Students Remember Berkeley High Teacher in Heartfelt Memorial

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Monday October 20, 2008 - 09:58:00 AM

Pink and green ceramic tiles—stacks of them—lay outside Berkeley High’s Community Theatre Thursday, waiting to be used to make a table honoring one of the school’s newest but most-loved teachers, who died from a heart attack in August while she was in the Phillipines on a Fulbright Scholarship.  

Students, friends and family of Kalpna Mistry, who had joined Berkeley’s International Baccalaureate program a year ago, gathered in the theatre a little before 6 p.m. to share memories and celebrate her life, which although short left an indelible mark on a remarkable number of people. 

“It’s for Ms. Mistry,” said Berkeley High sophomore Maisy Bolgatz, using her Squeeze pen to draw a simple pattern of hearts and flowers on a blank tile. Bolgatz was in Mistry’s Global Studies class last year and came up with the idea of a ceramic tile table along with her classmate Vivian Ponte-Fritz. 

“We were thinking of doing a mosaic at first—a portrait of her—but we decided that since there were so many people who wanted to contribute that it will be better to do a table,” said Ponte-Fritz, who performed Bharatnatyam, a classical Indian dance, at the end of the memorial. 

The table will be placed in the school library or in the gallery in Building C where students' artwork is displayed, she said. 

The line leading to the tiles grew longer every minute with Mistry’s family, cousins, students and colleagues pausing to write something or admire someone else’s handiwork. 

“English class is fun and I really miss you and I know you are watching always, L. Mills,” wrote sophomore Latifah Mills with a green pen. 

Kalpna’s sisters Priya and Rakhee Mistry stood nearby watching her. 

“The students have been fantastic,” Priya said. “I was sitting with the students hearing about Kalpna and it’s easy to see that even though she has been here for only a year she has made a big impression on them.” 

She later told the audience that although Mistry made her students answer some tough questions during their last finals, she always wanted them to have fun. 

“After question 22, she writes: ‘Now whisper your favorite ice cream,’” Priya said, reading aloud from one of Mistry’s tests. “After question 26, she writes: ‘Now say mmmm’ ... She loved you guys. I want you to leave here today knowing that you gave her an opportunity to do what she loved—teach.” 

Mistry’s mother Ramaben Mistry looked at an altar the school had put together to display some of Kalpna’s favorite things. Among the green and red bangles, Indian jewelry and saree, books—one of them was “Sally Goes to Sea” written by Kalpana when she was in elementary school—and the awards she had won was a travel book on the Philippines. 

“That’s because she went on that trip to the Philippines,” she said, pausing. 

Mistry’s sisters told the Planet that although no definite conclusion had been drawn about what happened on that fateful day two months back when Mistry died, autopsy results had revealed that she had been born with small arteries, a condition they said the family had been previously unaware of but had also been present in their grandfather. 

Mistry’s parents Amratlal and Ramaben immigrated to the United States from Zambia in 1976, following which her father started a photography studio in the Bay Area. When competition from digital photography forced Amratlal Mistry to close his business two years ago, he took up a job with Sears. 

Mistry, who graduated from Mountain View High School, pursued a bachelor’s degree in social welfare and international development studies from UC Berkeley, graduating in 2003 and went on to get her master’s degree in education from Harvard University four years later. 

Mistry’s husband Sidarth Khoshoo was also at Thursday’s memorial. 

“From a very young age she was interested in education,” Mistry’s mother said. “She was always upfront and as she grew up she had a lot of friends. And she loved books. Actually she had so many books that she had to give them away to the library.” 

Nestled among some of Mistry’s favorite food—strawberries, cookies, Indian sweetmeats and chai—was “Kaffir Boy” by Mark Mathabane, a book about a young black boy’s coming to age in apartheid South Africa, and Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel.” 

Mistry’s wall clock, which never had the standard time but simply said “time to learn,” lay next to a deity of Ganesh. 

Students and teachers of the International Baccalaureate program spoke about Mistry’s quest for social justice and her painstaking efforts to close the achievement gap at Berkeley High. 

“When I think of Kalpna, all these images flash through my mind,” said Ross Parker, one of Mistry’s colleagues who taught on the same floor as her. “When I walk past her room everyday I feel I will still see her in her Cal sweatshirt, with her scarf on even if it’s 80 degrees outside, making gigantic packets for the freshmen or arranging dinner for a group of parents ... I realized that there was something very different about Kalpana because she didn’t wait for anyone to ask for her help. If there was a way to connect she would reach out to make that happen.” 

Berkeley High Principal Jim Slemp described Mistry as “an extraordinary teacher and friend,” an advocate for the underdogs. 

Mistry’s former students Lucy Sundelson and Rina Li described how Mistry worked hard to put together a trip to Sacramento earlier this year to protest Gov. Arnold Schwarzenenger’s proposed budget cuts to state education funds.  

“She would only eat a bite or two at lunch,” Sundelson said, describing Mistry’s dedication to her students. “She once told me that her lunch consisted of five almonds because her students had to talk to her.” 

Two funds have been created in Mistry’s honor:  

The Kalpna Mistry Memorial Fund, which will support a summer institute for entering freshmen at Berkeley High School, and  

The Kalpna Mistry Memorial Fellowship Fund at Harvard University, which will be directed toward teachers who wish to work with youth on behalf of increasing social justice in the world.