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The Matchstick House

Sixteen little faces peer up at me. They sit cross-legged on the carpet, with mismatched red and blue uniforms. Only some of them have shoes.

"Good morning, children," I say in English.

Two of the boys are busy chattering in Nepali and don't reply. They hit children for less in my old school.

"I said good morning, everybody."

"Good morning teacher," they chant, half-heartedly. They are distracted because it is Saturday and tomorrow they won't be in school.

Dinesh is late as usual and enters while I take the register. His uniform is dirty. Many of the children do not come from settled homes and Dinesh has not learned to wash his clothes.

"Dinesh."

He stops in his tracks and looks at me as if he has no idea how or why he is late.

"Tell me what we talked about yesterday and then you may sit down."

He sits down immediately and the class laughs. One of the girls comments that he must be stupid. He needs to work on his listening skills.

"Tell me first, then you may sit down."

"Oh," he stutters, scrambling to his feet, "work. Jobs."

He is right. "Very good," I say with a smile. "What you might want to do when you are a grown-up."

A hand shoots up in the front row. "Your calling," says Neema, without waiting to be chosen. She turns to Dinesh. "Stupid people can't have jobs."

It will be difficult to switch the children's focus to mathematics today. Neema is a bright student. She achieves high test scores, but she could employ more emotional intelligence as Dinesh does. "Very well," I say. "I will prove to you that every person on this planet has a calling. Would you like to hear a story?"

All sixteen of the children nod.

I give each pupil a board, a pencil, and a piece of paper, and I begin the task. "I want to tell you about a pupil of mine from some years ago. She was exactly your age when she first came to the academy." Our privately-funded school was very different back then, but in just twelve years, it has grown to offer more than one hundred children a free education at any one time. "Remember to take notes about what I tell you. Write what you hear and how it makes you feel."

While I do not make a habit of giving long speeches to the children, I tell each of my classes about this amazing girl, years after she left my care.

"Her name was Jhoti. It was the only word she could write. You see, she had several disabilities such as palsy of movement and an inability to speak. She was different." The truth was, she was a cruelly deformed girl with gaps between her teeth, and a jerking style of movement. Her brain development had been impaired when in vitro.

Neema asks if she was like Omesh, a boy at school who has Down's Syndrome. I tell the class she had a disability, but a different one to Omesh.

Some of them roll the word around their mouths, practising. "Disability."

"She could not make friends or play. She could not run or read or sing like you all. Jhoti lived on her own in an abandoned house outside of the village. Apart from some clothes, and what food the villagers gave her, the only possession she had was a miniature house made out of little pieces of wood."

Many of the children have favourite toys like plastic action figures or little trinkets they collect. These things are more common in Nepal now. Yet the matchstick house Jhoti carried with her was beautifully crafted. Hundreds of tiny pieces of wood had been meticulously cut, glued together, and framed with neat red borders. It had a slanted roof, a front door, windows. The only things missing were the little people.

"Jhoti could not focus on many class activities, but she cared deeply about that house. She would stare at it, concentrate on it, protect it from harm. She put the difficulties of her life inside it, and kept them locked in there."

The class is now silent and still. Even Dinesh is listening carefully. I check their pieces of paper, to make sure the children are getting something from the story. Some have written the girl's name or the word disability. Two children in the centre of the small classroom are drawing the matchstick house.

"Although she could not speak, Jhoti learned to communicate with signs." I practice a few of the signs with the students — hungry, tired, mountains, happy. They take this part very seriously.

"The other children in the class were curious about the matchstick house and where she found it. They did not ask to touch it, because they knew how important it was to Jhoti."

Although teaching Jhoti could be frustrating, we bonded over a common love of our town. During break times, we would stand and stare at the Annapurna range across the valley from our school with its three razor-sharp ridges cast against the clear blue sky. We breathed the air, dry and cool.

"She loved the mountains and the animals that call them home. She would point, she would smile, and she would feel the elements of the landscape."

Truly we are blessed in Gaunshahar. Villages sit on the hillsides as though the gods themselves sprinkled them from up high. Little puffs of woodsmoke rise from each one. The sunrise beams pinks and oranges across the land. Oxen work the fields of rice and corn.

"Jhoti came to school for six months, and every day, as she walked home carrying her matchstick house, she would stop and look at the horses on Sunil Pradesh's farm. It took her hours to reach her house."

I spoke to my wife about taking the girl into our home. Jhoti needed help and guidance and we had a two-storey house and a vehicle. It was rumoured that her mother was a drunkard who had caused a fire that burned the village's livestock.

"Then, one day," I continue, "Jhoti did not come to school. Nor the next day, nor the one after that."

One of the children asks if she was dead.

"No," I say. "She took her clothes and left the village with her little matchstick house. Even though it was very difficult for her to walk far, no one knew where she was."

I could not help feeling responsible for the girl and took the Jeep on my day off to look for her. I asked in the villages around, but to no avail. She was only nine years old, and on her own, with all of her disadvantages. The nights were cold and if she did not find shelter, she might die.

"The next Sunday, I made the trip to Besisahar." The town is a day's walk from our village. It is where the tourists go to begin their walks into the Annapurna. "Only on this second week of searching, did I find Jhoti."

The children are now captivated, following Jhoti's story, trying to see things from this girl's perspective.

"Besisahar can be a dangerous place. Trucks belch out black fumes and stray dogs look for scraps on the dusty street. There are robbers. Would you like to know where I found her?"

