Manhas tells this story while sitting in the SoDo office he commands as superintendent of Seattle Public Schools. He seems perfectly at home there, a man of the West with a master's degree in engineering from the University of Washington and a career in banking behind him. One can't quite forget that the lanky, jet-haired 58-year-old is an Indian native. For starters, there's the telltale way he pronounces his w's to sound like v's. But it's something in the background, easily put aside, unless you ask him about his past. As it happens, while Manhas begins to delve into his roots, an assistant brings in his just-taken official portrait, with the superintendent's full name underneath, highlighting his ethnicity even more. The name: Rajinder Singh Manhas.
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Manhas' middle name is a dead giveaway that he was born to a Sikh family, a not-insignificant fact for the time and place of his origin. "I'm one of those midnight children," he says, referring to Salman Rushdie's book about a man who comes to life at the dawn of India's independence in 1947. Manhas was in his mother's womb at the time, and his parents were caught in the religious and nationalistic strife that followed. As Sikhs living in what soon became the Muslim state of Pakistan, they were forced to leave their abundant farm. His parents traveled by caravan to the Indian side of the border, where they settled into a house abandoned by a Muslim family in the village of Saroya, nestled in the Himalayan foothills. When Manhas was born in early 1948, the family was considerably less well-off than before. But they had the house—Manhas sometimes slept on the roof, getting up in the middle of the night to look at the lights from a Hindu temple in the hills. And they had a few dozen acres of land, where they grew wheat, corn, and sugar cane.
When Manhas refers publicly to his beginnings, he usually mentions the primitive conditions of his village school. For the first three years, he learned his lessons outside, under the trees. He graduated to a schoolroom where students sat on the floor. It wasn't until ninth grade that he studied at a desk.
Decades later, after he made it to the prestigious Punjab Engineering College and then graduate school here, after he jumped from banking to public service and it became his job to think about education, he remains convinced that it's not material things that produce academic achievement but high expectations and a student's motivation. A central question for him: "How do you maintain that passion, that craving to excel?"
That doesn't necessarily put him in sync with the activist School Board, which as a whole has probably been more concerned with material things and their equitable distribution. It has been a roiling three years since Manhas took over as superintendent amid a financial crisis, and never more so than in the past year, as he initiated a cost-cutting effort that took us down the path of closing schools. "Last year, I knew I didn't have the support of the board," he says. He means support for closing schools but acknowledges that support for him generally has at times been less than enthusiastic. A devotee of yoga, meditation, and a book by author Parker Palmer called A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, Manhas says he is too connected with his inner self to let that get to him. "If I am afraid of losing my job, I can't be who I am."—Nina Shapiro
Raj Manhas' Picks:
Best Indian Restaurant: Preet's Casual Indian Dining in Redmond. "Real Punjabi food. A lot of other Indian food is made with lots of creams and is distorted."
Best Non-Indian Restaurant: For downtown lunches, Il Terrazzo Carmine. For pizza, Pagliacci. For nostalgia, Continental Restaurant, which serves Greek cuisine in the University District. "We used to eat there as students."
Best BookStore: Third Place Books. "I just love browsing there. I also love libraries. I love Suzzallo" at the University of Washington.
Best Getaway: Lake Chelan. "My kids have gone there since they were little. Another fun place is La Conner. A lot of times we just go for a drive. I just enjoy the vastness of the fields. It reminds me of Punjab."
Best Local Inspirational Figure: "I connect a lot with John Mangels," former chairman of Rainier Bank, where Manhas worked. "I kind of was raised in that bank."