Why is it that certain memories anchor you to your reality, and there are others that wash away seemingly without reason? I have forgotten people and time periods of my life. My sisters ask me sometimes, "Do you remember Bilal Uncle?" And my first reaction is, "Who?" And gradually they help me piece an image together. A young man, my father's friend. Peacocks in the vast garden of the hotel where they used to meet for afternoon tea, scones for the adults, ice cream for us girls. Is this memory real or invented or salvaged, I wonder. Do I really remember him, or is he like the character of a movie, and my sisters the screenplay writers who have brought him to life? Yet, there are the briefest of moments that have stayed so fresh in my memory that I remember the tiniest details: the single blade of sunlight falling over a sleeping baby's eyes, the rippling of my grandmother's chenille duvet between my fingers, the silhouette of my aunt when I last saw her alive - I was just 5 years old, and she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen - that last time I saw her opening the heavy wooden kitchen door, wearing an orange kurta, her curly hair pinned back at the nape of her neck - just this image of her, and then - my mother's ragged shrieks waking me up from a deep sleep, our drive through wild monsoon rain to Sialkot, people gathered outside my grandparents' home, adults dissolving into screams of shock and grief, and my aunt's sallow face absent of life, the white shroud, the cotton balls tucked into her nostrils, my mother nowhere to be found, my mother, my mother, my mother, the panic, until I saw her collapsing near her dead sister's charpoy...
Children should not be allowed to witness bereavement.
And why do I speak of memory now, so soon after remembering the darling Mrs. Khan who is with us no more? Many people reached out to me via the blog and Facebook to tell me how much the entry meant to them. They told me it made them remember the magic of Mrs. Khan. Some said it was like I was telling their story. She saw them when no one else did. Some told me that I have a very good memory - to which my immediate response is, "But I don't." And yet, there she stands, a pillar in my memory, strong, hilarious, full of happiness and compassion. You couldn't help but smile in her presence. I have established already that I had my bouts of introspection in school. My mind would wander off in the middle of classes. My closest friends dubbed me "Dreamy Noor," but Mrs. Khan had a way of snapping me out of my best reveries. She commanded attention, often with a joke, but sometimes simply with her presence. What a miraculous woman!
And my memory keeps bringing my beloved teacher back to me now in the wake of her death - in my dreams, in my thoughts, in my midday reveries that no one snaps me out of. From the outpouring of grief, but also that of wonderful, beautiful, happy memories that her students are sharing on the Facebook page in her memory, I can tell that she lives on in our collective memories. Every single student says the same thing - something along the lines of, "She made me who I am." Many insist they were her favorite. Can we even begin to articulate such a person's generosity and kindness who made so many people feel special at the same time? It's maddening if you think about it - I worry with 5 guests in my house that 4 of them will probably go home feeling unappreciated and ignored. Can you imagine making so many young people feel like they matter? Like what they've got to say is important? Making them realize that they can do anything? Be anything? This woman had super powers! She would have liked this compliment - I am smiling right now as I think about how she might have reacted to this.
With all the wonderful memories of Mrs. Khan being shared on social media, there is also this underlying wrinkle of regret getting fractured by the hour, expanding, swelling, "I should have stayed in touch with her." "I should have called her." "I should have given her a hug." I said to a friend that visiting her was on my Lahore Bucket List. I was planning to meet her when I visit my family in Lahore this winter after 12 years of being in California. I see this corollary of celebrating Mrs. Khan's life and her spirit along with harboring so much regret for not telling her what she meant to us (her students) engulfing every grieved heart, and it resonates very strongly with me.
Perhaps we should learn - Mrs. Khan may be teaching us an important lesson, still. Seize the day! I am in California and have been for over a decade, but what kind of excuse is that? I could have tracked down her email address with minimal effort, and I should have. But I never factored either of us dying into the equation of me eventually getting in touch with her. We never factor in death, do we? Tell the people who matter to you that they matter to you. That they matter. Like she told us every single time not in so many words maybe, but by listening, by giving, by laughing, by loving. Go give your teacher a hug. Tell your sister you're sorry, the fight you had really was completely stupid. Mend your differences with your parents. Tell your best friend you're sorry you don't call often, but you love her. Tell your husband, your wife, your child. Tell them because they matter and you never know when you may no longer have the privilege to do so.
Photos by Rebecca McCue
Something happened before I reached Mrs. Khan's 7C class on the "senior side" of the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Lahore, with classrooms situated on the third floor of the school overlooking the front facing hallways and parking areas, one set of doors opening into the vast porticos and verandas. All I remember is that by the time I reached Mrs. Khan's class, I had mastered a dichotomous personality. In school, I was shy - some may have gone to the extent of calling me diffident. At home, I was a boisterous older sister - belligerent even.
I missed the first day of seventh grade. When I arrived on the second day, a dark Fall morning of 1995 with ominous gray clouds completely hiding the sun and dense droplets of rain battering my small umbrella, the classroom was swathed in sepia, a combination of the white overhead lights, the pale yellow walls, the polished wooden desks and the dusky sky outside. I took a seat quietly towards the front of the room. I was one of the shortest girls in the class, and by the time I reached seventh grade, I knew how seating charts worked at the Convent, how line formations were arranged during morning assembly and after lunch break, how we were supposed to file out of and into the classroom - shortest girl in the front, tallest in the back. I was usually in the first or second row.
On this day, I was anxious. There were some new faces in the class. Some of my closest friends had been shuffled to a different section. My thoughts had a singular focus: How strict was this new teacher going to be? I remember giving myself a pep talk, "Just raise your hand. Answer questions. Speak up." Over the last two years, as I had become progressively quiet in classes to the point of being laconic, I had also noticed a change in how I was perceived. The widespread impression used to be that if a student didn't participate in class, she was not studious or intelligent. This opinion flowed freely among teachers and distilled down to students. There was no place for introspection at the Convent in those years. Cliques formed based on popularity. Little girls were ruthless in the playground and in school activities. Comparison and competition were handy tools in every parent's conversational toolkit.
Sitting among my classmates in those few minutes before meeting my new teacher, I thought about the project I worked on in the previous school year. The class was divided into 6 groups. Each student group leader was supposed to select five or six members from the class. I was among the last few to be selected. With each leader calling out a name and the girl bounding happily towards her group, I felt anxiety and humiliation rising inside me. "Just because I am quiet," I scolded myself. "They don't want me in their group because they think I am stupid." What other reason could there be? If they had seen my report cards, they would have known how good my marks were. Finally, mercifully, one of the group leaders called my name. She looked at me doubtfully, one perfect eyebrow arched, her smooth forehead furrowed in a frown. After the selection was over, three girls from my group cornered me and said, "We have chosen you, but you better work hard."
Rain continued to splatter all over the concrete hallways outside Mrs. Khan's classroom as I waited for her to arrive and pleaded with myself to come out of my cocoon. Mrs. Khan walked in the door, smoothing her curly shoulder length hair behind her ears, wearing maroon lipstick, belting out a cheerful "Good morning," in her soothing contralto voice. We shot up from our seats and sang out "Good morning, Miss." She proceeded to call out the names of her students to record attendance. When she got to my name, I said in my shy school voice, "Present, Miss." "There you are," she said looking at me and smiling. "You're finally here. Noor-ul-Ain Noor," she read from her register (that's how I spelled my name back then). "Noor-ul-Ain Noor," she repeated. "N, A, N. NAN! You're NAN! I love naan!" From that day forward, to Mrs. Khan, I was NAN, and to me, she was the woman who changed the way I saw myself and made me realize that I should probably care less about how others perceived me. This doesn't mean that I didn't continue to encounter negative experiences that most schoolgirls do, but I knew how to recover from the really bad ones. You just keep moving on, because you know that there are people like Mrs. Khan who believe in you.
It was a remarkable school year for me. Mrs. Khan taught us English language and literature. I poured myself into the texts we were studying. I read Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess in the first two weeks of school. I raised my hand whenever Mrs. Khan asked a question in class. Most weekends, I accompanied my family to our farmhouse. I remember lounging in a makeshift hammock under an ancient banyan tree, and working on an assignment for Mrs. Khan. It was to summarize a few chapters of A Little Princess. When I got my notebook back, I opened it to find compliments from her in the margins, "Excellent! Good! What an improvement!" I worked harder than ever before, and under her praise and guidance, I blossomed.
In the middle of the school year, Mrs. Khan announced an English language test. The test would include an essay and some grammar exercises. By this time, I had received plenty of praise for my writing from Mrs. Khan. She had given me meaningful comments on the work I had submitted. She had noticed my sentence structure, my story-telling. She had told me it was "very good." For the first time, I began to feel that what I had to say was important, what I had to say may resonate with someone. This was not like other subjects. This was not like an A in Biology, for which I had studied for hours and memorized the process of photosynthesis just as it was written in the textbook. This was something I was creating. I was putting myself into those essays, formulating a voice, an opinion, a style - and it was being read and appreciated.
That year, Mrs. Khan was single-handedly responsible for altering my perception of myself. I was still quiet in my classes, but I was learning to hold my pen confidently and tell a story with it. When I started working on the English language test, I was a different person - I was the character in the story I was writing. The topic was "A Fire." Those days, we were hearing about violence in Karachi, just as we hear about it now. Fires breaking out, bombs in marketplaces, scores dead in sectarian violence, or in poorly contained battles between warring political parties. In my story, I was not NAN. I was a girl in Karachi who went shopping before Eid festivities with her cousin and best friend, Saliha. In the marketplace, there was a blast followed by a fire, and Saliha perished in the flames. The conclusion of the story portrayed the grief of this child, the scorched clothes that would never be worn on Eid day, broken bangles littering the street - rather morbid for an 11-year-old to write, but it was the reality I saw every day in the news.
When Mrs. Khan passed the test papers back to us, I saw something that heartened me. "28/30 EXCELLENT!" She told us how well we had all done in the test, and followed this with an account of the story that had touched her deeply, made her cry. It was the best submission in the class, written by NAN. By me. I was best in class. I felt rather than saw curious and shocked faces of my classmates staring at me. I remember not knowing what to do with my own face. Should I smile? Should I remain serious? I settled for looking right at my teacher, the teacher who had inspired me to actually write that story to begin with. She beamed at me. "Well done!" Immediately, girls started asking me to pass my story to them so they could read it. I obliged - stunned, humbled, excited, happy, but most of all, grateful to this miracle of a woman, who probably never knew what a monumental positive force she had been in my life during that year.
Today, 18 years later, I still have that essay in my book of memories. Next to it I have a certificate recognizing my excellence in English Literature awarded to me by Mrs. Khan. These items have traveled with me from Lahore all the way to California. I have looked at them before every major academic event in my life. In my senior year of college, after pulling an all-nighter to study for the upcoming final of Eukaryotic Genetics, I opened up my book of memories and found that the story, written in fountain pen, had washed away, but Mrs. Khan's writing in red ball-point ink was still present. I breathed in looking at the essay, remembering that difficult time, the girl I was. I can take this final, no problem, I thought. Back then, my scornful classmates used to roll their eyes and warn me that I "better work hard." Now, my college friends playfully called me "the bitch who kills the curve with a 100% every time." I had come a long way from that lonely place, but my journey had begun with Mrs. Khan, with her kindness and her warmth, her compassionate eyes, her wide easy grin, her perfectly clipped nails, her fingers poised over notebooks with a red pen, and her comments on my work that elevated me in my own eyes.
Mrs. Khan passed away suddenly a few hours ago. I found out through the Facebook page for the Association of Ex Convent Students. From the shock and sorrow expressed by many young women on Facebook, I can tell that I was just one girl, one insignificant link in Mrs. Khan's epic story. There are hundreds of girls like me. There are more of us who don't fit inside a traditional mold than ones that do. We carry within us a plethora of stories. We may be shy or introverted. We may have witnessed our parents worrying about money. We may be the way we are because of other, more serious or sinister reasons. Abuse. Low self-esteem. Learning disabilities. Broken families. Mrs. Khan was among those rare educators who implicitly and readily recognize that there is diversity among their students. One size does not fit all. She knew it, and it came naturally to her. She listened to what her girls were saying to her. I could see it in the way she cocked her head to one side upon hearing a question, in the way she smoothed her hand over her hair, tucked a stray lock behind her ear, and said in that deep honey-dipped voice, "Now...", carefully weighing each word, looking right at the small face with the small voice, letting her know that her question was important, valuable, meaningful. Mrs. Khan will live on in the countless lives she touched and changed for the better.
My last meeting with Mrs. Khan was in August 2000, on the day I received my O-level result, which was absolutely average. My studying habits had lapsed considerably in my last year of school, and that was reflected in my meager 3 As. I don't know what came over me, but I went straight from school to Mrs. Khan's house and turned up unannounced at her doorstep. She opened the door and looked at me with concern in her eyes. "I have it," I said. "I have the result. It's not good. Only 3 As." She paused and took this in. "An A in English?" she asked me. "Yes," I said incredulously like she had insulted me. "Yes, of course I have an A in English." Her face broke into a grin. "Come here, NAN!" And she wrapped me into her arms.
Mrs. Khan's photograph copied from the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Lahore blog.
Photos of the school campus copied from the CJM ACES Facebook Group.
I cannot recall now if the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Lahore, the beautiful and imposing building I came to love during my childhood and early adolescent years of schooling, had a Christmas tree every December. When I close my eyes, I can see the beautiful red satin bow that appeared on the door of the main hall (a room I imagine every time I read about the Great Hall of Hogwarts) during the month of December. I cannot decide whether there used to be a Christmas tree somewhere on the grounds or not - I can picture a Christmas tree when I try to think back, but I don't know if it is a true memory or something that I have crafted after seeing hundreds of well-decorated trees around me over the years. I do remember clearly, however, peeping into the main hall when classes were in session, or passing by one of the audio/visual rooms and seeing the Christmas play preparation by the Catholic students.
I have always loved this time of year. I am not sure now if it felt as festive back home - too many years have passed and my memory is rusty. I feel as though Lahore used to light up from within during December, maybe because this month coincided with the settlement of winter in the city. A thick fog became ever present in the evenings. Roadside stands opened up, selling everything from toasted peanuts to hunter beef. Street vendors sold walnuts and pine nuts and raisins by the kilo. Chai-sellers boosted their sales, too. Chicken corn soup stands sprouted up overnight in marketplaces. On Christmas Eve, my father used to buy cakes from the local bakery and we would drive to one of the local churches to visit his friend, Father Morris after evening mass and distribute the cakes. One year, my father bought a beautiful crystal slab with a sterling silver cross embedded into it. I presented it to one of my teachers as a Christmas gift who was overjoyed by it. I only have a handful of these memories, but they still fill me with so much warmth and comfort. Just thinking about the great airy corridors and verandahs of the school fills me with a sense of security.
When I first moved to America, I started helping out a family friend with her business at the mall while taking classes full-time. I memorized all the Christmas songs on the track that was played from 9AM to 10PM every day in the mall as I worked. I began to hum "Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer" absentmindedly at home. Some days I worked well past midnight preparing orders for customers. For two consecutive years, I stayed in the mall until the small hours on Christmas Eve. On those days especially, even with so much Christmas cheer around me, I found myself wishing to be transported to the simpler days of childhood, for the cobbled pathways and perfectly manicured lawns of the Convent and the small L-shaped cafeteria counter where I used to buy my lunch every day. The girls used to call all the men serving at the counter by the same name: "Bernard." Perhaps the man who worked there many years ago was called Bernard, and the name just became associated with whoever was behind that counter. Generations of girls probably called different men "Bernard." Simple times.
|Christmas in Utah|
I stopped working at the mall during my junior year because of my upper division class-load and plant science research. During the last two years of college, I spent my Christmas break in the lab, extracting DNA and doing PCR and watching ABC's 25 days of Christmas every evening. One year, I went with my college roommate, who has been nothing less than big sister to me, to Logan, Utah to visit her parents. It was the first time I saw real fresh powdery snow, a blanket of it all around me. My roommate, Haena, and her mom made me warm and satisfying meals and we spent long mornings underneath quilts watching Korean dramas. On Christmas Eve, we went to the church and Haena's father, the pastor, introduced me to the congregation. We prayed. They sang. It was beautiful and touching (and so, so, so cold outside - I don't think I have ever worn that many layers. Living in California has spoiled me).
The other day, while talking about Christmas at work, I suddenly realized that we are already two weeks into the month of December, and I have not had the time to watch a single cheesy made-for-TV Christmas movie! I have come to associate the month of December with general laziness, shopping, and watching television and films guilt-free. I am only now realizing, during my third December with Jahan, that the Christmas season has once again undergone a profound change for me. This year, I will watch all my favorite movies during my two weeks off from work. "Love, Actually" will probably be played multiple times along with "Home Alone." But I am also looking forward to doing a great deal of thinking and writing - an annual winter organization of thoughts and ideas, so to speak - a quiet and reflective Christmas break.
|Photo by Rebecca McCue|