There I was, standing at the front of a classroom in the middle of Nepal, dozens of eyes trained on me, and all I could think was, "I think I've made a terrible mistake."
But first, some backstory.
At the beginning of my senior year of college, I had no idea what my future would hold. All I knew was that I was terrified of cubicles and grad school, that creative writing degrees were tough to market, and that I desperately wanted to go on an adventure.
So I applied for a Fulbright grant to teach English in Nepal. It was a last-minute decision and (in my mind) a long shot. When I received my acceptance email six months later, I burst out sobbing and almost missed my Greek midterm.
It was one of the happiest days of my life.
Life moved fast after that. After a 30-hour journey, a month long orientation, and some major culture shock, I showed up for my first day of school full of nervous excitement, both to meet my students and my co-teacher. Except...I wouldn't get to teach immediately, because there was a week and a half of exams. And my co-teacher? He was on sick leave indefinitely.
And that's how I came to be standing alone in front of a room full of Nepali schoolchildren. Common languages? None. Tools available to me? A whiteboard and a marker. It was going to be a tough seven months.
My second graders locked me in the classroom that day. I escaped through the window.
Those first few weeks were rough. Without a co-teacher to mediate, maintaining order in the classroom was nearly impossible. The kids would leap from desk to desk, break into dance routines, and straight-up leave. One student out of a class of 25 did his homework. When I asked for help from the headmaster, I was handed a stick.
My first breakthrough came in the form of the star charts. 10 stars, earned from homework and good behavior, resulted in a prized pencil. We then moved on to sing-alongs and games and watching Disney movies on my tiny tablet, and the ice began to break.
Outside of my host family's house and my classroom, though, I felt extremely isolated. Weeks passed between conversations with other native English speakers (and showers, but that was another problem). I had little electricity, and even less internet access. I missed a lot of things, both personal (like my sister's sweet 16) and cultural (who was this Meghan Trainor?).
And yet, I was happy. I hate to say that life was simpler, because that reduces Nepal to a one-dimensional trope. Rather, my purpose was clearer. In stripping away all the "necessities" of life from the U.S., it was easier to focus on things like deep relationships, self-healing, and my students. Some afternoons, I would do nothing but drink tea and stare at the Himalayas.
Being alone in the classroom never got easier, even as my host aama taught me Nepali, and the lack of technology presented some unique challenges. I once hand-wrote 50 unique exams for my students because: a) cheating is a lot harder when your friend has a different test; and b) the photocopier had broken again.
But things improved. In my last month, every one of my students turned in their daily homework, and every one of them passed their final exam. And those second graders who locked me in the classroom on my first day? They surprised me by performing all the songs I taught them at my farewell ceremony.
I think that one of the most important lessons I learned by #GoingSolo was that you're never actually alone. In Nepal, complete strangers address each other as "sister" and "brother" and "mother," because we really are a big extended family after all.
This as well: everyone has the potential to be a teacher--and it's not always the person standing at the front of the classroom.
I had many other adventures in Nepal, both solo and with friends. If you're interested in my experiences with Everest Base Camp, jungle safaris, and food poisoning, check out my old blog (where these photos came from).
Wait, is this what they meant by #GoingSolo? But seriously, may or may not have commissioned this costume in Nepal.