A Parting Conversation with Barbara Block

A Parting Conversation with Barbara Block
Alumni Office

It is always difficult to say farewell to those who have come to love as a community. After 35 years of service to KIS, Ms Barbara Block (Class of ‘76) has retired and returned back to her home in Canada.

Barbara’s history with Kodai School begins in 1965 when she joined in second grade. She recounts those initial traumatic days as a young child, writing tear-dried letters to her parents mostly with drawings and few words. With the help of school life, activities and church, she soon outgrew her homesickness. Then senior, Priscilla Mohl recounts seeing Barbara always walking around with her eyes glued to a book in hand. Barbara left Kodai School in 1971 and graduated from Good Shepard School, Ethiopia in 1976.

Barbara later joined KIS as a staff member in July 1987. Initially as an elementary art teacher, later helping to establish a strong IB Diploma Arts program for high school students. Gradually Barbara takes up the role of Middle School Coordinator and then High School Coordinator. She also helped manage the Hiking program gaining over 27 tahr pins and 2 Fudge-it pins. Not to mention, Barbara was instrumental in revamping the entire hiking program from a point-based system to a tier-based model, that awarded a tahr pin on the basis of completing a set number of hikes per tier.

Barbara Gail Block

Having someone with a great institutional memory, we decided to take the opportunity to interview Barbara to summarize her experiences.

Most influential teacher

Definitely John Wiebe, my 6th-grade teacher. He really encouraged my art, and I now know a love of hiking too. When completing a class mural that depicted time from dinosaurs to early civilization up to the present, I was assigned the more challenging ‘caveman’ era to paint. I handled the task with ease.

He told me I could doodle in my notes as much as I wanted, as long as my doodles showed the topic being discussed. This was his way of knowing that I was listening. I doodled my notes through college and even had a college professor ask me to do it ‘on screen’ for the whole class to watch, through one lesson.

State 3 words you would use to describe the community at school

Caring, Vibrant, Versatile.

What makes the KIS Staff experience very special?

As with students, there are staff groupings - natural gatherings based on origins or interests, like ‘Hindi-speakers’, ‘hikers’, and ‘overseas staff’. These groups have never been ‘closed’, they cross, mix, and are welcoming others to join.

I’ve had months of eating lunch with the Hindi-speaking staff, on the lawn, as many were also ‘hikers’. I’ve been part of Onam celebrations, and Pongal Kollam making. We have organized Canadian and American Thanksgiving for all staff and friends. I have enjoyed staff potlucks, cooking competitions, and gatherings big and small. We share these experiences, our cultures, our frustrations and our joys. This is what makes our KIS Staff experience authentic and special.

Name 3 of your most memorable experiences as a KIS Staff Member

Wow, this is REALLY hard! I couldn’t stop at 3. I have both happy and sad memories - which come naturally with the territory of being at KIS for so long. We have had our good share of experiences, ups and downs as a school. Here are some of mine:

  1. Many years ago, the school student and maintenance strikes that shut the school down for several days. The hurt and pain associated with that event are something one cannot forget.
  2. Another painful memory, almost two decades ago, was a theological difference among Christians of different perspectives. It hurt me to hear some of our Buddhist teachers ask, ‘If you are fighting each other, what will happen to me as a Buddhist?’. Although he didn’t need to worry, both factions would have agreed on that. But it hurt that he felt this way.

    So glad that when healing took place I was able to hug friends as we parted, despite the differences we had on what being a Christian at KIS meant. Having differences is only natural, the fact that we can respect each other for it makes us better individuals.
  3. My time spent at Bethania. I often would end a hike at Bethania, or take my art students down for an overnight or weekend. The joy of visiting Bethania was seeing KIS students interact with the children in the home while painting the walls, cleaning the chapel, learning to pick tamarinds, or making brooms from coconut leaves.
  4. Field trips - all of them really! I could list them all. I enjoyed every moment with my students and took the opportunity to bond with them.

You have seen the school and the church change, transform, and go through ups and downs. What would be some of your key observations over these 35 years about our community here in Kodai?

I think I answer this by responding to “Why did I stay at KIS?”

Initially, every time I thought of moving on, needing a change, I was offered a new role at KIS.

On the other hand, when KIS faced difficult times of crisis and challenge, I felt very much ‘called to stay at KIS’. I felt I could represent what KIS was called to be, and could be again. The biggest pain in those years was how the community was torn apart, and the biggest joys were in how it returned.

Describe how hiking captured your interest as a child and continued as a staff member. What was it about hiking that made it so special to you?

John Wiebe, my 6th-grade teacher took me on my first hikes to Gundar Falls and to Tope. I also guess hiking was in my genes as my parents would always take us on walks to explore as young kids in what was then Andhra (the Deveraconda fort, Wanaparthy rock hill), and we even did hiking and camping in Canada as well.

Being able to go on hikes was more about being outdoors and close with nature. Through hiking I could take in new scenes and places. As I repeated many hikes, I didn’t get bored, I still found new discoveries, insects, different views, and changing paths.

My favourite hikes always had a great swimming spot, water slide, or waterfall jumps and rock hopping up or downstream. Some of these favorites have been Gundar Lower Falls, Palani, towards the base of Rattail Falls, Kukkal to Kudriyar, 7 Sisters Waterfalls, and more recently Truly Amazing Traverse, and Secret Stream.

