By Lee Lay Sim
Translated by Wu Hsiao-ting
Photo by Yong Mun Fei
He tends to untidy appearances, ensuring everyone looks their best. When a pencil breaks, he lends a hand in sharpening it. He stands at the doorway at day’s end, bidding farewell to all. Through his actions, the principal has nurtured an environment where students eagerly anticipate each new school day.
Students at Siddhartha Primary School clean their classrooms every day when they get to school. The cultivation of positive habits and values extends beyond mere textbooks; it is subtly woven into the fabric of everyday life.
Regular school classes begin at ten in the morning in Nepal, but at Siddhartha Primary School on the northern side of Lumbini Garden, a group of children can be seen waiting at the entrance even before the school gate opens. Some of the more slender ones are so eager that they can’t wait and squeeze through the gaps beneath the gate to get inside.
Once the gate opens, students make their way to the classrooms, set down their bags, and begin cleaning their rooms. Others team up to pick up litter on the playground. With everyone’s efforts, the small campus is now neat and tidy, a contrast from what it looked like just last year.
When Tzu Chi volunteers made their first visit to the school in August 2022, they found the campus overgrown with weeds and classroom windows broken. In the cold winter months, the school improvised by hanging woven bags to shield against the cold wind. Fifty percent of the students had ceased attending, partly due to insufficient teaching staff and lack of basic facilities. These and other challenges left Principal Altaf Husen Khan feeling overwhelmed.
Since then, Tzu Chi volunteers have played a steadfast role in supporting the school. They have helped with classroom repairs and distributed essential supplies. Education has also been a key focus. They’ve taught the children handwashing, dining etiquette, and self-care. They’ve even used interactive games to convey the wisdom of Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s Jing Si aphorisms. Ajay, a science and math teacher at the school, has observed positive changes in the students since Tzu Chi became involved in the school. “The children’s disheveled appearance we used to see has disappeared,” he remarked.
Due to a shortage of teaching staff, Siddhartha Primary School could only offer classes up to the fifth grade, so Tzu Chi helped hire two additional teachers. As a result, the school was able to extend its teaching to the sixth grade, starting from the new school year in April of this year. This positive change means that children at the school no longer have to search for education elsewhere to advance to the sixth grade, increasing the chance they will continue with their education. With more students attending, the school repurposed the kitchen into a classroom. The staff now prepares lunch behind the classrooms.
One afternoon, the sky was covered with dark clouds. Principal Khan let the students out half an hour early. He stood at the school gate, seeing the children off as they headed home. One by one, each of the children gave him a high five and said, “Bye-bye!” as they left.
The principal has encouraged many other schools to participate in Tzu Chi’s School for All initiative. He even donned a Tzu Chi Teachers Association uniform and joined volunteers on home visits to promote enrollment. When asked why he had such faith in Tzu Chi, he expressed amazement that a group of individuals from Singapore and Malaysia would leave behind their families and careers, spend their own money to travel to Nepal, visit the school, and even help clean up the school grounds. “Many religious followers advocate performing good deeds, but they often fall short in practicing what they preach,” he observed. “The example set by Tzu Chi volunteers is worth more than gold.”
The school’s climate under Principal Khan’s leadership has experienced quite a transformation. He transitioned from a disciplinarian approach to education to one characterized by compassion and care for the students. Driven by his passion for education, he even volunteered to serve as the chairperson of the Lumbini teachers union, with hopes of inspiring more schools to work together to address educational challenges.
Sanjana is a third-grade student. Her father works in Malaysia. Her mother, Sunita, greatly appreciates the changes she has witnessed in her daughter. “Previously, Sanjana would simply drop her bag anywhere at home after school and immediately start playing with her dolls,” the mother said. “Now, she organizes her belongings, takes the initiative to review her homework, and no longer quarrels with her brother.”
She added that since volunteers began visiting the school, her daughter has shared with her about the importance of caring for things, practicing good hygiene, and wearing a smile. What brings her the greatest joy is witnessing her daughter actively applying these principles in her daily life.
Sunita said that Sanjana never wants to miss a day of school because the principal says going to school is about becoming a better person. When volunteers asked the young girl why she enjoys going to school, she replied, “Because the principal and teachers have become better. They no longer scold us or raise their voices at us. My classmates also readily share their school supplies with one another now.”
Sunita holds high hopes for Siddhartha Primary School: “I may not be able to shape my daughter’s future, but education has the power to help her achieve her dreams. I hope the school can one day offer classes up to the 12th grade so that all the children in the village can study with peace of mind, without having to worry about discontinuation due to transportation issues.”