East, West, and Ten-Drel
On a cold day in February, 106 fifth- through 12th-grade students in dark wool blazers are huddled on the steps of the courtyard of the Taktse International School in Sikkim, India. They jostle and elbow each other and seem not to notice the view: a panorama of the high Himalayas, stretching from Tibet in the east to the great icy mass of Kanchenjunga, the world's third tallest peak, in the west.
It is the first day of classes. Christine Stodolski, an American volunteer visiting the school for a year, is reading aloud from the Taktse mission statement.
"'The idea of the Taktse International School was conceived in the winter of 2004 when a group of concerned Sikkimese gathered to discuss the problems confronting our society,'" she says. "'The erosion of traditional values, the increasing number of alienated youth with little or no marketable skills, the growth of mass consumerism. …'"
She pauses. "Can any of you tell me what mass consumerism is?"
Students are slow to answer. It's when everybody buys things? When you want your neighbor's TV?
Yes, Stodolski says. It's when people place importance on possessions. When it is more common for people to buy than to make them.
She continues reading. "'Rapid development and the failure of the greater society to wisely manage the forces of change have exacerbated these problems over the years. … Therefore we wanted to create a model school and community capable of producing the compassionate and ethical leaders that developing societies so desperately need.'"
She pauses again. "Now, who can tell me what it means to be compassionate and ethical?"
This time, the students' ideas flow more easily. Compassion is when you have an emotional understanding of another person's situation. Being ethical means doing the right thing.
Stodolski breaks the students into groups and asks them to think about times they have seen ethical or compassionate behavior, or engaged in it themselves. Most responses have to do with life at school, being kind to new students or standing up for friends. But then one student comes up with something more personal.
When his father was young, the boy says, he expected to live his life as a subsistence farmer, like his family had for generations. But his brothers saw that he was bright and pooled their scant savings to send him to school. Their actions were part of tham-tsig, a traditional Sikkimese ideal of honest relationships based in sacrifice. As a result of this ancient code, the boy's father prospered in a growing Indian economy that the rest of his family does not fully understand.
The students are quiet after hearing this story. Many of them have similar family stories; some say the lifestyle gap between their grandparents and themselves feels more like centuries than years.
Taktse's principal, Peter "Pintso" Lauenstein-Denjongpa, Ed.M.'12, believes that moments like these, when students are made aware of their unique position at a threshold between worlds, is what the school is all about.
"We are in a constant state of translation," he says. "We are translating between East and West, city and village, old and new, indigenous and colonial, colonial and modern, feudal and democratic, North East (India) and Central, hills and plains."
His hope is that by fusing these disparate forces he can help the people of Sikkim retain agency over a land whose scenery and natural resources are fast becoming commodities in the global marketplace. Ed School students and alums are an increasingly important part of making this dream a reality, Lauenstein-Denjongpa says –– a dream that, like the student's story of his uncles' tham-tsig, stretches across cultures and generations.
To know Lauenstein-Denjongpa is to know worlds colliding. On his office walls, diplomas from Harvard and the University of Chicago mix with traditional silk wall hangings and an old map of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. His conversation bounces from the Buddhist idea of samsara ("worldliness") to the burdens of colonialism in India to how the Protestant work ethic has shaped the West. Even his full name –– Peter Phuntsok "Pintso" Ongdi Azubah Lauenstein- Denjongpa –– reflects the many cultures he inhabits, the various and unlikely threads that brought Taktse into being.
The son of a Sikkimese father and an American mother, Lauenstein-Denjongpa was born in Sikkim in 1980, a few years after the kingdom was annexed by India. His parents, Sonam and Maria, had met at Brown University years earlier, where his father received a scholarship arranged by an ethnomusicology professor with an interest in the Himalayas. The couple ran a school for poor children in the village of Pelling, but the region's proximity to Tibet made it politically sensitive, and the family returned to the United States in 1982 after Maria's visa wasn't renewed.
In the years that followed, Lauenstein-Denjongpa's parents started a successful catering business in Beverly, Mass., a small city north of Boston. Lauenstein-Denjongpa and his younger brother Aka grew up hearing their father's stories about Sikkim, a place where rocks could be deities and spiritual masters transformed themselves into rainbows when they died –– events Westerners call "myths" but that Sonam insists were once commonplace.
But when the family returned to Sikkim for a visit in the late '90s, the land of Sonam's stories seemed to have disappeared. India was pouring in development money to shore up the border with Tibet, and that meant everything from tourist hotels to hydroelectric dams to Domino's Pizza franchises. Worse still, the old culture of tham-tsig was in trouble. Suicide rates and drug abuse were skyrocketing along with incomes. A once-grounded people seemed adrift.
