaken by the teacher because he did not do his homework. The boys, who sit across the room on the crowded benches, are often called “lazy” by their teacher and Savita agrees. She has no interest in them, really. Her marriage will be arranged. At times, when she worries enough to think about it, she wonders if her parent-chosen husband will allow her the opportunity to use this education.
The visiting American teacher is next door. She hears that there are games, some dancing even, and that her friends are learning about American English, poetry, and how to think about grammar rather than fill in exercises in her book. Her friends smile infectiously and earnestly at the Americans, shyly but needfully demanding more ideas, more time, more attention. Her own teachers know Savita only by a Roll Number and the scores she receives. The attention she might earn is most often negative if her marks slip. The American teachers will only stay for two weeks, though, and she knows that she will not meet him.
At the end of the day, at 4:30, Savita takes extra classes so that she can score high marks. The SLC Exam is soon, and she must do well. Only 3% of the students of Nepal earn Distinction (above 80%) on a test which covers everything from computer Basic programming to Indian history and from Abe Lincoln to Avril Lavigne, who she learns is a great American celebrity. She looks at the notebooks sold to her which have pictures of Avril and the Black Vampires on them. She does not know their music, but she wonders at the hair and clothing.
When she is home (another long journey), Savita will carefully clean her uniform and fold it away, spending her remaining daylight hours in Pokhara caring for her little brother and making the dinner with her mother. The electricity and water are out when she arrives home. If she were in Hanspura, she would tend her family’s fields and guard the crops against marauding monkeys until after dark.
Tomorrow she will repeat the routine.
Her friend calls her father on a cell phone (Nepal has no use for land lines). The SLC scores are in (reported on the television news). Her scores will be publicized. Then, she will study for the entrance exams for upper secondary education, perhaps earning a Bachelor’s degree in nursing. Perhaps she will find a job, perhaps not. Perhaps she will find love, perhaps not. But she can read, write, calculate, think. She can ask questions.
And she does.