Interview with Brian “Bajrang” Powers

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A School could have no better friend than Brian (Bajrang) Powers. Interviewing him for this section was, for me, extremely uplifting. His enthusiasm and ability to incorporate the Education for Life principles into his projects, classes, and adventures with students is endlessly inspiring.

Brian’s journey with our children began in 1991, coaching the girls’ softball team. This team became famous in the league without having a single winning season. What they were known for was their infectious enthusiasm and generosity of spirit.

A project that received worldwide attention was a girls’ auto restoration class, “Team Sprite”. They turned a rusted vintage sports car body and 21 boxes of unlabeled parts into a show car that went on to establish a new record price when it sold at auction. Their website has over 16,000 hits; check it out!

Something harder to get Brian to talk about but appreciated by the school, is the way that Brian has continually turned his enthusiasm into money for special projects. What inspires this outflow from people outside the school family is seeing students involved in such life-changing experiences.

Good afternoon Brian. Thank you so much for sharing with us your experiences with the Living Wisdom school students. When and how did you begin to work with students – through the school or extra curricular activities?

I can actually remember the day, almost the moment I realized I wanted to work with children. In 1991 Irene was the coach for our 9-12 year old girl’s softball team, and she asked me, since we were short on fans, if I would come and root for the team at a game in town. I was completely smitten, such enthusiasm and joy, and such supportive energy. As I recall it was only a very short time before Irene was called to something else and I found myself in the role of a girl’s softball coach. Bear in mind here, that I knew nothing whatsoever about softball, and even less about 9-12 year old girls, but I was thrilled by the challenge. This was an incredible group of girls.

The teams were formed according to where you lived in the county, and because there weren’t many kids in the surrounding area who wanted to play softball, we barely had enough players to make up a team. By the third year we had Nevada City parents asking if they could “fudge” the question of where they lived so their girls could play on our team. Our kids brought popcorn or watermelon to the games for the other team, and cheered when they made a good play. In eight years we only won three games, but we were the only team invited by the league champions to join their “end of the season” victory parties. The Ananda Angels were little red-shirted ambassadors for our our school.

And wasn’t there an old school bus that the team fixed up?

Yes, I bought a small school bus that needed a little cosmetic attention, and it became a project for the girls. We altered and dressed up the interior, and then turned it over to all the school kids who then painted the outside with cartoons and animals and things only they could identify.

What are some of the more interesting groups/projects you have done with students?

The Music was certainty a fun and rewarding adventure that had far reaching effects and a long life. It all really came about because of a failed experiment during a Jr. High Poetry class, and a discussion about contemporary music lyrics. It was right around the time that popular music started to take yet another ugly twist, and I was trying to make the point that when you repeatedly expose yourself to something so angry and discordant over long periods of time, it’s not unreasonable to expect it to negatively influence your moods and general outlook on life. In an attempt to illustrate this I placed a large goldfish bowl full of clear water on the corner of my desk, and each morning after our opening circle, put a single drop of black ink in the water; the idea being, though you couldn’t say when it began to turn gray, it was evident that it was happening, yet no single drop by itself was responsible for the change. It was, I thought, a brilliant demonstration because the drops were so tiny.

Unfortunately the very point, how slowly the water changed, was the downfall of the experiment and it was becoming one of those lessons that are better related than experienced. They were all growing bored with it before the water had a chance to change much. As I was staring forlornly at the bowl one morning, trying to think how I might rescue the project, one of the girls asked what music I listened to at their age. Saved! The following day I brought in a guitar and played some Kingston Trio, Weavers, Dylan and other “folk” tunes. I was prepared for the eye-rolling and awkward sideways glances that earmark 12-14 year olds when an adult is waxing nostalgic. To my delight they became very enthusiastic, calling the tunes “happy” and “fun.” Two of the girls asked if I’d teach them those songs on guitar; and that’s where it all began. I dug up half a dozen guitars that had been languishing in community closets; and playing together became a welcome daily treat for all of us, it started at lunch, soon it was almost every day in class for thirty to forty minutes.

I asked Rick Toles, a truly amazing and versatile local musician to come in and play for us, and he brought “Dude” the violin with a brain, everyone was enthralled. Under Rick’s guidance Anna, Bailey, Lauren and, I think, one or two others took up the fiddle – that’s violin playing with attitude, bad posture and foot tapping. We had a high school student teaching flute, and someone else, keyboard. Rick taught standup bass and penny whistle as well. We had three walls full of instruments; a banjo, mandolin, lute, bass, piano…it looked like a music store. When my droning on about synapses, Sputnik or Eminent Domain was turning into a nap time, we would take a music break! And we turned out some very good musicians that year. The Fiddlesticks were born out of those sessions. Bailey, Lauren, Anna and I made up the group, and Dylan played guitar with us for about a year.