Sonam says the "old, magical world" he grew up in is breathing its last. "It's the tail end. And … it's so important to catch that tale." The question, for the whole family, was how?
Worries about Sikkim germinated for years before there was a moment of ten-drel, the Sikkimese word for "things coming together." On the last night of a visit to Gangtok in 2004, Lauenstein-Denjongpa gathered his parents and their friends around the fire pit of the Hotel Sonam Palgey to ask a question: What could they do to help their small country?
Almost immediately, the group landed on the idea of a school. They talked late into the night about how they could teach traditional ethics and new skills at the same time. Sonam says he had long been impressed by how the West transmitted its values through its educational institutions and didn't see why the same couldn't be true in Sikkim.
Sonam brought the idea to Dodrup Chen Rinpoche, one of Sikkim's great spiritual masters, who said the timing was auspicious. Shortly afterward, the country's former crown prince, Wangchuk Namgyal, donated 250 acres of pristine land for the campus, and an American student of Buddhism, Michael Baldwin, a Harvard College graduate, gave funds. By 2005, the main building was constructed and 27 students in K–6 were enrolled. Maria says it was as if the school came together by magic. Lok Babu, one of the school's founders, says it must have been good karma leftover from past lives.
Despite his role in formulating the initial vision for the school, Lauenstein-Denjongpa didn't imagine himself running Taktse. He was living what he calls the upper-middle class "post-college dream" in a loft in Brooklyn, N.Y., taking acting classes, making films — a life he loved. Maybe if he moved to Sikkim for a short time and took care of the fundraising, the rest of the school would take care of itself. "I thought I could do that in a year and a half with some Excel sheets and some to-do lists, and the school would be set up," he says. "It seems silly now."
It soon became clear that creating a truly hybrid school — one that combined new and old, East and West — wouldn't be easy. Misunderstandings abounded. Once, after encouraging teachers to incorporate games into their lessons, Lauenstein-Denjongpa fielded calls from parents concerned that their children were too eager to get on the school bus in the morning. How could students learn if they weren't afraid of their teachers?
Sometimes, these misunderstandings could raise profound questions about the school's philosophy. One of the school's founders, who also served as principal during its first two years, felt that in order to be truly local, Taktse should rely only on resources within India. Lauenstein-Denjongpa, Maria, and Sonam thought real innovation could come from bringing local talent and wisdom into dialogue with global resources and curricula. The differences ran so deep that the headmaster eventually left to start another school, leaving Lauenstein-Denjongpa with a choice: move to Sikkim full time and build the school he dreamed could be, or return to the comfort of New York.
He stayed, plunging into every detail of life at the school, right down to what kind of dal should be served at lunch. The greatest challenge was teacher training, because Taktse asks its teachers to use open inquiry methods that are profoundly different than what most of them encountered in their own schooling.
"I knew I had to ask questions that would make kids think critically, but I didn't know how because I had never experienced that before in my life," says K–8 Headmistress Reshma Thapa. "It was like feeling your way in the dark."
She noticed a similar anxiety in her conversations with parents and began to wonder whether this sprang from a collective sense of inferiority left over from the British. "It is difficult for us to believe that locals can do as well as outsiders," she says.
"But I think we've managed to convince parents over the years that we can do an equally good job."
There were also questions of money and reputation. Sonam and Maria felt one flaw of the school they ran in the '70s was that it explicitly served poor children. This appealed to foreign donors but made it difficult to gain traction locally, where students could be pigeonholed as charity cases. As a result, Taktse has taken a middle path similar to independent schools in the West. The main focus is excellence.
Most students pay tuition, but a growing scholarship program keeps the doors open to all levels of society.
Often, the challenges of the early days have led to unique programs. When Maria grew frustrated with the Western bent in most available children's literature, she started writing books set in Sikkim. Her first, Miss Lee and the Mosquito, was published by Scholastic India in 2012. When students in religion class showed they were bored with the traditional emphasis on memorizing dharma texts –– dharma is a Sanskrit term meaning ethics or "moral law" –– the school created a unique program that teaches Buddhist philosophy through discussion and real world examples. "Dharma without dogma," Lauenstein-Denjongpa calls it.
Everyone agrees this progress is the result of slow, hard work. "It's required everybody to really, really bend, open, and listen," Maria says. "And in a way that's the best of Western education and Eastern qualities. But it's hard. All these things sound so glorious, but it takes a lot of patience."
As the school grew, Lauenstein-Denjongpa became increasingly aware of his lack of formal training as an educator. He could inspire students, but that was not the same thing as running an
institution. He was tired. The daily miscommunications that defined life at Taktse were starting to feel like battles.
