A CASE OF PRETEEN hormones kicking in, a move to senior school, and a teacher who spoke hardly any English in a very British Missionary school in Pakistan. That was my explanation to my own disaster. From one of the smarter kids in grade six I moved into grade seven with an attitude that stunned even me. For the first time in my life I failed five classes in the first trimester, six in the next, and borderline passed in the last to move on to the next grade. For the first time in my life I thought school was unimportant, and that teachers worthy only of ridicule. All my friends were swapped for new ones, like a wardrobe change when clothes don’t fit you anymore, or they’re too old and boring, or are just not “in.” Friends I had had since early childhood were now in a different room, and it was too much effort to keep up with that friendship just at recess.
It was a first time for sneaking in Sweet Dreams novels in the book bag, and reading them at leisure. A first time for developing an inability to work without music. And then came in the parental control measures: this taste in books was unacceptable, the music listening was unacceptable, the grades were unacceptable, and very soon to my own preteen definition: ‘I was unacceptable.’
One bad year after another followed, until the last year of school. I hated the Missionary school with all that was within me. The teachers had no passion to teach, no urge to inspire, no hearts to win. The favorite students would always remain the favorite, and the “down sliders” like me would always be categorized as such. So even if there were a desire to make amends, bring the academics back, there was always this overwhelming presence of a ‘label’ on me. A down slider in the Convent could not slide up. In the last years of school I became excessively quiet, chose to sit always at the back of the class. From somewhere—and I still don’t know how—an inspiration for the strangest of things came upon me. I decided one day that I would cover my hair. No one in my family did that, it shocked people a bit more than what I had already done.
The music went away, the posters were peeled off, and I decided on being pretty friendless, since I was again too ‘different.’ I remember my mom answering someone who asked about my hijab that it was ‘just a phase’ and that children grow out of it. Every hijab wearing girl has her own hijab story and mine had some twists too. But, by and large it wasn’t just a phase. I stuck by it, with all my eccentricities and bad grades. The last month of school, and my grades were still a mess, but my connection with Allah was not. So I prayed to Him. I said, ‘If you help me pass, I’ll be yours’. A pretty big commitment for a fifteen year old, but I had said it.
The night the results flew in from London University to Lahore, everybody was in a frenzy. I decided to sleep through the evening, woke up, and with a heart knocking, but sounding nothing, went to school to get my results. I had scored second highest in the whole school, and Sister Madeline stood there gleaming, rather stunned giving me my report card. I had no way to explain it. My mother was shocked: I had scored higher than my genius brother; my dad was muted; my friends were sure I must have developed a mad study strategy to have done this. I think this was the most surprising result in the history of the school. After this I went to the teacher who despised me most, and she said rather half heartedly, “I knew you could do it,” to which I replied, “No, you didn’t—you absolutely did not think I could.” She was silent.
This miracle was from Allah. He did it, in response to a nervous fifteen year old. He made me acceptable by this grade, he made me respected, and he changed the hijab from an object of ridicule to something meaningful.
I was suddenly the smart kid, and I decided to go to a co-ed High School. This was a move that required a lot of thinking. I had always been at the all-girls-convent school, and everyone else from school always went on to the ‘no-work-no-study elitist college’ and did a run of the mill Bachelors degree to get married. The private London University High School was a bit more serious.
With all these reservations I went in still nervous, not fitting in but willing to try. And that’s when the second miracle happened. Mrs. Sonnu Rehman (she is what every youth needs) was the History teacher; I never took History, so never sat in one class of hers. But she touched my life in the most inspiring of ways, and pushed me into a world that was full of excitement, where there was much to be done. And best of all, much to be done by me.
She was the oldest teacher on campus, but as someone called her most accurately, ‘an inspiration for all ages.’ She could inspire people of her own age with her sheer energy; she could inspire the middle-aged ones with her effort, and she could reach all of us teenagers with her zeal for virtually anything. I had never spoken up before; partly because the Convent was claustrophobic when it came to self-expression and drab when it came to extracurricular. She kept me after school one day to try out for public speaking. I was perhaps better than average, and she sent me off for a competition out of school.
She worked tirelessly to polish my final speech, adding, editing, hearing me over and over again, as if I was the only student around. I spoke, and managed to be selected for the National Team representing my country in England. After that first time, there were many more to follow. Mrs. Rehman’s initial effort with me, her always being available to speak to, paid off tremendously. We won many laurels for the country several times over, but for me what was most important was the way she built up confidence in me.
Once initiated there is no stopping a youth who has been channelized. I knew I could act, do poetry recitals, run for student government — anything, because Mrs. Rehman would always think the same. She was the first teacher who gave me her phone number to call whenever I needed something, the first teacher who invited us over to her place.
She designed our costumes for the annual play, took us on field trips that I will never forget. I learned from her that no people can move forward if they forget their past. I never took History with her but she taught me much still. Our field trips were not to museums, but to real places, like inside the Old City with her historian friend, or to a far away rural place of the mystics where upper-middle class children would never venture to go on their own.
She was teaching us that the places we thought beyond our reach or interest, were now very much within. We were talking politics with her, digging archaeological sites, digesting Marx. In those one and half years she gave me more wholesome information than ever before, because she truly thought us capable. I remember my mom once joked with her, that she could just adopt me because I spent so much time with her, and Mrs. Rehman replied that that had already taken place. I was juggling academics with the entire extracurricular explosion in my life, and because she made me think that I could, I did.
Now years later when I read The Little Engine that Could to my children, I think about how all of us are little engines at some point or the other. Without someone to start us on chant of belief in ourselves, we all consider ourselves incapable of big endeavors. Mrs. Rehman to me was the perfect adult factor who filled my life with this chant. Sometimes I think if she had not made the effort and become an active agent in my life I would perhaps have never come out of teenage insecurities and inhibitions.
The world would have remained an impenetrable reality and myself too weak, too unsure. My parents would not have pulled this miracle with me. No matter how they tried, they tried the wrong way, because they were on the other side just like all the Convent teachers were. Mrs. Rehman was on my side. She wasn’t making it happen; she was making me make it happen. She talked to me, not at me, a difference many adults fail to see. She showed me my own potential.
Now when I’m older, teaching children, I try to be like her. I try to have the same zeal for others’ lives, like she did for me. That is the only way we can salvage our youth, and inspire them to dream big.