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“The dream begins, most of the time, with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you on to the next plateau.” (Dan Rather)

To me, every person who has inspired me to acquire a part of them is a role model. I have met a lot of such people in my life. Memories of some of them have become hazy while others are imprinted on my soul. Ms. R. Fikree is one such imprint.

Who is Ms. Fikree? When I close my eyes and go back to my primary school days, I see someone walking toward an exquisite, red Toyota Corolla, which is parked under the shady neem tree. I see a petite lady with a persona that is hard to describe in words. Excellent figure that gave a hint to a perfectly healthy routine; lovely, short hair set in different layers; beautiful eyes behind her glasses that went well with her lovely face; and a perfect posture showing self-confidence. She used to teach secondary classes in the morning shift while I was studying in the afternoon shift. Days turned into years and came the day when I transferred to the morning shift.

My formal interaction with Ms. Fikree didn’t start until I was promoted to the 10th grade. I couldn’t wait to be in her English language class. She was just as I had imagined her – kind and caring. The persona did not disappear with the personal interaction. Instead, it grew stronger. I remember observing her intently during the class. The way she talked, the way she walked, the way she held the book, the way she turned the pages of the book, and the way she explained the meanings of different words. It was magical!

Ms. Fikree had her own style of teaching. She always spoke in a soft tone. I never heard her shout in the class, not even when she needed the students to stop talking and pay attention to her. She used to read a chapter from the book, writing the meanings of new words on the blackboard and explaining the grammatical structures. I also remember doing grammar exercises in her class. She would explain a sentence and then ask the students about the remaining ones. She made sure that we understood the concepts we were studying, careful enough not to spoon-feed us while giving us a push in the right direction.

During her class, we learnt not only about the English language but also about the different things we read about. She kindled my interest in the English language and literature, especially English poetry. I remember her transporting me to the English fields full of daffodils. Through the poem “The Voice of God” she helped me find a path to self-realization. From the trip to the mango orchard to the conversation between the rickshaw driver and his passenger, to the village fair and the glories of the Abbasid dynasty, she took me to the virtual tour of different places during each class.

It was so obvious that Ms. Fikree enjoyed teaching! I cannot recall a day when she was not there in the class. She made us feel at ease when we were with her. Our repetitive mistakes and silly questions did not seem to tire her. I never saw her getting angry at a student, not even when she caught one of them cheating in the exam. She did not believe in using harsh words for the students. The most important thing that I learnt from her was the meaning of the word “dedication”. She was a teacher par excellence. She always tried her best to provide us with enough information to quench our thirst but, at the same time, increasing our thirst for more. She also taught us about self-respect and respect for others.

During Ms. Fikree’s class, I learnt how to find alternative solutions to a problem. I remember, one day before our exams, there was going to be a special full-day transmission on the national TV channel (it was way before 24×7 channels). All of us were excited about it. The only problem was the tough exam scheduled on the next day.  Young minds are very productive in such situations. So, we ended up thinking ‘what if we could get some other exam rescheduled on that day’. Started the English language class and someone mentioned the exam. That was our cue. Everybody started talking about the TV programs and the cruel exam. I think Ms. Fikree knew what was coming. We asked her if the exam could be rescheduled and she agreed to it immediately. By listening to all of us and by appreciating and understanding our needs she taught us how to appreciate others. It is events like these that have shaped up the way I am. Ms. Fikree’s positive influence inspired me to become a positive person. Some people might find it trivial but to me she has always been an inspiration.

I had not met Ms. Fikree since the time we passed 10th grade. I wanted to see her again but some dreams remain dreams until one day (or night, in my case) you realize that those dreams must be turned into reality. That is why I decided to go to my school and get her contact number. The trigger behind this decision was an incident that took place 15 years ago. This event had a lasting impact on my life.