Once we had a name, it became real. I built a music studio above my garage and we would practice and have pizza for two hours every Thursday night. Leiya, not yet thirteen, joined as a singer a year or so later, and we continued playing together for the next 6 or 7 years! We performed at the Draft Horse Classic at the fairgrounds for five years, the Malakoff Diggins Opening Day event, the Alzheimer center in town, and various other venues. We even played for the animals at the pound! We recorded a CD in our studio as a Christmas present for friends and family, and sold them at our community market and on-line, it was actually quite good. A man I did some consulting work for in Reno heard it and ordered 500 to send out with his Christmas cards all over the World. I remember Leiya asking, “Does he really know 500 people?” Believe it or not, we have a thank you note on White House stationary from Dick Cheney hanging in the music room. The girls donated the profits from the CD sales to the Red Cross Hurricane Katrina Fund, a nice testimony to their character.

Didn’t you also go with the girls to India?

Yes, we continued playing together once a week right through High School, and in 2005 the girl’s High School class traveled to India. Kristen Jones, another student in the class, and a very accomplished violinist, became an honorary Fiddlestick and performed with us. We played at a couple of orphanages and country schools. We played and the Indian children would dance for us, it was a wonderful exchange. We also played for Vanamali Devi, Gyananda, and for Yogananda’s family at his boyhood home in Kolkata. India was a fantastic experience for our girls; they were the perfect age for it, and to see it through their eyes was an incredible blessing and privilege. Every orphanage, every home, everywhere we went, the girl’s hearts were wide open; they were missionaries and ambassadors. Our kids could see so much more than most adults with whom I’ve traveled. The girls were able to look past the poverty and the lack, and go right to the joy. I was moved to the point of tears numerous times.

You have traveled with Living Wisdom School students on other occasions.

Travel is, for kids, such an incredible vehicle for growth. My first Jr. High class was the one that took themselves to England and Scotland for our Spring trip. Traditionally, on the first day of school we discuss where the class might like to go, and one of the girls asked if we could go to Disneyland. “Sure,” I replied, “but just for fun, let’s think bigger.” There was a tentative: “Grand Canyon,” and then a bolder “New York City.” Then Stephie said, “I want to go to England.” Everyone went quiet, waiting, I suppose, for me to suggest we keep our heads. I explained that it would take a lot of fundraising, and a serious curriculum that would support it, and followed with “do you think you are up to that?” The rest, as they say, is history. The following week we drove to town and opened a checking account with all their names on it, established an eBay account to sell donated items, and composed fundraising letters. As you can imagine, the project generated a great deal of family and community support. In class, we studied England and Scotland through history, literature, art and music. We even had Uma give classes on etiquette once a week. That prepared us for a formal tea at the Ritz Hotel in London, with everyone dressed up. It was fantastic.

When we’d raised enough to cover the trip, we asked if individuals in the community would be willing to sponsor a single student to attend a London play, at a cost of around $50. The response was so great the entire class was able to enjoy performances of Phantom of the Opera, Cats, and Les Miserables. Krishnabai and Derrick came along to give me a hand; and the three of us surprised the kids early one morning with a day trip to Paris via the Channel. Perhaps I’m overstating, but I believe those kids pulled off a life changing event. The “will years” are an age where they need big challenges, big projects, and taking themselves, as 7th and 8th graders, to London and Scotland was definitely something to be proud of.

Those of us who have followed your creative projects over the years were very impressed with the wonderful work you did remodeling a car, taking it from simply old parts to a thing of beauty. Could you tell us about that?

Gladly, one of my favorite subjects! At some point, I think it was early summer of 2005, Bailey and Leiya asked me if I would teach them about cars, how they worked and how to fix them! They wondered if it could be made into a class. I’ve found that if the timing and the idea are right, if you don’t get behind it, it will probably run over you. A very short time later a friend in Reno was lamenting the fact that his 1958 Austin Healy Sprite, after sitting in pieces for close to fifteen years, had to go. Affectionately know as “Bug Eyed Sprites,” they are true classics, perfect for this project and for this group because they are small, simple, and equally important, incredibly cute. If you come upon one in a parking lot you want to go up and pat it. Four of the girls plus me came up with $500 each, borrowed a flatbed from Ananda Construction, drove to Reno and returned with a rusted body and 21 cardboard boxes of unlabeled parts.

One of the fantastic things about Living Wisdom School is our flexibility if a worthwhile project becomes available. There were another two girls that showed interest, so we had a group of six. Nitai and Hridaya worked it into an official class, for an hour and a half, every Thursday. I modified my garage into a nice shop, bought some coveralls and sewed on patches that proclaimed “Team Sprite” over each girl’s name. Very early in the project the decision was made to restore “Mr. Toad” to the way he looked on his birthday in 1958. Kent White, widely known as one of the best metal-men in the country gave a series of classes on bodywork, which played a major part in the quality of the finished car.

