Bro. Joe, The Incomparable Storyteller

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Bro. Joe and I
With Bro. Joe Sheehan outside his apartment in Palm Spring, CA, in 2015.

 

Ideally, child-rearing practices and the education system should set the minds of a child free to think, to imagine, and to create unfettered, among a number of other things. Very good and inspirational teachers are able to encourage. motivate, and guide students to do a lot of that.

I was extremely privileged to attend St. Xavier’s school and to be taught by some teachers who fired my imagination and inspired me to dream — of people and places beyond Nepal’s own borders, of ideas not part of the culture of the country etc. In doing so, they (unwittingly?) helped me “escape” from Kathmandu!

Bro. Joe Sheehan (see image above) — my seventh grade English teacher — was one such teacher. I was reminded of him recently by the article The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months published in The Guardian.

You see, Bro. Joe, as we called him, used to be an amazing storyteller, and one of the stories he told us was The Lord of the Flies!

Forget the internet, those days were even before TV! (It arrived in Nepal in 1985.) Even VCRs were a rare commodity. My family certainly didn’t have one then.

Anyway, if my memory serves me right, once every week — I am tempted to say Friday — Bro. Joe would make the back half of the class move up and share our little chairs. We had a seating arrangement and every student had an individual desk and chair (a rare privilege in a majority of schools in the country even NOW).

If the setting of the story involved a location, he would reproduce the map of the layout on the blackboard, which he did for The Lord of The Flies. When he would launch into a story or continue the one from where he had left off, completely spellbound by him, there would be pin-drop silence in the class.

During those sessions, the forty of so of us little boys were hooked on to Bro. Joe’s every word, his voice, his delivery, his every move as he paced left and right in front of the board, and sometimes towards us etc. The cadence, the modulation, and the changes in the volume of his voice all enhancing the totality of the all-consuming experience the master storyteller gave us! He fired our imaginations.

He certainly fired mine! I have not read the book nor have I seen the movie. And yet, thirty-seven years later, I can still remember parts of the story as vividly as if it had unfolded right in front of my very eyes. I can still imagine the three characters Ralph, Jack, and Chet, the chubby one with the glasses. I still have a clear image of the cliff face, and the end, the climax when Ralph, thinking he had lost all hopes of surviving, is actually saved!

Oh, and the chant “Kill the pig, bash his head!” “Kill the pig bash his head!” I can still imagine the stakes with the pigs’ heads on top! Haven’t forgotten that!

There were other stories he told us too, such as A Separate Piece and Flowers for Algernon. Again, I have yet to read those books!

Having been influenced by English teachers like him — Fr. Downing in fifth grade and Fr. James Donnelly in sixth grade — I was into reading English novels! I read voraciously and was very keen to improve my English skills. Those North-American teachers and others who came later were the inspiration I sought. I got into a bit of writing as well, and represented the school in a short story writing competition — either in 6th or 7th grade — which I won

That very year, I got a small thesaurus (see image below) to help me with my drive to improve my English language skills! In ninth grade, I got a much bigger dictionary!

I was so dedicated to improving my vocabulary and command of the language that there was a period I actually carried a small pocket dictionary, about a fourth the size of the thesaurus! I was a walking dictionary…of a sort! I can’t recall when I started doing that though.

Anyway, having been so inspired by him, on a longish visit to the US in 2015, I went looking for him (and three other North-American teachers like him). I was able to track him down (as well as two others).

He was so happy to hear from me that he invited me to stay with him in Palm Springs, California. Since I had plans to visit friends in Los Angeles and catch up with as many different people as possible in my tour of the US, I accepted his invitation. I ended up spending a few days at his place with him and another guest of his.

When I met him it had been about 30 years since I had last seen him. He had taught us just a year in 1983 (academic calendar coincided with the solar calendar in those days in Nepal). But he came for a visit in 1985. On that visit, we had a session with him in our class where he had a series of questions for us to see how much of him and about him we remembered! And, not surprisingly, we did remember a fair bit.

I credit him and a number of North-American teachers like him for inspiring me to imagine, dream, and go in pursuit of education and experiences beyond the borders of Nepal to learn about the world and other people and to ultimately becoming the person I am today.

My imagination, my dreams, and my escape from Kathmandu led me — among a slew of other things — to my being educated in four other countries, working in nine, and travelling in an additional thirty (which would have been at least twice as many had it NOT been for my Nepali passport). I am now able to count as friends people from dozens of different countries all over the world. For that and other reasons, I have deep and personal feelings about — and for — life and our planet. And naturally, I think of myself as a human being first, something we could be teaching our children in Nepal to see themselves as — whether at home or in school — instead of controlling them and reining them in to ultimately make them blind patriots that follow orders, directions, forms, guidelines, traditions etc. without questioning, like sheep!

What do you think?

 

 

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