Kathleen Shrestha: Her Life in The Noble Profession

Features Issue 29 Aug, 2010
Text by Prerna Rai

Kathleen Shrestha is an exemplary  role model toher students at Lincoln School, where she has been teaching music andphysical education for the past 27 years.

In September 1975, Kathleen made her first trip to Nepal in an overland truck which started from London. At the time, Encounter Overland conducted a two and a half month trip to and from Nepal. An enthusiastic traveler, she recalls with fervor her ferrying across the English Channel towards Salzburg, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Afghanisthan, Pakistan, India and finally her last destination, Nepal in November.

When she arrived, Kathleen was subject to the mundane regularities of Nepal; meeting local communities, mountaineers, trekkers, people pursuing arts and culture and so on. She thinks the host country is beautiful.   With no reservation, she found herself yielding to the allures of the country and its people.

Kathleen Shrestha is an exemplary  role model to her students at Lincoln School, where she has been teaching music and physical education for the past 27 years. Cherubic and warm, she has all the criteria to make a good will ambassador and possesses the enthusiasm to cross human boundaries effortlessly. When I first met her, she overcame the barrier with cordial amicability and there I was, swirled into taking a recce of the School. Kathleen said enthusiastically, “I enjoy working here, with children from all over the world. It has a very vibrant atmosphere, plus I get a little of my culture too.”

Founded in 1954 and inspired by the 16th US President, Abraham Lincoln,  Lincoln School was established by  a group of US Government employees assigned to Nepal. The school at the current location was built in the mid 1960s with US funds. At first, it was started to provide an American Elementary Education to children of US Government officials in Nepal. Today, the school attracts a blend of some 35 nationalities with 30% from North America, 28% from Europe, 20% from the local community and 22% from other parts of the world. The school is celebrating their 50th Anniversary this year.

Lincoln which starts from pre-school to grade 12 embodies itself as an International School.   It houses an amazing 18,000 volume Library. Kathleen has been teaching here since the time she first arrived in Nepal. She comes from a family of educators, living the tradition from her grandmother’s time. “Children teach one tolerance and spontaneity; they keep you going. Their innocence is wonderful, yet it needs to be trained” said Kathleen.

To encourage conversation with Kathleen, one has to play the right chords. Do it right, and you know instinctively when she  responds with a high pitched chuckle. Thereon,  with each minute, she got more descriptive and engaging. Kathleen’s passion for travelling brought her to Nepal. “You learn a lot about yourself and people when you travel. There is much to appreciate of different cultures and periods within the culture. I see myself as a global commuter,” she said with a broad smile.

“Fate is what is written,” say some old scriptures. For one who had not heard about Nepal, she is now comfortably married to a Nepali, Shyam Mohan Shrestha who is currently the General Manager of Air France. He is also President of Nepal-France Chamber of Commerce and Industries and Exec. Chairman of The Mirabel Resort Hotel. They met through some common Australian friends when she was 31 and he, 29. “Shyam took very good care of me  and he didn’t mind that I was a bit chubby! We were old enough to know what we wanted. We got married on  March 8th 1976, International Woman’s Day, an auspicious beginning,” she reflected. They have two children, Cecile and Robert who were educated at Lincoln School, Kathmandu. At present, Robert is in Los Angeles with New Line Cinema while Cecile is in Paris, and wants to come back to pursue a humanitarian cause helping the women of Nepal.

With the advent of time, Kathleen has seen the turn of events in the country, from an absolute monarchy to a democracy. To this day, her love and fascination for Nepal remains unshaken. When Kathleen married Shyam Shrestha, she knew her second home would be Nepal. Custom has not made stale her apperception of what one could call banal interpretation of daily life. On her way to school, she holds dear the images of temporal platitude: a woman with her baby, children playing in the street,  the simple things which make life cherishable.

  She takes utmost pride in her job as an educator. Speaking on the topic, she said, “When I first began teaching in the US, my mentor was a lady  named Bessy Fletcher. She taught me physical education is movement education for all. In a play group, all members must be given individual tools to inculcate movement to the maximum instead of their movements being controlled by a single tool.”  She further thinks that the most important issue of education is problem solving which can help an individual through life; others being expression, creativity and maintaining a balance with  academics. She truly believes in the mission statement of her school,  committed to Nurture of the individual student, Excellence in all spheres of  achievement, Pursuit of personal responsibility, Appreciation of diversity and Love of Learning.

