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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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I wonder..

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With all the crazy hype about US Presidential Elections, and the uncertainty after the result was announced, I needed a break. Wherever I looked, people were discussing the elections, to the point that it was getting on my nerves. In this scenario, a colleague from a remote area shared a photo of an 8-year old girl from an underprivileged family. This girl was a drug addict and has recently been detoxified with the help of local community organizations and volunteers. That reignited my hope in human spirit and bonding! I shared this news with a colleague who said “that made my day!“. Indeed, it did make our day. Years ago, I read this quote:

“There are those … who enter the world in such poverty that they are deprived of both the means and the motivation to improve their lot. Unless these unfortunates can be touched with the spark which ignites the spirit of individual enterprise and determination, they will only sink back into renewed apathy, degradation and despair. It is for us, who are more fortunate, to provide that spark.” (H.H. The Aga Khan IV)

Am reminded of it again today. May we be blessed with the opportunity and wisdom to help ignite the spark in our fellow human beings’ lives (Amen).

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“When you start paying attention to your thoughts you awaken your higher self. Start tuning into your inner dialogue, listening to your heart, and noticing what’s in your gut. In this world of non-stop stimulation, where we are so rarely alone with our thoughts, doing this seems radical. But I guarantee that you’ll discover amazing new things.”

Mel Robbins

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Last night, I was at an event talking to a fellow volunteer. While sharing about life experiences, I recalled the time when I used to commute a long way to pick my brother from his office. It took about 30 to 40 minutes to reach his office. Despite being a daily encounter with rush hour traffic and hot weather, this trip had its positives. For one, I had the opportunity to observe beautiful sunsets on my way to the West Wharf area. Living in a congested megalopolis often means less opportunities to observe sunrise and sunset. For years, we had a good east-side view from our balcony allowing us to observe beautiful sunrises. Then, they built tall buildings and the beautiful view was gone. The west-side view is also blocked by buildings. So, the sunsets on my daily commute came as a breath of fresh air, especially after a long day at work. I enjoyed watching these sunsets and writing my reflections in a notebook or on some scrap paper (blessings of having someone else drive the car for you).

On these trips, I noticed that the sun looks different in summer and winter. The summer sun looked like a fireball .. orange or reddish-orange depending on the month and the temperature. On the other hand, the winter sun reminded me of molten ice cream with its cooler colors. I could also see the circular boundaries of the sun without putting my shades on, unlike with the summer sun. The winter sun felt like a cool yellow ring. The sky, too, looked different with its different shades. Jarod Kintz puts my feelings into words with “The sunset faded and blended from pink to peach to mango in a smoothie in the sky.” Yum!

There is a long, straight road that leads to the West Wharf with unobstructed view of not just the sun but also the surrounding area. For a city dweller like me, observing this open landscape (even if a barren one) resulted in feelings of opening up.. as if my heart burst open and my soul started breathing. Same thing happens on the nights when the sky is clear and I can appreciate its vastness. It’s as if my heart opens up and becomes part of the universe. Sometimes, when we take a particular route which makes us drive on a bridge, I can observe the sunset. But we don’t always take that route thanks to the traffic conditions. I miss my sunsets and want them back.

I wonder if this distance from nature and natural phenomena affects us as human beings. Does it affect the way we think and act? Does it affect our stress levels? Do we get used to the natural phenomena even if we can enjoy them without any physical obstruction? Do we forget to notice them? Last year, I was on the Bernina Express traveling to Swiss Alps with other tourists. We boarded the train in Italy and stopped at St. Moriz. The weather could not have been any more perfect than it was then. It started snowing. Light snow with us in the downtown area, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and with a view of the lake. It was as if we were in a postcard. Later on, we walked in the streets and could still see the beautiful mountains. While observing the people in the streets and those riding in their cars, I couldn’t stop myself from wondering if they observe the beautiful natural landscape around them or if it has become part of their routine background which they do not notice. Did I find the place breathtakingly beautiful because it was new to me; or because I was a tourist with the time to laze around; or because I came from a megalopolis with an estimated population of over 20 million? Whereas the residents of St. Moriz had lived their lives surrounded by beautiful mountains, were busy with their daily chores, and did not find anything new about the landscape? Of course, I couldn’t come to a conclusion but I would love to know if there are any studies on the impacts of people’s interactions with nature. Maybe a google search should be the next action item on my list? 🙂

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In the past few weeks, I started reading a few books only to leave them for other books. Achieving my 2014 extended target (set at goodreads.com) for the books to read in 2014 actually backfired as now I am worried about finishing the books ASAP. Setting a target of 36 books for 2015 also proved to be a bummer. So, I’ve decided to revise my target for 2015 from 36 books to 20 books. If I can read more, great. If I can’t, at least I would’ve enjoyed the ones that I read.

When selecting a book for reading, the following questions pop up in my mind: Should I read a book just because I bought it and should, therefore, read it? Should I finish reading a book just because I have started reading it? This is a dilemma because I cannot be sure if it’s my trademark procrastination making me avoid reading (or finishing) a book or if it’s actually the book. Sometimes, I have put the book down for good, and have even donated it. At other times, though, I have made myself finish reading a book even if as an attempt to counter procrastination.

I am currently reading A User’s Guide to the Brain by John J. Ratey. I checked the price and thought to myself “why did I buy this paperback which is quite expensive!” However, when I looked inside, the paperback had 380+ pages, with small font. I braced myself and started reading it. It is a book about the working of human brain, and aims to to help the reader gain a better understanding of how the brain affects who we are. My reading is going slowly.. very slowly as I only read during my commute to/from work (not a long commute). The technical nature of this book and the small fonts also affect the pace of my reading. However, it is an interesting and useful book as it is helping me connect my experience from various domains of the social sector. I hope this knowledge will help me gain perspective which will help me with my human development work.

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Yes, that can be one reason. There are times when my head is brimming with thoughts and ideas. At these times, I tell myself “I’ll document these thoughts. Maybe on my blog.” But the constellations just jumble up and, later on, disperse. Or maybe this is just a creative way of saying: “I’m a procrastinator“.

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