We put up a website, and to our amazement, e-mails began arriving from all over the world. The website had a page called “Our Wish List,” where we detailed the rarer parts we were hunting, and this inadvertently led to one of the most important lesson of the project. Total strangers would send us a needed and unavailable part, right off their own car, and not even accept reimbursement for the shipping. Our kids aren’t exactly isolated, but the picture the media paints of the world out there doesn’t find generosity, kindness and encouragement exactly newsworthy; with billboards, MTV, and music all shouting, “It’s all about me.”

We were thrilled that this little school in the foothills began appearing in magazine articles both in the US and England. The Austin Healey Owners Club magazine put the car on their cover and devoted five full pages, with color photos, to the restoration. I can go on for a long time on this, but to bring it to a close, the most prestigious “classic car” auction company in the country heard about the project and offered to auction the car without charging a fee or taking a percentage of the selling price, at their January Phoenix sale. This sale attracts the most knowledgeable and discriminating of collectors. It was a fantastic offer, but also very scary: it was already mid October and our car was still spread all over the shop. We really had to push to make that deadline. In fact, we pieced it together for Barbara Bingham to take the catalogue photographs, and then had to take it back apart and finish it properly. We worked through the Christmas break, and the finished car was loaded onto the auction company’s truck with less than two miles on the odometer. I clocked those two miles doing figure eights in the loading lot just before pulling up the ramps for the Sprite’s trip to Phoenix.

I really wanted the girls to experience, in the flesh, the enormity of what they had accomplished, so Lisa and I took Gaurja, Bailey and Leiya to Phoenix to prep the car for the public preview, and to watch the auction. The girls charmed everyone during the preview, explaining what was done, and answering questions. There was a laptop running a slide show of the restoration process next to the car, and everyone was blown away. Usually the only women you see around automotive shops are on calendars, holding a wrench or a spark plug like it was a vial of Anthrax, but here were these articulate, vivacious young ladies standing next to the cutest little car in the show; there seemed an endless drone of cooing. They were interviewed by an LA radio station, and even ESPN TV, where they spoke mostly about how terrific all the people were who encouraged them and donated “impossible to find” parts, and little about what a remarkable “team” they themselves were. The car set the world’s record price for a Sprite at auction of $23,100.

What were some of the main tools, experiences, lessons that the girls learned from this project?
On a mundane level, that most mechanical things, from pencil sharpeners to internal combustion engines, work on just a few simple principles, and that most things can be fixed with a little mechanical understanding and the proper tools. Not to be afraid of tools, and I guess, if it is already broken, and doesn’t belong to your dad, why not take it apart and try to see why it isn’t working? The big one, in my eyes, was the goodness of complete strangers, but there were numerous others: team-work, flexibility and compromise (working through differences), perseverance, critical thinking, commitment to a goal and standard, the ability to improvise, aesthetics, sharing in others successes and appreciation for their achievements, self discipline, managing money, that skills are not defined by gender, and, of course, that girls in coveralls are cuter than boys in coveralls. In the effort to gain some confidence on the everyday physical plane, we also rewired defective table-lamps; fixed leaking garden hoses, replaced burned out AC outlets and washers in faucets, and even fixed a few dents on community cars.

These girls can (or at least could) change a tire, replace a wiper blade or fuse, diagnose everyday automotive problems and noises, and they understand how mechanical things work. I fantasize an exchange that goes something like this: “Dad, I noticed your fan belt squeaking again. I dressed it and it’s ok now, but Dad, you need to learn how to do this yourself, I won’t always be around.”

You made a very dynamic website for the project, is that right?

Yes we did. Last time I checked there were over 16,000 hits on that site and it still is very active. It was so gratifying, I could sit there all day and waffle on about what a cool thing they were doing, but three solid pages of e-mails from all over the world, schools praising our school, six magazine articles, and the car appeared on three different calendars; it’s all there on the site. Please, please check it out. And…just to mention, there is a new team and a new car. You can the find the “Team Isetta” link on the Sprite site. We even had a telephone call from Jay Leno, a car buff himself, thanking us for some pictures we sent. Unfortunately he got my answering machine, but still, that was pretty cool.

Brian, you are known also for your innovative Creative Writing course. Could you tell us some of the ways in which you get students excited about writing?

Well, I think I do it a little differently than most writing teachers. We work with voice and technique of course, but there is also a focus on learning about ourselves through writing. A real favorite through the years has been “Mr. Munchy.” I have a large paper shredder with a sign on it that says US POST, and we start the class with a writing assignment of 30 seconds to 15 minutes. They are asked to write continually for the entire time; when the time is up they fold their work in thirds, draw a stamp on the upper right corner and address it to “Mr. Munchy.” Then they take their ‘letter’ to the Post Box (shredder) and mail it. There is no concern about spelling, grammar, or whether something is good or bad, it’s a sort of automatic writing, but without any fear of judgment.

