Sunday, October 19, 2008

Remembering Kalpna Mistry - By Cathy Dao

I don’t think I understood what teaching was until I met Kalpna. I used to think that teaching was all about encouraging students, but Kalpna taught me that you have to empower them, too. And that’s exactly what she did everyday. The way she mobilized students and parents was magical, and things that I thought would be impossible at a school as large as ours, she turned into a reality. “Impossible” was not a word she ever used. I keep going back through all of our conversations, and I just don’t think it was in her vocabulary. You will hear this over and over again today, but it’s true: She had high expectations for everyone, students and adults, and she held us all accountable. We all wanted to make her proud.

Our classrooms weren’t close together last year. There was a long stretch of hallway between them, and I would run back and forth everyday so I could see her. I think, if I weren’t a teacher, I would have pushed kids out of the way so I could get my Mistry time. There were always students in her classroom during non-class time. They couldn’t stay away, and it’s not surprising why. She helped so many of her students see, for the first time, their self worth and potential, and I know that for many of them, it was the first time they felt that way in an academic setting. She used to say all the time that her work and her students were her passions in life, and everyone knows that there was no one as passionate as Kalpna. She lived her values, and it was truly mesmerizing to see.

It took a month of working together for us to become friends. She came into my classroom after school one day. I thought she was going to ask me about curriculum or students, but instead she asked me if she could tell me about her life and her family and her goals. It was such a strangely personal request, but she explained that she needed to work in a place where she could be herself, where she could be open about her beliefs and her visions for the future. She told me her goals were to become the best teacher she could be and to establish a reputation for herself in the community, and even though she had only been teaching for a month at the time, she had already reached those goals in my book. At the end of the conversation, she said, “I know you don’t like to be touched, but can I have a hug?” And it is that closeness and need to connect with others that made her so special, and I would learn later that her warmth and compassion - and her affinity for hugs - run in the family.

I used to think last year that as a “veteran” third year teacher I was the one supporting her. But looking back, I realize now that she was the one taking care of us all along. She was, to put it simply, the best friend and colleague a teacher could have.

Whenever I was doubtful that we had enough time or resources to pull off a project or event, she would call me up and say with boundless energy in her voice, that famous Kalpna voice, “Come on, Dao. We can do it. I feel like you and I, we can do anything together!” And that’s all she would have to say. I know she said those words to others – I heard her say them to her students all the time – but it didn’t matter. When she said those words to you, it made you feel special. And I really believed that with her help I could do anything in the world. As a teacher, to have that kind of support and inspiration in your life is immeasurable, and it has been so hard trying to figure out how to go on without her.

I had lunch with her the day before she left for the Philippines, and I was upset at her and I think she knew. She had promised me that she would take some time to relax and take care of herself, but I knew she had been working. She tried to deny it, but there were two new units for our freshmen that didn’t exist two weeks prior. But she smiled and plied me with coffee and churros to distract me, and said that thinking about the upcoming school year and all the possibilities that lay ahead was what made her truly happy.

Then she told me about a book she wanted to write. She wanted to interview as many grandmas as she could because she really believed that the grandmas of the world were the real source of wisdom, the keepers of history. She said that she had shared the idea with her Fulbright friends at a training, and they all said, “Do it! Write it! Make it happen!”

And then she looked at me and said, “How come we don’t tell each other to follow our dreams? How come no one says that anymore?” And I said, “I don’t know.” And she said that we would have to say it to our students in September, teach them how to believe in themselves and in each other. So I’m going to pass on her message to all of you now. She wants you all to stand up for yourselves and for what you know is right, she wants you to follow your dreams and make them happen. And don’t let anyone tell you ‘no.’

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