One month on; my brother’s tribute to my father.

P.A. to Paaji

Today, as I write this, is the 30th of November, 2018. The love of my life, the pillar of my strength, my rock, my role model, my stunningly handsome father, my source of pride and my source of joy, the man I so desperately wanted to imitate, the man I so wanted to be, the man I always looked up to and the man I always sought guidance from, heeded the call of our Most Merciful Lord, our Creator and our Sustainer and left us on the 31th of October, 2018 and so exactly one month has come and gone.

It has been exactly one month since I stepped down into my father’s grave and gently lowered him into it. This would be the last time I would feel his touch. This would be the last time I would feel his weight in my arms. This would be the last time I would look at his beautiful face. It was about 5:30 pm but the sun was still shining and my father’s left eye was slightly open and it still twinkled in the sunshine. He definitely had the most beautiful eyes. This would be the last time would see his eyes, the last time my eyes would see the twinkle in his eye. He was so beautiful. Truly a gift from the Almighty!

P.A. to Paaji – meaning “Personal Assistant to elder brother”. There is a story behind this, a story of my love for my father. Once my aunt called us and I had picked up the phone and she thought it was my father who answered the phone and in a display of respect which is common in our culture, she would always address my father as “Paaji” meaning elder brother. So she thinking it was not me but my father at the other end of the phone call, started the conversation with the Islamic greeting of “Asalam-o-alaikom Paaji”. It was a moment to EXTREME pride for me to think someone mistook me for my father!! I sounded like my father?? WHAT A COMPLIMENT!! But I knew very well that I would be the luckiest person alive if I could be half the man my father was. So my response to my Aunt addressing me as “Paaji” (elder brother) was to tell her in a way that she would know it was me and not my father who answered the phone and also convey the fact that I could never be as great a man as my father and the best I could be if I tried real hard would be to become a personal assistant to my father, be someone that reported to him, someone that had a habit of addressing his father as “Sir”.

Exactly one month ago, the Almighty with His infinite wisdom decided to replace me from the position of “P.A. to Paaji” with a shiny Angel from the heavens. Exactly one month ago, my father, my Superman, man I would always address as “Sir” left us and ascended in the company of Allah’s angels to go live in that shiny palace made of silver and gold in the heavens up above. Oh sweet God, I miss my father so much. I shall always be incomplete without him.

Oh my sweetest Daddy, may Allah’s angels wrap you in their wings, may Allah Almighty in His infinite wisdom and infinite mercy shower you with all His blessings and may we soon meet again in heaven and may I look at your beautiful face and proudly declare “P.A to Paaji reporting for duty sir!”.

Irfan Afzal 30th Nov 2018

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My father, my rock

The little girl, no older than five, sat by the window looking out. She was feeling unwell and was running a temperature. It was evening and the street was lit. The evening traffic was heavy; people were going home from work and others were out shopping. The street lights, the headlights of the cars, the pedestrians walking quickly to get to their destination were keeping the little girl engrossed. Suddenly she caught sight of a donkey cart on the road. She was fascinated by the cart which seemed out of place amongst the cars. She had been lethargic but on seeing the donkey cart she stood up to get a better view. Her father was sitting beside her. She was his princess and she was unwell and he wanted to stay near her, comfort her. When the cart passed from the little girl’s sight, she turned towards her father and, with tears in her eyes, said,” I want a donkey cart”. He gathered her in his arms, kissed her and stood up. He called out to his wife that he was going out. A little while later he returned. He had in his hand a little, wooden toy donkey cart. He gave it to his daughter who looked up at him and smiled. The father’s name was Mian Iftkhar Afzal. The little girl was me. He was and will always be my hero.

This was typical of my father. He loved us totally and made sure we lacked nothing. This isn’t to say he spoilt us. We were taught what Islam expects of us. We were taught that manners maketh the man. We were taught the difference between right and wrong. We were taught the importance of good education. We were taught to respect our elders. We were taught what’s worth doing is worth doing well.