They nod.

"On the outskirts of the town, sleeping in a stable."

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Dinesh smile, as if he recognises something in the story.

The owner had tried, unsuccessfully, to remove her. He told me he had shouted, kicked her, told her to find somewhere else to sleep, but she was drawn to the place and slept on the straw with the horses. She had with her a little orange kitten which she fed. It followed her and slept next to her on the straw. She treated it with a softness of movement I didn't think her capable of.

A few students' hands raise. One of the children asks, "Did she still have the house?"

"Yes. It was still with her, unharmed." It was more important for her to care for that pile of matchsticks than it was for her to look after herself. "I took her back to the village and she came to live with my family. She brought her cat and her house with her."

As time went by, Jhoti became part of our family. My twelve-year-old son Manish was a wonder. When he returned from his schooling in Besisahar, he showed a kindness that made me swell with pride. He spent countless hours, working on her signing and her fine-motor skills for drawing. She was still restless, but before long, she could communicate her needs better. With a more balanced diet of fruits and dal bhaat, her physical condition improved.

"Jhoti became a part of my family because her own had deserted her." Despite that, she was a kind soul and would always offer to share. When good people need help they still give as well as take. That's emotional intelligence.

"All right, children," I say, "it's time for an activity." I ring the class bell and begin to write on the board. "You remember what Jhoti's most precious object was?"

"The matchstick house," they call out, almost in unison.

"Good. Now you must write down what your treasured possession is and why." I give them three minutes and sit on the carpet with them to check their papers. The results are always fascinating. We do not have much material wealth, and some of these children have not even seen the way people live in Kathmandu or Pokhara.

One by one, the children go to the front of the class and write their objects on the board — sunglasses, a family photo, their chickens, a mobile telephone, dried flowers from the November festival. Most of them can't justify their choice, they just like it, but some of the pupils are able to explain who gave it to them or what it represents. Dinesh talks about football boots that were donated to him. They allow him to run faster, turn quicker and score more goals for his team. They allow him to dream.

"Let us continue with the story." I take my place, standing at the front. "Doctors in the city told us her condition could not be improved. Without any official documents, she was not able to receive regular treatment for free. In the years she spent at this school and with my family, we saw her character — fiercely independent, caring, and strong. She refused to sit on chairs and disliked being inside too long. She would walk between the villages to stare at the cows, the donkeys, and the birds, all the while cradling her matchstick house." At times I didn't know if she was protecting the house, or if it was protecting her.

My wife and I had many conversations about what would happen when Jhoti reached adulthood. By the age of twelve, she could not attend the school of which I was Principal, and we had no legal guardianship status. She could never be married. She was a child lost in the system, with no paperwork and no rights. Yet, she so enjoyed being with animals, that we believed she could live her own life. She had a deep understanding of how to approach animals, how to handle them, and how to care for their needs. Her orange cat grew large and confident, and the horses down the hill on Sunil Pradesh's farm approached when they saw her, expecting food and kindness. The farthest we got to understanding what happened with her family was that there was a fire. When we talked of her past, she would cry and stare for hours at her matchstick house, stroking its contours and following its lines. In the evenings she sat on the mound by the big tree at sunset, holding the thing up to the light and peering inside, as if checking that her miniature world was still alive and well.

"So, where do you think Jhoti is now?" I ask.

Some of the children frown. All they know of home is the earth and the skies of our village. The world for them exists between their house and the school.

"I will tell you. She now has a job near Pokhara."

Since the age of fourteen, she has lived in a stable run by a second cousin of mine, near to the city.

"Jhoti is now sixteen. She grooms the horses, cleans the stables, and organises the equipment. She meets many tourists, who ride the horses up into the Himalaya. She loves her job because it is her calling."

The first break is approaching, and the children's minds are wandering towards feeling the sun on their skin, and dancing and playing football in the playground. Most of them have abandoned their pencils and paper, but Dinesh is finally writing something.

"Before you go outside, I want to show you one thing."

The eyes of the three girls in the front row light up. They will be the first to see. I unlock my desk drawer and carefully remove the matchstick house.

"This is now my most treasured possession, children. Jhoti gave this to me when she left for the stables. Pass it round very carefully."

I hand it to Neema and she seems surprised that such a basic toy could have entertained someone for years. After a few seconds, she passes it to the next child. It is a wonder it has survived so much handling.

"Remember, this girl could not speak, she could not communicate well or write, but when she left, she gave my family the only thing of value to her. Along with the tears of our goodbye, it was all she could leave us to keep our spirits connected.

Neema raised her hand. "And she can visit you anytime she wants."

"Yes," I say. "But she has her own life now, her calling."

Dinesh, who has been staring out of the window for these last few minutes finally gets his chance to look at the object. He stares in through the door, just as Jhoti used to, perhaps wondering what happened to all of the trouble and difficulty she kept locked inside it for years. They were kept with her now, but she had also outgrown them.

"Very good," I say. "You don't want to miss your turn playing football. Go outside and have fun.

Dinesh rushes to the door and gets there ahead of his classmates. "Thank you," he shouts. The children try to squeeze through at the same time and spill out onto the playground.

As I collect the papers, I am pleased to see Dinesh has written something on his.

Everyone has a calling. Others can help you find it.

This makes me smile. Next time I tell the story, I may use this line. I collect the boards, the pencils, and the other sheets of paper on the floor and return the matchstick house to its drawer.