The school elders –– Taktse's take on a board of trustees –– suggested he take time away. In traditional thought, Sikkim was the spiritual center of the world, they said. But Taktse wasn't just a spiritual school, so maybe it would be good to draw water from other wells –– the center of the academic world, maybe.
The idea resonated. In the fall of 2011, Lauenstein-Denjongpa packed his bags for Cambridge to enroll in the Ed School's Special Studies Program, which would allow him to take classes across the university.
Returning to the West was a shock. He felt like a Himalayan villager in the cities where he had once been so at ease. During a morning shower, he realized, "I'm showering in drinking water. [This] feels so decadent and terrible and lucky." He kept mentally returning to Sikkim during his classes, too. Often, a lecture that had nothing to do with international education would spark a revelation about the school.
In Professor Hirotaka Takeuchi's Knowledge-Based Strategy class at Harvard Business School, Lauenstein-Denjongpa saw a picture of Japanese auto pioneer Soichiro Honda crouching down to examine a passing motorcycle. Takeuchi said Honda's pose demonstrated his "tacit knowledge" of the machine –– an expertise felt intuitively or learned through practice rather than by explicit explanation.
A light bulb went off: Sikkim was rich in this kind of knowing. "And just because someone can't explain it, or more importantly because they can't explain it in English, doesn't mean it's not valuable," Lauenstein-Denjongpa says. "There is knowledge and wisdom that is useful and beneficial but not necessarily articulate." Part of being a hybridized school meant finding ways to give this wisdom a place at the table.
In Lecturer David Rose's Universal Design for Learning class at the Ed School, Lauenstein-Denjongpa encountered the idea that disability is contextual, meaning students may struggle because their academic environment is not adapted to their personal learning style. It struck Lauenstein-Denjongpa that the same was true when looking at education across cultures.
"Working in the remote Himalayas, there are so many seeming disadvantages," he thought. "It's hard to get supplies, there are no museums to go to on field trips … [but] maybe it's only the way I am thinking about these things that makes them advantages or disadvantages." Maybe the school's challenges were also its strengths.
Since returning to Sikkim, Lauenstein-Denjongpa has found new energy for the conversations that were so exhausting in the months before he left. He now believes that "these conversations are the [school's] project," not impediments to some other, more distant goal.
This new ethos is permeating the school in multiple ways. Lauenstein-Denjongpa has changed the command structure at Taktse to give teachers more decisionmaking power. Students are meeting more often to discuss the big ideas in the school's mission statement. The conversation is extending to the wider Sikkim community, too. Current senior Tenzing Namgyal is working on an alphabet book of Sikkimese culture that she hopes could serve young children throughout the state. There are even plans to establish a teachers college that will spread Taktse's methods across Sikkim.
Lauenstein-Denjongpa is involving his Ed School connections every step of the way. Laila Goodman, Ed.M.'85, recently came to Taktse to lead conversations with faculty on how to approach moral education in a society of diverse traditions. Jim Watras, Ed.M.'86, has come to the school three times to teach literature classes and direct plays.
Shua Marquis and Terryl Dozier, both Ed.M.'12, used Taktse to launch the very first workshop of Creative Capacities, an organization they founded that teaches learning and innovation skills in the developing world, with a series of poetry events that put students in touch with their core belief systems and natural surroundings. And when the three-student, all-female senior class — the school's first ever — visited the United States in the winter of 2013, Dozier arranged for them to continue discussing their nascent interest in poetry with his own mentor, Maya Angelou.
Hopefully, these local and global connections will help the school navigate its next phase of challenges. A new building is under construction. Lauenstein-Denjongpa is in the early stages of a fundraising drive to build the endowment and expand scholarships. Most pressingly, Taktse will hold its first graduation in March 2014. The three girls in the senior class have a high school experience that is different from almost any other student's in Sikkim or India, so how will they fare in the wider world they are about to enter? It will be a defining moment for the school, Lauenstein-Denjongpa says, a time to learn whether the rhetoric matches the reality.
No one can speak better to this transition, of course, than the graduating students themselves. They say they are nervous to leave Taktse's cocoon but committed to pursuing their interests. They believe the school has both opened their world and brought them closer to home. One student, Sagun Limbu, puts this idea in concrete terms. With Taktse, she says, "I have visited the U.S. and experienced the neverending choices of food [and] the bright lights in Times Square, but I have also stood outside the board room in my school, waiting patiently in the silence of respect, just to meet and be blessed by the Rinpoche, one of the most respected monks." If the school can get its student to hold midtown Manhattan and Himalayan mysticism in their minds at the same time, then perhaps it is doing its job.
— Brendan Pelsue is a writer, performer, and educator who has visited the Taktse International School three times. He is currently studying for an MFA in playwriting at the Yale School of Drama.