Charleston native teaching likely Dalai Lama successor

Wednesday, January 7, 2015


SEMO News Service

Even after living out of the United States for half of her life, Mary Catherine Frazier can't escape her Southern roots.

She has spent decades devoted to volunteer work, teaching English, publishing books, consulting with international schools on six of the seven continents and even teaching a world religious leader. Her knowledge of teaching English and understanding the way a language is taught and processed has lead her to write two books about it.

However, when talking about her hometown of Charleston, Missouri, the born-and-bred country girl makes a brief appearance.

"I was born and raised right here in the Bootheel," Frazier said. "At the confluence. I grew up right on that river. I learned to water ski on the banks of the Ohio and the Mississippi."

After leaving Missouri, Frazier and her husband, Richard, biked around Europe and worked for the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, West Africa. Frazier studied for her master's degree in Spain, co-authored an English language series for primary students in Singapore, traveled back to Missouri with her family for her doctoral degree, and now is living in New Delhi, teaching at the American Embassy School.

"I guess I am kind of hard to keep up with," Frazier said with a grin. "My husband and my journeys started off very early, with everybody knowing we were going to be a little different than the local people -- in terms of wanting to have adventure."

The Fraziers raised their two children as "third-culture kids," meaning they are American passport holders, but did not live in the U.S. the majority of their time growing up.

"Once our kids were grown and had their jobs, we started wondering, 'Well, what are mom and dad going to do?' We always really wanted to live overseas again, so we got leaves from our jobs to go over and work in India at the American Embassy School," she said.

It was while working there that Frazier received the greatest shock of her life: being asked to teach English to the successor to the Dalai Lama, Ogyen Trinley Dorje.

"It's so profoundly humbling," Frazier said. "[By that time I had my] career in publishing, consulting, as an author, and all that was great, but who would have ever thought that I would be asked to teach His Holiness, the Karmapa?

"And that was something that never was in the game plan for me in my life. I mean, it's just too unbelievable. You know it's like --" Frazier paused. "I don't even know what it's like. It's so big, and it's so special and it's so extraordinary."

Ogyen Trinley Dorje was deemed the 17th reincarnation of the Karmapa -- one of the most revered figures in Tibetan Buddhism -- when he was 7 years old.

Frazier explained that in the Buddhist culture, there is the Dalai Lama, who has served as the political and spiritual leader of Tibet since 1642, and then there is the Karmapa.

"[With] the Dalai Lama, there are no successors within that branch. They're like family names -- the Karmapa is like a group, the Lamas are like a group ... because there's even been a debate ... [that future successors] will not be called Dalai Lama, they will just be called the Karmapa, His Holiness, but you have to go through all these series of happenings in order to qualify for you to get that title. Well, the Dalai Lama has supported the man I teach to be his successor," Frazier explained.

Their lessons began two years ago, with one-on-one instruction, and eventually moving the Karmapa's education to Frazier's ninth-grade English class.

When asked if Frazier taught the Karmapa differently than any other student, she paused and answered, "Yes and no."

"'No' in the sense that I have so many degrees now in how to teach language, I was very confident ... in the theory of what I needed to do. I knew how to do it, I knew my goal was communicative," she said. "I did not need to teach him to become an academic, where he could study at university and have enough English for that -- that was never my goal. I just needed him to be able to get out into a public audience and say something in English."

Frazier said when she first suggested the idea of moving the Karmapa's classes, she was met with some resistance, some even calling her idea crazy, but she knew it was going to work.

"I said, 'Let's just put him in with the Germans and the Hebrews and the Arabic speakers and Korean and Japanese and we'll just put him in my class. ... I wanted him to be immersed in the English setting, where he would be forced to have to speak," Frazier said.

This continued as the Karmapa's schedule allowed, and in the past year he spoke English publicly for the first time at the American Embassy School in New Delhi.

"I started crying, I was so moved," Frazier said. "I couldn't believe this had happened and then I couldn't believe I was sitting in this public audience and he was speaking English."

Frazier said teaching the Karmapa was unlike anything before. She said he learned so quickly and made a lot of progress in a short amount of time, because of his motivation and his insatiable eagerness to learn.

"He speaks three or four languages now; Korean, I think Japanese, and Tibetan, and Hindi, and Urdu and Chinese, so he had adopted a lot of those languages and his English is coming along," Frazier said.

With time, the Fraziers have gotten to know the Karmapa, and even invited him to have dinner in their home. Many may think it would be surreal to share a meal with a world religious leader, but Frazier just referred back to her Southern roots.

"My mama always said, 'We have a tradition down where I'm from, that once you get into somebody's kitchen and sit at their kitchen table with them, you're family.' So after we had finished eating I just looked at him and said, 'You're family now."

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