Barbara Gail Block

Name 2 of your most memorable hiking experiences

  1. Once on the 80-mile round second-day hike, a staff member was lost. The staff went off-road to use the bushes and came back, turning the wrong way. I assigned staff member, Bryan Plymale and student, Kevin Jeyaprakash to backtrack and look for her. If they found her late, they were to go to Marion Shola and catch the school vehicle across to Poondi or Kavunji, and rejoin the last day of hiking. Luckily, we marked every turn and shortcut with arrows. Several hours later, they caught up, having found the staff member near the Marion Shola junction, and they decided they could catch up with the hike by tea time. So, they literally ran most of the hike until they met us and we continued together.
  2. On another 80-mile round where we lost the trail somewhere along the Berijam Ridge, in the old potato farm section, now overgrown with wattle. We went too much to the right on a bison trail and found ourselves atop a steep hill never seen before. We then decided to go on rather than backtrack, and by heading north through a swamp at one point we found the Berijam to Munnar road. Walking in a few hours late to Marion Shola reaching before dark.

    On the way, we picked up a huge bison skull near a ‘giant’ eucy in the shola stretch. Two high school boys and I decided the skull had to stay with us, so we took turns carrying it, holding it by its horns around our shoulders, all the way to Marion Shola.
  3. I also enjoyed our high school tahr camps at Manjampatti (hiking down the Kukkal ridge once), MS camp at Tope, or in the Pallangi-Kombai forest. I remember once we had a high school tahr camp on the Kukkal to Kudriyar route, and several HS tahr camps ‘on the last plantation before forest lands’, above Manjular Dam. This continued until we were no longer given permission to camp on forest lands. Other hikes include hiking via Rattail Falls, exploring upstream towards the base of the falls as close as we could do without hiking ropes.
Barbara Gail Block

Name some of your involvements in the Kodai community and beyond.

Social Experience – the first was Whitewashing Bliss Villa huts with middle school students, visits to Mercy Home, and chaperoning high school students to help install smokeless stoves. More recently the National Honor Society garden, transitioned into the SEED garden, with a ‘staff and kids’ gardening group that started in lockdown and still continues to this day.

The Friday Club – a drama reading club where the KMU library community and KIS staff members got to interact. First, we met every Friday, then Thursdays, then once a month, and eventually this faded away when many became too old to make it to the group meetings, and several key members also passed away. I also enjoyed the KMU Library and its annual social gatherings - birthdays and especially the Christmas programs.

KSPCA – trying to fundraise for ABC programs, fostering orphaned or ‘drowned out’ puppies until homes could be found. The goal of a permanent ‘pet vet’ in Kodai is yet to be realized.

Bethania Association – I was President for many years, helping to run the Kannivadi Bethania Home along with Priscilla Mohl. Years of going down there, often with a group of KIS students to do social experience. I enjoyed walking with the kids from home to the mountain pool or up the hills. I took the children from the Home to Poondi camp (twice). I also served as a transition member with Bethania Kids, when we finally turned the home over to a non-profit to run (having exhausted our funding resources).

The Fudge it Hike –This was a fun program that I set up for staff families (parents and kids) as lockdown eased, to get out, socialize and explore. Initially starting with groups of 5 (two parents, 3 kids and myself), it soon grew to a larger group of 10, then more, but with parents ‘in charge’ of the kids, and me in charge of planning.

My dog Fudge was picked as a mascot by the students on one early hike. They crowned her with lantana blossoms and we joked about ‘fudging it’. Since our hikes were initially mini hikes, then easy A hikes, finally working up to B’s, and one C for a few at the very end (which turned out to be more of a D hike). We ‘fudged’ the MS hike requirements, which kept parents involved more, and allowed Grade 4 and 5 to also join the hikes.

Parting words of advice to students and staff members

Try everything you can: Kodai School (KIS) is full of wonderful experiences.

Hike at least into the B hike range. Try the ‘Truly Awesome Traverse’ (in the dry season), or get to Secret Stream. Both of these have amazing swim spots, forest sections, and dolmens to explore.

Volunteer to chaperone, Social Experience (SEED/CEH) programs are a great way to get involved with the town community and step out of campus.

Walk around school campuses and town. Find all the walking paths on Highclerc, Ganga Loch End and Central hill! It is amazing what treasures you can find close to home. Walk, bike or boat on the lake at least once a semester. Visit the old cemetery to see the first graves in Kodai, or the Laws Ghat one (and find KIS staff).

See class camps and field trips as a wonderful opportunity (not a duty!). You will get to interact and know your students, especially your advisees in a very different and special way!

Plan more than just advisee dinners – find activities that get you to do more than ‘just eat together’. Walk around the lake, up to Lookout and Jaffna to see the ‘jewel box’ at night; play games in your house or on campus; challenge another advisee group for outdoor games on Bendy, Loch End, or East Hill. Find out how to play KIS traditional games like Flashlight Beckon, and Capture the Flag. You can either add newer ones like Sardines or Hungarian Capture the Flag and even re-introduce Kabadi at camp or Duck, Duck, Goose or Murder. Play them at camp, on field trips, with your advisees or on class evenings. Don’t wait for Activities to plan everything. Pick a Friday or Saturday and do your own class activity!

Go to Staff social events. The more you join, the richer your life will be, and the more meaningful your memories are!

If it fits you, go to prayer breakfasts, dorm devotions, Teen Dimensions or Christian Endeavors, which are also ways you can make a real difference (or maybe find they really change you more). Once a student said, when I arrived for dorm devotions ‘you really love us’!

And I do think, more than anything else, find multiple ways to show how you care.

Barbara Gail Block