When I was in grade three, I wrote a poem for the first time. The rush of relief when I finished penning my last line was the best feeling I’d ever felt. I was so excited to share my poem with my best friends, but we were not active on social media yet, so I had no other option than to wait for the next day. I waited so impatiently. And the next day, the first thing I did after arriving at school was gather my best friends around me and proudly recite my poem for the first time.
My best friends always thought poetry was boring. They were never interested in it and even made fun of it. So at the back of my mind, I was prepared to be made fun of. Their reaction took me by surprise: as soon as I finished, they praised my poetry and told me I should keep writing. That was exactly what I needed to hear.
After that day, I regularly jotted down my feelings on paper. My joy and relief at penning my last line never faded away, but neither did the feeling that I might be wasting my time. I had fallen in love with writing, but it never even occurred to me that I might build a career out of it.
As students, the most frequent question we were asked was, “What do you want to be in the future?” And the most frequent answer would be a doctor, a nurse, or an engineer. What else can we expect from small children when those careers were all that our elders taught us to want? “Good” students, aspiring to build a lucrative career, had to choose between the fields of medicine or engineering. We were never shown more imaginative possibilities to aspire to. Instead of teaching us how to think, our elders always put their thoughts into our minds and forced us to internalize what they thought was right.
I was one of such victims, the so-called “good” student. My parents and teachers filled my young mind with misled dreams of thriving in the medical field. I chose nursing, and to become a nurse, I would have to have the grades for it. I would have to learn everything written in the assigned textbooks. No, let me correct that: to become a nurse, I would have to be able to answer, ad verbum from the textbook, all the questions asked in the exams. That would bring me those good grades.
So I started rote-learning from an age that I don’t even remember much of. As I was trained to rote-learn so early on in my life, I’d never thought of it as a big issue.
“These are the most important and possible questions for the exam,” the teacher would say.
“Okay sir! I will remember this,” we would chant back.
And that was the end of that.
There were small consolations in the text-book memorizing system. Within the first week of every new academic session, I would have already read and reread all the stories and poems in my Nepali book. My aggrieved parents and teachers reminded me constantly that these stories were going to get me nowhere in life. “If you really want to read something before the teacher even teaches it, read your science book so that you will have questions to ask during class time.” I became so habituated to hearing this that I never stopped to think if it even made sense. Doesn’t learning literature require multiple readings? Doesn’t literature require the forming of questions? Why would we need a Nepali teacher if learning Nepali literature was truly unnecessary?
Every time I so as much sat down with a novel, my dad would feel bad. He thought good people don’t read novels. Good people study science and enjoy mathematics. Once when I was traveling with my dad, I pulled out Palpasa Cafe to read on the bus. As soon as we got off, my dad chided me against reading such kinds of novels in public. It was a shameful thing to do, that was what he thought.
In such a circle, I grew up with nursing as my career goal. But that goal was always under doubt. Out of nowhere, I’d find myself thinking, “Can’t I have a better future in literature?” Immediately, the answering thought would be, “Nisha! Focus. Nursing is what you always planned for.” Some nights, poring over my stacks of physics, chemistry, and biology books, I felt like I was punishing myself. Forcing myself to memorize pages of derivation in physics and never-ending organic chemistry reaction formulas was the worst war that I’ve ever had to fight with myself. Trying to free myself from this hell was always met with disapproval. Every time I considered switching to literature, my family and teachers discouraged me. “Poetry is okay for a hobby,” they said. “Focus on your studies and a real career.”
The message sunk in. As I grew older, I started to think, “Literature has no value in this age. Because there wasn’t as much innovation in science in the past, people would distract themselves with literature.” In my entire school life, I could count the number of those interested in literature on the fingers of one hand. But all of us had been conditioned to believe the same thing: that literature was obsolete. I had given up. I had burned all my poems. I had thrown out piles of diaries in which I had poured out my thoughts and feelings every single night.
They say things destined for you will find a way to come to you. All you have to do is give it one last try.
One day, while scrolling through Facebook, an event page with ‘QC Awards 2017: Youth Poetry Slam’ written in a bold font caught my eye. The event, organized by Word Warriors, a spoken word poetry collective, with support from Quixote’s Cove, the bookshop, was looking for applications from spoken-word poets. I warred with myself on whether to apply or whether to let it slide as I usually did. I was disturbed by my indecision. I went through all the details over and over again. I had never applied for anything like the event before. I had no hopes of even getting selected for an audition. But a voice in my head, telling me to give myself the chance to meet other poets, persisted. At the end of the day, I sat down to write a new poem.
The deadline to submit poem was 8th July, 2017. I had a poem ready in my phone by the morning of 8th July. I was in a dilemma. At the very last moment, I sent my poem to one of my friends to look over and to help me apply. That was my “one last try”.
My world of art and literature has opened up since I opted to apply to the slam in 2017. I got the chance to join the Word Warriors in their quest to encourage poetic expression. I got a chance to work at Quixote’s Cove and the U.S. Embassy’s Book Bus, promoting art and literature as truly transformative tools available to us to learn with. Now being a 2nd year literature student and a Word Warrior, going to different parts of the country and helping students learn about literature and how to write better makes me happier than I could have ever imagined. I can proudly say that the past two years have revealed a bigger world with bigger possibilities, confirming my doubts about my narrow dreams of devoting myself to the sciences. All because of that “one last try”.
I don’t want someone else to stand where I stood two years ago. Someone who spent her childhood rote-learning and walking blindfolded along the path someone else sent her along. Someone who regrets her educational upbringing on entering the real world; someone who spends many nights crying because there will always be a long list of things she has read, but very little she’s gotten out of it. I don’t want someone to get depressed just because she hates herself for spending her 20 years of her life in a system that didn’t teach her to think, and for not being able to think critically even after she realizes its importance.
Most importantly, I don’t want them to think doctors and engineers are the only ones living respectable, happy lives. Students should feel free to explore their interests and make career plans accordingly. No student deserves to be caged in someone else’s thoughts. What we learn and who we are should be because that’s what we want it to be, not because someone said it’s right and we should do it. I want every fledging poet to be able to proudly recite their poetry, and receive encouragement to keep writing.
Nisha Karki is a poet, writer, a spoken word poetry instructor and a Language and Arts instructor at the U.S. Embassy’s Book Bus.
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