Both Sides of the Desk and Stage: Faculty Spotlight on Sampad Martin Kachuck

As we prepare for Mount Madonna School’s 40th annual Ramayana! – and Sampad Kachuck’s 35th year directing this epic – it seems relevant to turn the spotlight on Sampad and acknowledge our deep gratitude for his many contributions.  This article was first published in 2015.

Plunging into the watery depths from a swimming pool’s high dive can be intimidating, and, as a child growing up, Sampad Martin Kachuck admits his own fear of heights made high dives a huge personal challenge that he struggled to overcome.

“When I was a kid and we’d go to the community swimming pool with a high dive, I would watch other kids climb the ladder, walk out to the end of the board and dive into the pool,” said Sampad, longtime Mount Madonna School (MMS) teacher and performing arts director. “I was always afraid, but I would force myself to do it, telling myself the whole way up the stairs to not turn around and climb down. So, while my jump and landing were less than aesthetic, it was the challenge to work through the fear that motivated the plunge, so to speak.”

That fear of ‘diving in’ — of putting one’s self on display, particularly when engaged in something that pushes us beyond our comfort zone — is easily relatable for MMS middle and high school students, who each year participate in Song Share, an MMS performing arts rite of passage that Sampad began decades ago. During the first weeks back at school in the fall, students take turns singing for 90 seconds a cappella in front of the entire middle/high student body and performing arts directing team.

Students and parents will tell you this “trial by song” can cause summertime angst as students choose — and then re-choose (sometimes multiple times) — what selection they will sing, and then anticipate the actual moment of their initial solo performance in front of peers. Despite the challenge for some, most discover the activity is quite liberating and beautifully serves to establish the community of the class. The experience is also “equalizing,” as all participate and support one another, including Sampad.
“I know what it’s like,” he acknowledged. “I’ve been there and will continue to join in. To understand what my students are experiencing, I have to take the same risks and experience many of the same vulnerabilities and uncertainties.”
The process of understanding through personal experience is key to Sampad’s approach as an educator. Whether it is guiding a seventh or eighth grade student through an English assignment or encouraging a sophomore in finding a connection to the character he or she will portray onstage, Sampad draws upon his own life experiences — he’s spent time on both sides of the desk and stage — to guide students in their creative, intellectual and personal development.
He joined the MMS faculty in 1982. In the more than three decades since, he has taught English and performing arts for middle and high school students. All along, Sampad has worked to infuse his trademark strong work ethic, wry sense of humor, preparedness and organization into the learning adventure. He aims to support each student’s quest for knowledge and understanding, all the while fostering the confidence to engage, experiment and reflect while on this educational journey.
“I treasure and appreciate teaching at Mount Madonna School for a variety of reasons, including the setting of the school within an intentional community whose philosophical foundation is built upon ideals and values similar to my own,” shared Sampad. “I greatly value the small class sizes and resulting magnified opportunity of getting to know my students personally. I truly honor the freedoms I am given as a teacher to develop curriculum and to experiment creatively in a supportive atmosphere. Both faculty and students are part of a dynamic learning community, where we all strive to be better at our craft, to be better in our roles as student/teacher and most importantly, to be better as people.”
Sampad holds an M.A. in directing children’s theater from San Jose State University and a B.A. in theater arts from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is a professional actor and director, and was most recently seen onstage in Cabrillo College’s 2014 production of Death of a Salesman . His acting experience includes some television and commercial work (“I dabbled at the edges”), as well as regional theater productions. He continues to attend acting classes in San Jose to keep the craft alive.
“[Acting is] a great vehicle for ‘exorcising the demons’ and having a healthy creative outlet. It’s a great way to reflect on who we are as people. It is done in community and with the focus on relationship. It is an opportunity to play with our imagination, and understand who we really are under the character’s facade.”