It was a usual day at school except that we had a test scheduled for Henry Longfellow’s poem titled “Children. I was not in a good shape. I had tried to go through the questions related to this poem but somehow all the ideas and questions related with it looked the same to me! Needless to say I scored badly; 4 out of 10 – what a shame! Even that wasn’t bad enough. The worst part was to listen to what Ms. Fikree said while handing me my test paper. She didn’t get angry at me or use any harsh words. I don’t even remember her exact words but I remember that she was disappointed in me. I wanted to tell her about the reason for my bad performance and that disappointing her would be the last thing I could ever think of doing in this lifetime. But I couldn’t. I just sat down without saying anything. Maybe I thought that she wouldn’t find it a good enough reason for such a low score. Maybe I wasn’t satisfied with the reason myself. Or maybe the shame of being a source of disappointment to her didn’t let me speak. With just one simple sentence, she gave me the zeal to work harder and perform well in the future tests and the board exams. Despite the benefits of this experience, somewhere at the back of my mind the thought of not letting her know about the real reason kept pinching at me, until the day I finally decided to contact her. I asked her if I could visit her and succeeded in that. The day I met her again was a very special day. I got to know that she and I share the same alma mater. I had a chance to talk with her as a student and as a grownup. I told her about the things I had always wanted to tell her about and asked the questions that had been on my mind for so many years.

Some people think that the way a teacher can inspire their pupils is limited to what they teach in the class. Some talk about the importance of the way things are taught while others emphasize the things a teacher says. But, as Henry Brooks Adams put it, “a teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” Even though, on an average, a teacher barely has a minute or so to spend on a student during class, they can still have a great impact on an individual’s life. To me, each and everything a teacher does or says is equally important; the way they dress up, the way they talk, walk, stand, sit, play and express their feelings – not only within the realm of the class but also outside it. My request to all the teachers: be conscious of your importance in a student’s life. With your words and actions you can serve as a true role model for hundreds of individuals, for you communicate with them even when you are not talking. Ms. Fikree has been a living example of that! Through my experiences with her I understood the importance of being able to speak up. I learnt how to plan for my tasks and to be ready for the consequences if I fail to have one. She taught me the meaning of appreciation – to let people know how special they are. And, above all, she taught me to believe in my dreams and work hard to turn them into reality.

My sincere advice to the young lot: love your teachers.  Know that sometime later in life, when you sit and think about your experiences, you’ll find tiny candles burning with great brilliance. The candles that have kept your soul illuminated through the darkest and the brightest periods of your life. And when you try to see the people holding those candles, you’ll most probably find a teacher’s face smiling back at you.

Blessed am I to have walked on the path where my teacher once walked.


Note: I wrote this piece over a decade ago. My feelings are still the same and my respect for Ms. Fikree has grown manyfold. Finding her number was a task in itself but meeting with her was a blessing! 

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Life & Lemons

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Without doubt, The Fifth Mountain is my most favorite book of all time! And, the best one from Paulo Coelho. This is the 4th time that I’ve read this book. Actually, to-date, I’ve read it a total of 3.5 times. This book NEVER fails to inspire me. I’ve read it at various points in my life. From the time I was trying to find my own path to the time when I struggled on my chosen path, all the way to the current time when I am continuing with my journey. Elijah‘s story has been an inspiration, and has helped me make sense of my life experiences. I love the fact that even though he’s a prophet, he still faces doubt and confusion, and questions his own beliefs. As a young prophet, he goes through the divine training and comes a full circle at the end. This human characteristic makes him my favorite character of all times. The story and the writing is simple. The book’s title cover, format, size, and fonts help the reader move with the flow of the story. I have so many lines and, at times, multiple paragraphs marked in this book. It’s one of those books that you hold on to.. for reading, re-reading, and re-re-reading!

I had thought about listing down my favorite quotes from this book. However, there’s just too many of them to put here. At some places, I’ve marked multiple consecutive paragraphs! If I list all of them, I’ll actually have to put nearly the whole book here!

Anyway, here are a few of the quotes:

  1. ELIJAH REMEMBERED. She had come to ask him to make some trays. While Elijah was doing as she asked, he heard her say that her work was a way of expressing the presence of God. “From the way you make the trays, I can see that you have the same feeling,” she had continued. “Because you smile as you work.”
  2. Everything in life demands training.” “Even being a prophet?” “Even to understand angels. We so want to talk with them that we don’t listen to what they’re saying. It’s not easy to listen: in our prayers we always try to say where we have erred, and what we should like to happen to us. But the Lord already knows all of this, and sometimes asks us only to hear what the Universe is telling us. And to be patient.”
  3. “Even if it comes to pass, I have doubted myself. I am no longer worthy of my task,” answered Elijah. “Every man hath the right to doubt his task, and to forsake it from time to time; but what he must not do is forget it. Whoever doubteth not himself is unworthy–for in his unquestioning belief in his ability, he commiteth the sin of pride. Blessed are they who go through moments of indecision.”
  4. “The Lord needeth thee to rebuild Israel,” said the angel. “Thou wilt tread thy land when thou hast learned to rebuild.”
Prophet Elijah in the Desert

