Thunder and Enlightenment
By Duane Karlen - Peace Corps Volunteer: Nepal (1970-1972)
Every student in the class looked up at me, waiting for my answer. The room was quiet, unusually quiet for this group of boisterous 12-year-olds, who rarely sat still on their creaky wooden benches and whose attention often flitted about like the sparrows that came to the open windows.
But today was exam day, and exams are serious business in Nepal. A student's grade can mean the difference between continuing in school or returning to labor in the terraced rice fields that surround the Himalayan mountain village.
Ram Gopal, who had asked the question, was still standing, waiting for permission to resume his seat after addressing the teacher, as was the custom. I told him to sit, adding that I thought his question was a good one, trying to buy a few moments to compose my thoughts. His request was so simple on the surface: "Sir, do you want your answer or our answer on number three?"
I glanced down at the exam: "Briefly explain the cause of thunder and lightning."
I realized Ram's question came from something that had taken place in class a few weeks earlier. We were studying a science unit on weather, concentrating on thunder and lightning. The text gave a rather complicated explanation that involved atmospheric temperature gradients, rising air masses, ionic exchanges, positive and negative electronic discharges, and the speed of light versus the speed of sound. Pretty heavy stuff for these young boys and girls who live far from roads and electricity!
I had tried to make the lesson more interesting and understandable by explaining it in simpler words, using demonstrations of static electricity with combs and small bits of paper, and taking the class outside to observe thunderhead clouds forming in the afternoon sky.
This was my second year teaching science in Gahonsahor, an agricultural village two days' walk east of the Pokhara airport. My command of the local alphabet had grown to where I could write on the blackboard to illustrate my diagrams, and my ear for the hill dialect allowed me to follow their discussions about what we were studying. So I was delighted one day when a student bravely asked me, "Sir, would you like to hear our explanation of thunder and lightning?" There was an expectant pause, with all attention on the teacher.
"Yes, tell me!" I replied, making no attempt to act like the traditional teacher who strives to be the sole source of all knowledge and academic wisdom.
What followed was one of the most exciting conversations I have ever heard in a classroom. Students eagerly took turns telling me about Indra, the weather god who lives in the sky. Interrupting and correcting each other in their enthusiasm, they explained how Indra occasionally becomes angry and throws "thunderbolts" down to Earth. These flash brilliantly through the sky and strike the ground with a thunderous crash, shattering anything in the way.
These bolts are triangular pieces of rock, rather like very large arrowheads. Usually they are smashed to dust by the impact, the students told me, but once in a while one is found where lightning has struck: black, very hard, smooth like glass on the outside. They are hard to crack, but if you can break off a piece and grind it up, it's a powerful medicine that can cure many problems of the body and spirit.
I asked if anyone had ever seen such a thunderbolt. Most had only heard of them, but a couple of students knew someone who knew someone who had found one, and one student even had an uncle who might actually have one!
I was astonished the next day when one of the students returned to class with a small piece of rock, broken from the original triangle. He excitedly showed it to the entire group, then presented it to me as a gift from his family, to take home and use when necessary. Twenty-five years later, I still keep this treasure in a special brass bowl by my bedside, strong medicine for when I need it.
The science unit on weather had taken several weeks to cover, much longer than the four or five days I had originally scheduled. I was not sure exactly what my students had learned. I would find out from this exam. However, I certainly came away with a feeling of satisfaction that something important had happened.
But now the class was waiting for my answer to Ram's question, and I felt as if I was the one being tested. My reply would tell them how much I understood their culture and accepted what was important to them. Who is "right" here? If the students accept "my" scientific concepts, are they turning their backs on their own heritage? Is my work here then undermining the very cultural uniqueness I have learned to respect? On the other hand, if they assume "their" answer is correct, are they really learning science? I needed a flash of inspiration.
I focused again on my students. There was no ambivalence in their faces. These children were easily able to grasp both sets of beliefs without a problem. One they explored in their classroom, the other was a part of their religion and folklore. Both made sense, both were acceptable. At this moment all they wanted to know was: Which would be the correct answer on the test?
I spoke without further hesitation. "Since this is a science exam, give the scientific explanation. In Hindu culture class, you could give the explanation that involves Indra. But here let's use the one that comes from our textbook."
Relieved at having the issue clarified, the students resumed writing, concentrating on their sentences, occasionally gazing out the window to gather their thoughts. I sat quietly, watching them with fond amazement. Far off in the mountains, signaling the development of an afternoon storm, there was a faint rumble of thunder.