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Why Pakistani schools continue to fail students like Aafiya

Updated September 05, 2017

“If I were a bird… my wings would be very large. So I can fly very very far. Then I will be friends with all the planets, even Jupiter. I will fly and visit them every day. I play with them … and dance sometimes…”

I had given Aafiya the prompt “If I were a bird…” for her five-minute English speech assessment as per the school midterm requirement. I smiled as I read the ideas she was coming up with in her draft. There are few things as special as being allowed inside the imagination of a child.

Until Aafiya’s presentation on Thursday, I boasted to my colleagues, my family and my friends about my brilliant 6th grader in an NGO school in Karachi where I taught. I would emphasise how she was far behind her grade level in English but was nonetheless trying to express herself and just how cute Aafiya’s speech was going to be.

On that Thursday, Aafiya began: “If I were a bird I would be a parrot. I would be green colour. I would fly. I would have two feet. I would have one beak. My name would be Polly. I would eat chili and guava. I would copy and talk like people…”

Aafiya had changed her speech. It wasn’t a bad speech, but it wasn’t the speech where she would cheerfully glide through the solar system. I felt let down but encouraged and praised her nonetheless. When I asked her after school—out of a nagging disappointment and curiosity—what made her change the content of her speech, she stared at me blankly.

Perhaps, she didn’t know the answer. Perhaps, my tone gave away my disappointment despite my conscious efforts to hide it. Perhaps, my questioning confused her because she thought she was giving a safe speech, one that I would like better.

Safe. That’s how most of my students were being taught to play life. It was when I started teaching class nine that this observation hit me hardest. We read a chapter on Mohenjo-daro from a book that hasn’t changed in 60 years. My students answered comprehension questions that my parents had answered when they were in class nine. My students copied those answers from a guide book that they purchased from a second-hand book store, because the guide book answers, unlike their own answers, were guaranteed safe.

I was to learn that Aafiya changed the content of her speech on her private tutor’s insistence who had told her that her original ideas and grammar weren’t “sahih”. In fact, she had written all of Aafiya’s speech. She had told Aafiya that her ideas about flying to and visiting planets had nothing to do with being a bird and a speech about birds should be about the bird itself.

The technicalities and mechanics of speaking, thinking, and birds—that’s what Aafiya learnt through this exercise. But she also learnt a few more unfortunate lessons:

Compliance.
That it is always better to conform.
That her thoughts are immature at best and unimportant at worst.
That as a younger person she didn’t know. And had to be told.
That it is best to be a standard green parrot who mimics the speech of others.

I wish I had sat down with Aafiya to validate her original ideas and work with her to develop her initial speech. I wish I had worked with her so that she could know what it looks like to see one’s own thoughts in writing— what it feels like to name one’s imaginings.

I grew up—in extreme privilege—reading and writing English stories with non-Pakistani characters and non-Pakistani issues: about girl scouts and camping and eating brownies. When I didn’t want to write about Rachels or Erics in California—because everybody else was writing about them—I wrote about ambiguous Chizari (a combination of China, Zara, and Riyadh—a country I wanted to visit, my name, and my place of birth respectively) who lived in Kurami (a mysterious sounding non-sense word that just popped in my head at the time).

And then one day I wrote a story completely about myself. I wrote about dealing with my grandmother’s death. I wrote my father’s life stories. The time I was saddest and happiest, and most scared. Sometimes my protagonist was fictional but I made her see what I saw. Hear what I heard. Writing offered me comfort, therapy, a sense of shedding a heavy weight, and the opportunity to create something. It allowed me to respect and love my identity.


And if there is one thing I hope my students took from me it is that they and everything about their identity matters. Their likes and dislikes, their imagination, their humour, their fears, their exhilarations, their love, and their mistakes… all matter. Tremendously.

A just society not only requires the marginalised to know and be vocal about their oppressions as well their rights, but it is even more important that the privileged form alliances to work with disadvantaged groups in their struggles for justice. It is my faith in this idea that makes me emphasise the need for us to appreciate every students’ experiences and intuitions.

My third-generation Bengali refugee students.
My Punjabi Christian students.
My high achieving seventh grader who had to drop out of school to earn for his family.
Rabia, who had watched her father be murdered.
Saleema, who had watched her father murder.
Mahrukh, who never wore a clean uniform.
Fahim, who saw a dead body on his way to school one day and was told never to talk about it again.

These students and many more must tell their stories over and over again, spamming the world with their voice. And those of us in positions of relative power must not only guard those voices from being silenced but make space for those voices to be amplified and honoured.

I would get so caught up in telling my students what they need to know for their exams that I would neglect to tell them that what they already know in life through their experiences is just as significant, if not more. If they don’t write their stories, then who will? And if we don’t teach them to write those stories… who will?


As teachers we should never doubt both the subtle and overt privilege, power and ability we hold for facilitating social change. We have to learn to listen to our students’ stories—and their silence.

Whether it is English, Urdu, or any other subject, we need to find ways to teach our students to start gathering knowledge from within themselves first. It will help them to stay in touch with and value the human that they are and through that, the human that everyone else is.

Their ethnicities, their faiths, their traditions, their gender, their languages… all matter. Immensely. Their hunger. Their lack of sleep. Their forced migrations. Their shrimp-peeling nails. Their glass-dust inhaling lungs. The acrid contaminated gund-factory* air that lives on their skin. It all matters. Severely.


*Gund-factories process dead animals and animal by-products to produce low grade oil and fodder for livestock, creating and spreading a nauseating stench that engulfs large areas of its surrounding neighbourhoods. This included my school.

All names have been changed for privacy.


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