Prophet Elijah in the Desert

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My most favorite book, without doubt, is Paulo Coelho‘s “The Fifth Mountain“. This book is quite close to my heart as it has been a companion (and a guide) on my life’s journey over the past decade or so. One of my most favorite quotes/excerpts comes from this book (mentioned below). I’ve marked a sentence in bold. This is the sentence that has stuck with me since I read it the very first time.

“Do you remember the woman who used to make bread?” he asked himself.

ELIJAH REMEMBERED. She had come to ask him to make some trays. While Elijah was doing as she asked, he heard her say that her work was a way of expressing the presence of God.

“From the way you make the trays, I can see that you have the same feeling,” she had continued. “Because you smile as you work.

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Before writing something about the book, some background about how this book entered my life. In Jul 2013, I attended the PMI Leadership Institute Meeting – Asia Pacific (PMI LIM-AP) in Singapore. As always the LIM proved to be an exciting and inspiring event. The keynote address at the LIM was delivered by David Lim.

David LimDavid Lim is a Singaporean mountaineer and motivational speaker who led the first Singapore Mount Everest Expedition in 1998. His keynote address was about leadership lessons from Mount Everest. Yes, it was quite an insightful keynote! He also gave all the participants a complimentary copy of his book titled ‘How Leaders Lead: 71 lessons in leading yourself and others‘. He was gracious enough to sign my copy of the book! 🙂 Soon after I returned from the LIM, I started reading this book and found it an easy read.

David has successfully distilled the leadership lessons learned as a mountaineer. The book is divided into 6 sections:

  1. Leadership
  2. Goal Setting & Vision
  3. Self Leadership
  4. Resilience & Change
  5. Teamwork
  6. Life Balance & Ethics

Each section contains a selection of blog/magazine articles written by David. At the beginning of each article, a picture/cartoon is also included. I always like this approach as these visual aids depict the core message of the article in an effective way. The arrangement of material is clear, logical, and easy to follow. The language is simple and David’s style is conversational. This maybe due to the fact that most of the articles were originally blogposts. I also like the fonts used as they help make the material easy to read. Short & independent articles make it easy even for the busy readers to manage reading some parts of the book every day.

Somehow, the article that made me stop and reflect the most was the one about Internal Programming. It helped me gain perspective on a few things related to my professional life, especially David’s comment about ‘towards’ vs. ‘away’ mindset. The article that I liked was about Resilience Awareness. The notion of sustainable optimism, adversity quotient, and three components to human capacity (i.e. required, existing, accessed) was new to me. David makes another thought-provoking statement about Teamwork being an individual skill (rather than a group skill)! Many articles have food for thought and references to relevant research work. David also makes references about useful tools such as Work Preference Profiling Tool (from Team Management System) and Team Performance Profile which encourage the reader to find out more about them.

From among the 6 sections, my most favorite was the one about Life Balance & Ethics. Following articles from this section made me think about life, in general.

  • Having a Sense of Being
  • The Importance of Doing Absolutely Nothing
  • The Whys and Whats of Life

What could be improved?

The grammatical and spelling errors (along with punctuation issues at some places). I found it difficult to read many articles due to these issues. Small issue, perhaps, but one that negatively affects the flow of reading. I hope a revised edition with an improved proofreading is in the pipelines.

My rating

3.5 out of 5 (especially for the references to many areas worth exploring in detail)

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Years ago, a teacher shared this quote:

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

He attributed it to Voltaire. I googled it again today and found out that it is usually mis-attributed to Voltaire. It is actually a phrase from Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s biography of Voltaire.

This quote has stuck with me from the day I first heard it. There are times during discussions when I become impatient about the other participant’s opinion/views about something. On such occasions, I remember this quote and it gives me perspective. It isn’t easy to apply the message from this quote in one’s life, especially during a heated discussion. However, it is possible to learn to apply it through practice. That’s all I intend to do 🙂

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