While “teacher” seems a natural role for Sampad, he shared that early on he felt a “certain ambitiousness” for performing and viewed teaching as a way to earn a living while he pursued his theatrical aspirations. This changed some years back, when he realized that through teaching he could both lead a life of service and use his inherent theatricality.
“Acting is still a passion,” he said, “but it was a conscious decision on which route it was going to be.
Sampad also tries to maintain a steady writing practice, annually attends writing conferences both in the Bay Area as well as outside the state, where he sits in a desk like his students do during the school year, and works on the craft of writing.
He was born in New York City, the younger of two sons in an observant Jewish household.
“My parents were not religious, but they strongly believed in the Jewish community and the values supported by that community,” Sampad recalled. “We would do all the ceremonies and rituals, even though my dad was an avowed atheist. What my parents believed in and taught us, was the importance of fellowship and pride in our ethnicity.'”
When Sampad was two, the family left New York and headed West in search of new opportunities.
“My Dad heard there were ‘exciting things’ happening out West and he wanted to start a new life,” he shared. “It was a tremendous leap of faith. My mother and father left behind their jobs, their community and family support, and came to California with two young kids and really no idea of what they would find upon arrival.”
In the early 1960s, as space exploration was just getting underway, his father Israel worked as an engineer for NASA. While he did well at this job, Sampad recalls him becoming dissatisfied, leaving NASA and looking around for a new career venture. He found real estate, which led him to his new passion: farming avocados. Israel and a business partner invested in avocado orchards near Escondido, and began to profitably cultivate and market the popular fruit.
“My father was innovative, incredibly focused and bravely willing to take experimental risks in making the business very successful. His sheer will and determination made a large impression upon me.”
Meanwhile, his mother Rhoda spent more than three decades teaching college-level English at both Chapman College and the University of LaVerne in southern California.
“Awhile back I wrote a tribute to my mother,” Sampad shared. “I titled it ‘The Red Ink’ for all her years of correcting English papers and the tens of thousands of red ink comments she would write in the margins of her students’ work. When I was younger, I would purposefully not show her my own work, for fear of the inevitable red avalanche, although she was quite inquisitive about my assignments. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I sought out her expertise.
“My mother was so empathetic and so thorough. I remember her sitting at her desk, commenting out loud about the struggles as well as the successes within each paper she was grading. At that point in my life, I could not ever have imagined that I would end up on the other side of that chair, becoming an English teacher myself. The possibility never even entered my mind.”
Early on the Kachucks endured not only some racial prejudice, but also difficult financial times, and he remembers overhearing his parents discuss their challenges.
“My parents were honest about our situation and didn’t keep it from my brother and me. I understood that sometimes you have to ‘suck it up’ when things are tough,” said Sampad. “I was only 9 or 10, but I talked to my parents and offered to sell my baseball card collection if it would help our family. They didn’t take me up on it, but even then I felt like it was all of our responsibility to contribute to making things better. Eventually, our situation became a lot better and we lived a very comfortable life in the suburban hills of Cowen Heights, Tustin.
“My parents were demanding,” he acknowledged. “We were expected to do our best always. My father frequently told us, ‘don’t do a half-assed job.’ I often hear his voice inside me when I know I’m not doing my best. He had such a strong ethic, that some of it must have rubbed off on me.”
He recalls a childhood filled with summer camps, swimming — including the dreaded high dive — and later summer jobs, including working as a janitor and cleaning buses. His is especially fond of his summer camp memories.
“We were on our own a little bit,” he explained. “It was a chance to be self-reliant and also be part of a different ‘team’ or community. Being away from home, sometimes with my brother, sometimes not, we both had to develop our own internal and external self-reliance. This was such a positive and valuable experience in helping to shape me and to directly learn about the values of community, working together cooperatively, treading that line between independence and compromise.”