He once said to me, “As long as I’m alive your problems are not your problems. Your problems are my problems”. And he proved this time and time again. Just one of a million examples of this was the time I was visiting him. My eldest daughter, Sara, was around three at that time. The time difference meant we were quite jet lagged and on top of that I wasn’t well. Daddy came to my room and said he would take Sara to his room so I could get some rest. Sara loved her grandfather and happily went with him. She then spent the whole night chatting with him. My father stayed up the whole night entertaining my daughter so that his daughter could get some rest. That was just the way he was; nothing was too much trouble for him where we were concerned.

Another example of this was when I went to Norwich for my MPhil. As this was an entirely research based course I used to go to the lab at a time dictated by the experiment I was running. This meant sometimes I was in the lab till quite late. My father was uneasy about my walking back home late at night. He called me and said he was sending me money and asked me to buy a car. The way his children travelled to and from educational institutions was something he was always concerned about. He would pick and drop us when we were at school. He only stopped doing this when I passed my driving test. My friends say that their memory of my father is of a tall, handsome man picking up his daughter, holding her hand and crossing the street to get to the car. After my Masters I started teaching at university. One monsoon season the city experienced a really heavy downpour. My father rang me and asked me not to drive home by myself as the roads were flooded. His office was at the opposite end of the city. He drove to the university himself (a distance of about 25km) and picked me up.

My father was a highly accomplished man. Research on cotton and textiles was his passion but he was interested in all manner of things. His knowledge of Islam, Islamic history, Pakistan’s history, literature and politics to name a few was legendary. He was writing opinion pieces for newspapers till the very end. I grew up surrounded by books and for that I’m eternally grateful. I loved sitting with him and listening to him; he could make the past come alive, he could make the future sound exciting. He would recite relevant verses from the Quran, he would recall ahadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad pbuh) which were relevant to the topic we were discussing. He would quote Persian poetry, he would recite poetry by Allama Iqbal. How many times did he make me smile by quoting Oscar Wilde.

Daddy was someone who wouldn’t compromise on his principles. An example of this is from the time he was working for the UNESCO in Sri Lanka. When we arrived in Colombo someone told him that in order to be accepted socially and to network he would have to serve alcohol. Being a Muslim buying, storing and serving alcohol was against his principles so this was something he wasn’t prepared to do. He said he didn’t want this social acceptance at the price of his principles. Turns out that that person was misguided; my father and the rest of us never faced any discrimination because of our religion and no one ever refused his invitation.

I have followed his example in my social dealings with people. I have a very large circle of friends and they know I don’t drink or serve alcohol. Seeing my father stick to his principles has made it easy for me to stick to mine.

My parents were married for 58 glorious, marvellous years. He treated my mother like a queen. Once my mother had seen and admired a gold necklace. The next day my father went to the shop and bought it. The shopkeeper was amazed that he didn’t look at anything else or haggle (something very common in Pakistan). The fact that my mother liked it was enough for him. The day they got married he added her name to all his accounts. All family decisions were hers to make.

He was proud of all his children (I’m the eldest and I have a brother and a sister). He told us that all he asked of us was that we did the best that we could. He treated us like prince and princesses. No matter how old I grew, it was comforting to have my hand held in his tight grip, to be enveloped in his hug, to know that he would never let any harm come my way.

The fact that family is important is something I’ve learnt from him. The fact that my teachers deserve my respect is something I’ve learnt from him. The importance of sticking to one’s principles, of doing what’s right is something I’ve learnt from him. Most importantly he and my mother have taught me how to be a good parent and for this I can never thank them enough.

My brother, Irfan’s tribute.

إِنَّا لِلّهِ وَإِنَّـا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعون

                                       We surely belong to Allah and to Him we shall return

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I sometimes wonder if life would have been easier if the only person we cared for was ourselves. If you have loved and cared deeply for someone and death robs you of this joy, the resulting grief is all powerful; it engulfs you. Would life be simpler if we didn’t care about anyone and hence didn’t grieve?

