A few weeks ago I taught my students (third graders at a Karachi government school) about the continents and the oceans. Most of my girls dutifully learnt the material, excited about the maps I’d brought to class, about working in groups with their classmates, about the song I’d taught them to help with remembering, and about the stickers I’d promised to those who learnt all these complicated spellings. They learnt something new, and we were all pleased, and that was it. But there was one exception. One of my students, a scrawny thing with big eyes and endless energy, sat me down after school – while her sisters and cousins waited impatiently outside so that they could all walk home together – for a conversation. “Miss, if we don’t drink water from the ocean, where does the water we drink come from?” “Miss, if water has no color, why do oceans look blue?” “Miss, is a ‘sea’ different from an ocean?” “Miss, how many seas are there? Have you seen them?” The questions came at lightning speed. I’d anticipated some, and some blew me away. A nine year old from a poor household, displaying this sheer hunger for knowledge, thinking with a level of curiosity and complexity I never saw in the children I went to school with, and hadn’t seen in my two years at the school. We chatted for half an hour, poring over maps and ideas. I went home that day feeling like something really special had happened – like I had been in the presence of a bona fide genius. “That’s really cute,” said my father, when I excitedly shared the incident with him. “In ten years she’ll be making rotis for an illiterate husband, though, poor thing.”
I reeled. I wanted to protest and say “That will never happen. Not to this girl.” But could I? The truth is that it happens all the time. It could happen to this girl, or to her cousin, who has refused to settle for anything less than standing first in her class since kindergarten, or to her big sister, who tutors children after school to earn enough to buy herself a laptop. It happened to her aunt, who is now fighting tooth and nail against her family so that her fourteen-year old daughter is not pulled out of school. There’s a very good chance that the brightest students in Pakistan, girls and boys who like stories, and puzzles, and always do their homework on time, might end up with scars on their bodies, guns in their hands, and piles of unfulfilled dreams. This is a fear that we teachers live with every day, a demon gnawing away at our insides, and breaking our hearts.
Why is this happening? Well, here’s the simple truth. If you’re born poor, chances are your life will be pretty terrible, and things will never change for you. You might have a supportive family who sends you to school every day, but you’ll be going on all the energy one proper meal a day provides, and distributing that energy over school, madrassa, housework, and additional vocational training. When at school, your teachers might not show up, or might not know their subject well. Even if they do, they will likely be worried about finishing the unrealistic and inappropriate curriculum and meeting administrative requirements rather than checking in individually with each of the 200 students they teach in a day. There might not be electricity, and so besides the discomfort (multiplied by the lack of running water, a playground, and a canteen), there will be no technological education. You can deal with all of this, too, until Matric, when your school tells you that they don’t offer the subjects you wanted to take all along. Another setback, but you can transfer to another school, asking your family to scrimp even more to cover transportation costs. When all that is done, what next? Who will take care of the house and earn while you’re off pursuing a degree? What will the neighbors say when a seventeen-year old girl goes off to coaching with male classmates? Suppose you even beat all these odds, and manage to get a Bachelor’s degree. Great! Your life is set now. No, hold on. Chances are you didn’t go to one of the top ten colleges in the country, and so even though you fought and strove and did everything you were told, it turns out that you got an obsolete education all along. You can rote-learn, and your penmanship is excellent, but you cannot research a topic, write an essay, give a presentation, or answer questions spontaneously in a job interview. And that’s when you’ll wonder: Why did nobody ever ask you what you wanted? When you expressed opinions or asked questions, why were you silenced and told to obey? You did nothing wrong. And yet the world holds nothing for you. And that’s when you’ll give up.
The problems our students face every day are so complex and multifaceted that to even think about them is overwhelming. So, most people choose not to think about them. We listen to our drawing-room pundits accusing Pakistanis of an inability to change, unwillingness to improve, of being beyond all saving. We blame the government, the culture, the religion. Never ourselves. The reality is that it is our own jaded indifference, our selfishness, and primarily our ignorance that is behind the trouble. We, as individuals need to take charge of the change we want to see. And it can’t be achieved through conversation, through Facebook campaigns, through voting in an election, or even by throwing money at charitable organizations promising to take care of it for us. It takes time, knowledge, humility, and sustained effort.
During my time with Teach for Pakistan I had the chance to work with a number of people who believed what we were seeing all around us was wrong, and that we were the ones who could change it. We believed that it wasn’t money that could fix the problem but our own efforts. We got into the classrooms and out into the communities, connecting with students, families, and educators and attempting to the best of our abilities to give the students an education worth their potential. Despite the odds, we saw massive changes in two short years. Problem children transformed into model students, illiterate students began to read and write, students grew multiple grade levels in one year, students started doing independent and creative work, and conservative communities became more open to outsiders. It goes to show that when people feel believed in, they are willing to take extraordinary measures. My own experiences and those of my colleagues excite me immensely for the future. If the work of 50 people over two years can yield such dramatic results, what could a 1000 people achieve over ten? Change is possible, and if we take ownership of it, it’s probable. And that’s when we’ll be able to say “That won’t happen. Not to this girl.”
Zohra Nasir has just completed a fellowship with Teach for Pakistan. As a fellow, she taught for two years in a primary classroom at a government school in Karachi. She is a LUMS graduate in the Humanities, and will be pursuing a Masters in Education at Vanderbilt University starting in August, and plans to continue working with under-resourced schools in Pakistan after she returns. She can be contacted at email@example.com.