Sampad moved to Santa Cruz in 1975 to attend UCSC. About a year later, a mutual friend introduced Sampad to Kalpana Iris Rosenberg as they were walking on an outdoor path on the campus. Sampad and Kalpana shared a Religious Studies class with longtime UCSC professor Noel King, and while curious to get to know one another, took time to let their relationship develop slowly.
“We courted for a few years,” he acknowledged. The pair shared a strong interest in yoga and were both students of Baba Hari Dass or “Babaji,” the silent monk whose teachings inspired the formation of Mount Madonna Center (MMC) and MMS.
In 1978, the property where MMC and MMS would be constructed was purchased and the pair began spending days working on the land with Babaji and other students. After graduating from UCSC, the couple lived together in Santa Cruz, and Sampad spent a year in the “family business” as an avocado salesman.
In 1980 they moved to MMC, where Kalpana was serving as the School’s first principal.  After guiding MMS from inception to established stability, she left the job in the capable hands of Sarada Diffenbaugh, in order to pursue her Ph.D. in education. Kalpana currently teaches math at Evergreen College in San Jose.
Although Sampad’s family initially challenged his decision to join the MMC community, he said they were quickly put at ease after meeting Babaji, a mentor whose advice continues to guide and inspire him:
“He would tell me, ‘Face, Fight, Finish’ and this really resonated with me. If there was a fear, I wanted to understand it so I could take its ‘cloak’ off, reveal it and conquer it.
“Babaji was always very practical and pragmatic. He could see that, together, his students brought a wide range of vitality and individualism along with need for community. That bond kept us here and strong all these years. I marvel at how through words and mainly through action, Babaji helped us see the need to cultivate positive qualities, such as patience, tolerance, kindness, as well as develop our spiritual aim and strong will. I am forever grateful to him.”
In his early years with MMS, Sampad drove the school van; there wasn’t yet an official school bus, transporting students up and down the hill.
“I was the ‘gap filler’ and taught where I was needed,” he said. Therefore, he found himself teaching beginning math to middle school students and even an introductory Spanish class to freshman.
He soon transitioned to teaching high school English, and then, around 1990, as MMS’ middle school expanded, he again followed the need and transitioned to middle school English. Within his first year of teaching English at this level, Sampad said he knew it was the right age group for him.
“Middle school is an incredibly crucial time period. I dislike the title ‘middle,’ because it implies there is no shore to stand on; where are they? They are not just older elementary or younger high school. It’s its own very unique time. Middle school students are beautiful tapestries of the human condition — innocent and yet more worldly-wise than assumed, passionate and authentic. They are trying on so many ‘costumes’ of who they are, and it may vary hour to hour. They are reactive, emphatic, and have an inherent ability to change their minds and expand their viewpoints. Yes, they are starting to rebel, but at the same time also want to please; they seem to want independence and also tenderness, and they demand freedom as well as needing some firmness and boundaries. If I’m doing my job right, then I’m giving them enough wiggle room to be themselves in my classroom, and, at the same time, inspire them to be even better. I include myself in this directive; I hold for all of us the expectation that we will work hard and be held accountable.
“At some level, where I connect with my students is in our humanity: it is the reality that we are not perfect nor will our work radiate continual perfection. As writers, we sometimes have to be willing to write before the divine spark hits us, even if we are writing badly, just to get the words on the screen or paper. Then, hopefully after the draft ‘cools,’ we find some enjoyment in the process of editing and revision, tinkering and tweaking. It is a dynamic, creative process.”
While working with students in English class occupies a significant part of his life, Sampad is best known and identified for his work in the Ramayana!.
Decades ago, before the MMS student production began, the MMC community performed an adult Ramayana in and around the Bay Area. While the script was a bit different than MMS’ current play, the production contained many of the wonderful complexities of the current version. Sampad joined in, played in the band and performed the role of Jatayu, the vulture king. Eventually, he took on the directorship of the adult production. He became director of the children’s Ramayana! in 1982.
He describes Ramayana! as “tradition with a Tevya-like ‘T’ —TRADITION,” and said even so, he feels a necessity to allow for change to ensure its continued longevity.