Friendly and hospitable, I was extended an invitation to her house, “Mira Val” in Budhanilkantha, for lunch. Biking the dusty, bumpy, extended road with photographer Sagar Shrestha was worth the physical discomfort. Within the iron gates of her grand house, the outside world seemed passe. We were greeted by a deluge of barks from her lovely Absod dogs, Momo (Japanese for peach blossom), Tenzing and Natini.   For myself, I justified  the weariness of my bones to awaken to a wonderful diversion. It was regal. Every nook and cranny of the house was filled with curios and ancient artifacts from parts of Europe, US, Asia; simply priceless. The house spoke volumes of her travels. The architecture had a somewhat colonial appeal to it even though it was part Spanish. Kathleen has a fetish for Indian art. Her personal collection ostensibly shows Rajasthani painted pots, screens, linen and so on. As I thought of a noble Royal connection,  Kathy commented she must have been a Maharaja’s wife in her previous life! Acrylic nails, silver trinkets, ornamentation, Indian designer wear by Bridgette Singh become her. Short blond hair with the kindest blue eyes, I could picture her hosting a thousand occasions with her presence over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.

One of the most appealing charms of her personality is the complete lack of pretension on being hoity-toity and embracing life head on.   She has a  bevy of helpers round the house with a Tibetan and an orphan under her refuge. Cultural diversity in unity, Brahmin, Chettri, Newar, Tamang, they all seemed to comfortably blend into the picture. We were served a wonderful candle-lit lunch with much courtesy and graciousness. Kathleen appreciates good food and her favored Restaurants are Bukhara (Soaltee Crowne Plaza), Chimney (Yak and Yeti ), Roadhouse Café in Thamel and Krishna Arpan (Dwarika’s).

We soon moved out to the verandah and mulled over strong cappuccino. She mentioned she would have liked to volunteer her services to the UN too. Her idol in life has been Eleanor Roosevelt, known as the First Lady of the world. “She played a crucial role for human rights development by visiting relief projects and was a great advocate for the rights and needs of the poor, minorities and the disadvantaged,” Kathleen proclaimed. She further added that her daughter Cecile, at one time, went to Eleanor Roosevelt School, University of California, Santiago.

We were politely interrupted by Kancha, who brought us curd and fresh fruits which looked like they were just plucked from the trees, aromatic and moist. It did us good in the lazy daze of the afternoon. Kathleen continued her positive reinforcements to the people round the house in pidgin Nepali. She gave out another of her high pitched chuckles, which I had got accustomed to by now, and mentioned that some of her challenges have been managing her weight and  her Visa Card.

Twenty seven years in Nepal and Kathleen is buoyant about it. She has adopted the Nepali culture as much as she hasn’t forgotten her own; a beautiful blend and balance of beliefs. Dashain, Tihar for her, are as integral as Christmas and New Year.  She represents Nepal at her hometown, Rochester, New York,  which she visits every summer. Marketing Nepali goods like silver jewelry from Millennium (in Thamel), pashmina, prayer flags, bangles, fabrics, Nepali paper and so on, Kathleen is seen at her entrepreneurial best, taking a bit of Nepal to the US while calling on family and friends. She calls it ‘Kathy Kathmandu.’0 Blissfully nostalgic about the time she came to Nepal, they celebrated her ‘25 years in Nepal’, the Silver Jubilee. An identical Encounter Overland truck was procured and among the invitees was Keith Miller, who drove her to Nepal in the ‘70s.

Without any regrets, Kathleen said, “ If I had to do it again, it would be the same, though I would have liked to be part of a singing group; I can do a beautiful Tango”, she beamed. Being a music teacher, she has always looked up to John Williams, the highly successful American orchestral composer and conductor who has lent his score for films like Jaws, E.T., Schindler’s list and the Indiana Jones series.

She further added, “Teaching at Lincoln is a learning experience. The School believes in an all round development of the child and educates them about the host country. Students are taken on Explore Nepal tours, Village tours; they partake lessons in Thangka painting and so on. If I ever retire, it would be at Lincoln School.” Learning is constant throughout life and one never forgets good educators. As Henry Adams put it, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”