Grief is like thick, thick fog. It descends upon you. It surrounds you. You can’t see through it. You know there’s a whole world out there but for the moment all you can see is the thick, grey fog. You move slowly, so slowly, through the fog, hoping and praying that it will lift.

This fog of grief can be short lived or it can last for days, even months. The interval between the foggy days can be short or seemingly endless. There is no pattern to this, at least not one you can see. People tell you it will become easier, the fog will lift but when you’re surrounded by it, that doesn’t seem possible.

When the fog eventually lifts it reveals either a grey, wet, miserable day or one where the sun has managed to push aside the clouds and make the day a bit brighter. If it’s the former, you carry on, acutely aware that the fog may descend again. If it’s the latter, you feel guilty for enjoying the sunshine, for welcoming the break in the clouds. If feels as if by letting the sun shine on your face you are dishonouring their memory. You feel scared that you’ll forget them. You wish that the sun would hide behind the clouds, that the fog would engulf you again so you can reassure yourself that you haven’t forgotten, that you’re still hurting, that you are still missing them, that you’ll always miss them.

One day, out of the blue, something reminds you of the day they had said something which had made you laugh, laugh so hard that you had cried. Then you think that though it hurts like hell now, you wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on sharing a laugh with them. The tears of grief that you shed now are a small price to pay for the tears of joy you had shed with them. So, life may have been easier if we just cared for ourselves but it would have been a life devoid of joy, of laugher, of happiness, of love.

Death, you took away the person but you can’t take away the memories, the memories which now help me move out of the fog into sunshine. And I know they would want me to feel the sun on my face again. They know that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten them.

I never will.

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Open Garden Squares Weekend 9-10 June 2018

Jo Penn and I spent last weekend exploring gardens which had been opened to public. Below are descriptions (taken from the Open Squares Guide book/website) and my pictures of the gardens we visited.

King Henry’s Walk Garden:

In this hidden organic garden, local residents grow their own vegetables, fruit and flowers; join in the year-round programme of workshops and events; or simply relax in a peaceful environment.

Visitors can enjoy the ornamental flower borders around the lawn, wander through the mini-plots that are rented out to local people, or watch the pondlife and the many birds that visit the garden.

As well as espalier and fan-trained fruit trees, the site  includes a small area of woodland, most unusual in this part of Islington, which is managed as an area of wildlife habitat. All planting has been planned to encourage biodiversity and attract beneficial insects.

The garden is run on sustainable principles: using recycled materials where possible; composting all garden waste; and collecting rainwater.

St James Close:

Private communal garden surrounded on three sides by a church and Victorian almshouses. The property belongs to the Church of England and most of the residents have some connection with the church.

The garden consists of a small lawned area and beds of herbaceous perennials and shrubs. It is a secluded haven of calm in a busy, densely populated area and much appreciated by the residents.

Gardener: Maggie Ford

International Lutheran Student Centre (ILSC) sunken courtyard:

The private courtyard of St Mary with St George German Lutheran Church and the International Lutheran Student Centre (ILSC), is a sunken haven.

It was created on a site damaged during WW2, to provide a safe, calm place for student residents and members of the Church congregation and community to work and relax, planted with a variegated Weigala and Japanese rowan tree surrounded by ground-level beds and hanging baskets.

In St Mary’s Church, which opens onto the garden, there is a sculpture of Christ on the Cross by Elisabeth Frink, who also created the wonderful Walking Madonna at Salisbury Cathedral.

British Medical Association Garden:

The garden of the British Medical Association is a hidden secret on the site of Charles Dickens’ house on the corner of Tavistock Square. It was designed by architect Sir Edwin Lutyens and is today planted extensively with medicinal herbs.

Planting is refreshingly green around a central oval pool and the use of physic plants among the planting bears witness to the continuing role of plants in contemporary pharmacology.

Our 2017 planting explores medicinal herbs and their historical role in health and nutrition.

Gardener: Ms Daniela Sikora


MaRoCoCo Garden at Rococo Chocolates:

A small courtyard garden behind Rococo Chocolates. The layout by Dræyk van der Hørn of Bonnington Square Pleasure Garden was executed by Chantal Coady, the shop’s founder, who has also been closely involved with the Bonnington Square gardens.

Once a neglected city space, with a lone acacia tree, the garden now features a Moroccan tile mosaic and is filled with fragrant plants – all used in the Rococo repertoire: rose, lavender, geranium, mint, jasmine and a kaffir lime. The result is a stunning asymmetric mirrored courtyard in the middle of Belgravia.

Many elements in the garden are recycled: old mirrors came from the late Lady Rusheen Wynn-Jones’ house in Sprimont Place and tiles from Dar Interiors. The garden is now a favourite hangout for local birds, with a couple of resident robins, a family of blackbirds, and even a great-spotted woodpecker visiting the garden.

Ham Yard Hotel Rooftop Garden:

This leafy rooftop garden is set on the fourth floor of Ham Yard Hotel, with sweeping views over the London skyline. Designed to satisfy the senses, the garden is watched over by two ancient olive trees and surrounded by apple and pear espaliers.

Now over two years old, the garden blooms all year round with seasonal flowers, from poppies and lemon verbena to jasmine, creating a wild meadow.

Raised beds made of railway sleepers and picket-fencing form salad, herb and vegetable gardens. There is a lounge area scattered with Whitman benches and a settle with upholstered seats.

Gardeners: Clive and Kate Goodman

Courtfield Garden West:

A mid-Victorian garden, dominated by a spectacular London plane tree, containing a wide variety of shrubs and rare ornamental trees. Examples include: wedding cake tree, handkerchief tree, tobacco tree and giant sequoias.

The Square dates from 1873 and takes its name from ‘Court Fields’, a meadow in the estate of the Earl’s Court Manor House – demolished when the Underground was constructed.

Recent improvements include the reinstatement of perimeter railings which were sacrificed for the WWII war effort; wildlife haven with pond, several tropical beds; orchard of native fruit trees; play area and Victorian gazebo and arbour.

Courtfield Gardens West has received many London Garden Competition Awards over the years and is popular with visitors to Open Garden Squares Weekend.

Contract gardener: Garden Associates – Robert Player

I wonder if a fairy resides in this tree!

Courtfield Garden East:

In the mid 19th century most of the area between Earls Court Road and Gloucester Road was part of the Gunter estate.

When plans were being made to develop the area around Earls Court Manor House (next to the site of the present Earls Court Station) the Gunter family gave a portion of the fields as a site for a new church.

St Jude’s opened on Christmas Eve 1870 and closed as a parish church in 2004. Today the building houses St Mellitus Theological College.

The surrounding deeply sunken garden has ornamental flowerbeds and a bank of azaleas and rhododendrons with an abundance of self-seeded violets.

Wilton Crescent Garden:

Wilton Crescent was an addition by Thomas Cundy, the Grosvenor Estate surveyor, to the original 1821 Wyatt plan for Belgravia.

Today this crescent-shaped garden is planted with a white theme and is a tranquil enclave only a stone’s throw from Belgrave Square. Modern sculpture mixes with imposing London plane trees.

The garden was highly commended in the 2011 London Gardens Society Competition. Senior Gardener: Dean Evans

Eaton Square Garden:

Eaton Square is one of London’s premier addresses. The layout, along with Belgrave Square, was begun in 1826 by Thomas Cubitt for the Grosvenor Estate. The square was named after Eaton Hall in Cheshire, home of the landowner, the Duke of Westminster. The gardens flanked either side of what was the main approach to Buckingham Palace.

Today the garden remains a tranquil retreat of formal lawns, shady pathways and quiet seating areas divided between six main enclosures. The central garden on the south side is open for OGSW. In 2015 these perfectly manicured gardens received London in Bloom’s ‘Small Park of the Year’ award.