The subjects are sometimes light, sometimes quite serious ones, but almost always ones they have not had occasion to think much about. By the second or third week I set a box with a slot cut in the top next to the “Post Box”, and, if they want me to look at what they wrote they slip it in the box. The students can put an S or R under the stamp for me to shred it or return it after reading; a C means they would like my comments. In a class of ten, by the third or forth time almost everything will go in the box. It took a few years to iron out some kinks, but it’s become a real favorite.

What kinds of topics would be typical for that assignment?

The assignments vary according to age, and what’s going on interpersonally, because you can work almost anything in as long as they know it will not be seen by anyone else. It’s also as much about getting them to visit new places as it is about writing. Some of the fun questions might be:

1. What do you hope you remember about being a kid when you are a parent? I save these for sometime in the distant future when they might get a good chuckle, or a good lesson from them.

2. What do you think is the hardest part about being a parent, how about a teacher?

3. There is a little known secret pocket in your soul just big enough for a piece of paper with five short sentences, what advice would you like to take into your next life.

4. Your friend’s big brother (or dad) has picked you both up from a movie and is driving too fast and recklessly on the way home. How can you get him to slow down without making him feel foolish or embarrassing your friend? A sharing of ideas and discussion follows this. We have done role-playing with this one, trying out the various scenarios. In fact, I had a ex-student tell me that she got herself out of a potentially dangerous situation using exactly the role-playing techniques she learned in the “Munchy” class three years before.

5. When your parents take the family car or a vacuum cleaner in to be repaired, the shop attaches a tag stating what needs correcting. If you could attach a repair tag to your toe tonight listing things you would like God to fix while you’re asleep, what would it say? Followed by: Do you think God would have any comment to add to the bottom of the tag? And then, what part can you play to help God with the repair, starting today?

You get the idea, if someone has experienced the death of a loved one, young or old, I’ll ask them to write a letter to tell that person how they remember them, what part they played in the writer’s life, and then fill the person in on what they, the writer, are doing with their life.

I have a notebook full of these, but they are often born of what’s “in the air” that day. For instance, if there’s an evident dispute between friends, I’ll sometimes ask the class to remember the last disagreement they had with someone they cared about and then take the other person’s side. These are also very much age related. A “Munchy” question I’ve had fun with for the older high school students is: “I can see nothing worthwhile in this life, and am standing on a ledge; you have 60 seconds to talk me down.” No matter what the subject, when I’m given a chance to read their papers, I’m often astonished at the depth they can express from that place of safety. And, once they look at it themselves, they’re also surprised, and then, of course, they want more! They may also take their new insights and build on them, perhaps to make a story or a poem.

Another stumbling point for young writers is how to start a story. I put together a collection of story openings called “Where do I begin?” They run anywhere from two or three lines to three pages, with most being around three or four paragraphs. There are over fifty of them, covering a wide range in complexity and themes, so there’s something there for everyone. For those looking for a real challenge, there’s also a group of story endings. The idea is to just get them writing, to dispel that automatic feeling of inability that settles in before one even begins. This gets them going, and when they have a good bit done, they’re usually ready to go back and write their own beginning. They gain confidence because they’re producing something, and from that confidence springs original work.

We’ve had some success with the younger writers by taking children’s comic books and whiting out the text, so the characters just have these empty bubbles, which the kids fill in with their own dialogue. Some go on to creating their own comic, doing both the art and text. I remember some of the 5th /6th grade kids and I formed a “Future Famous Writers Club” in 1998. We’d meet at my house one evening a week and read aloud our stories seated in the “Famous Authors” chair, there’s a very sweet picture of that on Facebook.

What is it like teaching, and also learning, from pre-teens and teenagers?

Exhilarating, ever-changing, certainly challenging at times, but by far the most rewarding and inspiring thing I’ve ever undertaken. The “Will Years” kids have the energy to do anything they want to do, and the world will open its arms to that kind of energy. But they want action, not theory. So it’s our job to stay light-footed and alert to how we, as adult friends and teachers, can best serve them. It’s important to be trustworthy, to ‘walk our talk” and to be aware that it’s our responsibility to advise and redirect them if we see that they are embarking on something that might be hurtful to themselves or others. I believe they expect that from us. J. Donald Walter’s (Swami Kriyananda)’s book, “Education for Life” will someday change the face of education. It may actually be our children who accomplish that, but I believe it will happen. We are clearly doing something right. I keep in contact with most of my old students and they are joyful, centered, adventuresome young adults. Most have traveled extensively and are engaged in worthwhile pursuits, and when they commit to a relationship, they seem to choose terrific life companions. It’s a privilege to have been along for the ride.

Interview by Durga Smallen