“It is a fine line, tricky to tread, maintaining respect for the content and history of our production, and still somehow creating room for innovation. I try to invite new ideas and suggestions, absolutely relying on the fantastic talents around me, both in my fellow directors as well as the students themselves.
“I’ve known some of our current students since they were ‘1/4 size’,” he reminisced. “Now, to see them in their senior year, their change and personal growth is inspiring. The most emotionally resonant story is when a student is at first unsure or encounters great challenge in fighting through their fears of performance, yet they stick with it. Then, sometimes slowly, other times quite swiftly, we see the engaged, transformed performer emerge.
“As a director I love when kids are authentic and interactive. When they can play with the craft and embrace the communal aspect of the theater, it’s fascinating to see what they bring and how they use the confidence and familiarity of knowing the Ramayana! , for example, to go deeper. I’m most tickled when I see students find their own piece of themselves to infuse into the characters.”
His appreciation extends to the broader community, as well. Sampad said he is forever grateful for the parents, faculty, staff, many volunteers, who all contribute to bringing to life this mammoth production to life.
“Co-producer Jeevani Vince is a key part of the team process,” he noted. “I appreciate her kindness, positivity and work ethic. On a broader scope, the school has always been extremely supportive of our program, and the kids see the investment others are willing to make and they get it. This models the investment we are asking each of them to make.”
In 2014, for the first time since starting at MMS, he took a semester-long sabbatical. It allowed him to spend more time with Kalpana, and together they took a much-anticipated trip to Italy and France.
“I was surprised how much I enjoyed traveling,” he shared, “visiting different sites and our spending time together. I love Kalpana dearly and marvel she’s put up with me for so long. She’s a true friend. She’s also my role model on many levels, such as how she’s been bravely able to change her life to suit her changing needs.”
When he’s not teaching, Sampad enjoys hiking in the woods where he can appreciate the peaceful calm and majesty of nature. During the basketball season, he is a Golden State Warriors fan (“I am in ‘hog heaven’ right now!”) and these days, never misses a Warriors game, recording each one to watch later. He and Kalpana are also both football fans, and are quite vocal about their support for the San Francisco 49ers. (“Go Niners!” he shouts, raising his arm into the air.)
Aside from artistic immersions, family remains a huge component of his life. He visits his parents often, who live in senior community in Thousand Oaks, California. He also remains close with his brother, Norm, a neurologist now focusing on the family avocado business. He and Kalpana have close relationships with Norm’s three sons.
As for reading, Sampad’s Kindle is full of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books and Daniel Silva’s numerous thriller novels focusing on the Israeli Moshad agent, Gabriel Allon. He reads anything by John Grisham, and plenty of young adult literature that captures his or his students’ attention.
“I love John Green, Holly Goldberg Sloan, old school authors like Robert Cormier, Lois Lowry and yes, William Shakespeare. A forever favorite is Dave Barry, the humorist. I am also a mad purveyor of countless books, articles and blogs about writing and teaching. The day I am not driven to be better at my craft is the day I should hang it up and be put out to pasture.”
Face, fight and finish — and community — each have a role in Sampad’s life, and have affected his approach to teaching:
“For some students, Song Share is the most frightening thing in the world, I get it. I hope they know that for me, it’s not the quality of the singing, it’s what it stands for: facing your fears and a willingness to share vulnerability. It’s recognizing that we’re in community and this demands that we rely on one another. It’s about how we take our own accountability and joy for discovery and bring that to the team, to the process, to the community. This translates beyond high school and into life; we all want to be part of something that is larger than ourselves.”
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Nestled among the redwoods on 355 mountaintop acres, Mount Madonna is a safe and nurturing college-preparatory school that supports students in becoming caring, self-aware and articulate critical thinkers, who are prepared to meet challenges with perseverance, creativity and integrity. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville.