Remembering Sister Zinia

Updated 09 Oct 2013


LAST Saturday was World Teachers’ Day. It is now universally recognised that teachers — their ability, integrity, competence and compassion — are the key determinants of the quality of education a country offers to its children.

A good teacher is an asset and to a great extent atones for the flaws in a system that produces shoddy textbooks, schools lacking decent infrastructure and missing library and laboratory facilities. Above all a teacher — who cares, inspires, and is innovative— can transform a child’s life.

So the idea of a Teachers’ Day is a brilliant one. Teachers also deserve appreciation and what better way can there be to boost their morale than recognition from their students?

The teacher I specially want to pay tribute to was not my teacher. She was more. She was my daughters’ teacher at my alma mater, the St Joseph’s Convent (SJC) school in Karachi. She was Sister Zinia Pinto, who gave strength to thousands who passed through the school’s portals and was a guide for their parents.

Sister Zinia remained closely identified with the SJC for over 50 years as she steered the school with a steady hand as the principal from 1966 to 1999 through the stormy shoals that characterised education in Pakistan — a period when nationalisation, denationalisation, privatisation and the commercialisation of schools ruined the structure of education in the country. On Sept 7, which would have been her 81st birthday had she lived — she died on June 4, 2013 — the alumni and students of the SJC gathered to pay tribute to a person who was loved and cherished by all whose lives she had touched. Colleagues, fellow nuns, and parents whose children had been under her tutelage were present.

There was a magic about Sister Zinia that enchanted people. The flood of adjectives and the richness of description in the speeches made on the occasion clearly demonstrated what an extraordinary life was being celebrated. They ranged from “esteemed”, “outstanding”, “giver of strength”, “visionary”, “mentor” and “role model” as teacher, administrator and principal, to “accomplished individual” who could assert her quiet moral authority.

Each of these reflect on her professionalism because a professional is not a robot that is programmed to act in a particular way. The first quality a teacher must have, and Sister Zinia had it in abundance, is the human touch. The anecdotal evidence presented by speaker after speaker kept the audience glued to their seats, laughing and crying at the same time. While she was a disciplinarian of the highest order, a child was a child to be handled gently. “You have come here for educational purposes and not for recreational purposes,” she was fond of reminding students who were not too inclined to study. But then study they did as the SJC results year after year showed. That was the teacher in her.

There was also the administrator in her who understood the child. Many of the ideas being expounded now had been implemented 30 years ago by the SJC under Sister Zinia. She did not hold exams in the primary school and most children were promoted at the end of the year. She felt it was wrong to diminish a child by ranking students when reports were given. She would say that if she had her way a child would not be sent to school before eight years of age. That is how it had been with her and she did not feel she had lost out in any way.

Her forte as an educationist? Her intuitive ability to blend the old and the new. She knew which traditions and conventions had to be retained to give the school a sense of continuity and stability and what new disciplines and pedagogical methods had to be introduced to help keep it abreast with the times. Sister Zinia had the foresight and the vision to anticipate the dawn of the computer age in education. Though computer illiterate herself, she was the first educationist in Pakistan to push for computer education for which she was awarded a shield sometime in the ’90s.

All this was in the academic field. Behind the professional exterior was a warm heart full of tolerance and ears that were always willing to listen. As a devout Christian missionary — she took her vows as a Daughter of the Cross in Belgium in 1958 — one would have thought that her interest in the temporal would be limited. But that was not so. Viewing all humans as the best creation of God, Sister Zinia wanted to help them all.

Education was the field she had chosen and she excelled in it and her services were for the people of this country — mostly Muslims — who she had come to serve from Goa in 1953. She was above all prejudices and a good representative of Christianity whose main goal was the service of humanity. It is people like these who foster love and solidarity among communities, whatever be their faith. The presence of such people is needed on both sides to make connections and forge links between faiths. As the bigger community in Pakistan, Muslims should be extending the hand of friendship to all others.

This is unfortunately missing. Hence it was a great gesture from the SJC Alumni to arrange a solidarity meeting last week to express support in the wake of the attacks on the All Saints Church in Peshawar. Let more flowers of solidarity bloom.