Mixed borders around two formal lawns are divided by a path and seating through a shaded enclave. In addition, there is a tennis court with a planted walking area around the outside and formal raised beds, which always offer a vibrant display in time for open days. Sundials, water features and garden sculptures by David Harber are currently on display around the garden.

Famous past residents include prime minister Neville Chamberlain (no. 37) and actress Vivien Leigh (no. 54).

Senior Gardener: Brett Domnall

Chester Square Garden:

Chester Square was laid out between 1828 and 1840 by the 1st Duke of Westminster and his surveyor and architect Thomas Cundy II as part of the Grosvenor Estate. St Michael’s Church on the west side was also designed by Thomas Cundy and still provides a backdrop to the garden today.

The garden is planted with shrub and herbaceous borders and contains a delightful central rose garden. Just under 1.5 acres in size, it was restored in 1997 to the layout that appears in the Ordnance Survey map of 1867. Rope-edged tiles and some original trees have survived.

The garden’s essence today is one of peace and tranquillity. Past residents include the poet Matthew Arnold (1822-88) at no. 2, and Mary Shelley (1797-1851), author of Frankenstein at no. 24.

Senior Gardener: Dean Evans

The change in the bark seen in the above picture is the graft point at the height commonly used in Victorian nurseries.

The Catalpa bignonioides (Indian bean tree) doesn’t come from India and doesn’t have beans. It’s grown for its large, heart shaped leaves (seen below) and long pods. It’s a native to eastern United States and takes its name from the Native American tribe located in the region where it was first located.

Almond tree (Prunus dulcis) is a native of Mediterranean regions of the Middle East. It is thriving in this sheltered corner of Chester Square.

Belgrave Square:

Belgrave Square Garden is Belgravia’s green and leafy centrepiece. This 4.5-acre private garden was designed by George Basevi and first planted by Thomas Cubitt in 1826 to act as a landscape to the grand new houses of the square.

Influenced by a design of John Claudius Loudon, the layout of the square remains faithful to its original network of paths and retains some of the original planting in the form of mature planes. A central path curves through pergolas overhung with wisteria and roses.

The garden is large enough to lose yourself in and grand enough to balance the imposing mansions that surround it. Four summer houses with covered seating known as ‘the temples’ have been added around the inner path. More obvious recent additions are the tennis court, children’s playground, and outdoor gym.

The statuary around the garden reflects the international nature of the square and offers a rare chance to see a collection of modern figurative work. A 1998 statue of Sir Robert Grosvenor by Jonathan Wylder at the corner of Wilton Crescent features a quote from John Ruskin: ‘When we build, let us think we build for ever’.

The Belgrave Square garden committee seeks to balance the maintenance of the garden’s historic character with the needs and expectations of modern users.

Senior Gardener: Stuart Camm

This was the first year I’ve explored gardens under the Open Garden Squares Weekend scheme. I’ll definitely be back next year! I would love to see more rooftop gardens (including the Nomura International PLC) as well as the Inner Temple and Middle Temple

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My moral compass

Recently (and rightly) there has been a lot of discussion, especially on social media, about the lack of enough female leaders and about lack of enough BAME leaders. Numbers are quoted but I’m never sure if the numbers tell the whole story or if they actually do tell a story. If X% of classroom teachers are female does it necessarily follow that X% of head should be female? Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying there isn’t a problem. What I am saying is that looking and comparing these two figures may not tell us if there is a problem. What if there are Y% of heads who are female and X-Y are the number of female teachers who do not want to proceed up the leadership pole? I am not saying that’s the case because I have no way of knowing and that’s the problem! We need robust research into this (and not anecdotes) then maybe we’ll come to some conclusions and then we can find solutions if the research shows there’s a problem.

The other thing which gets a lot of reaction on social media is “appointing the best person for the job”. Sometimes the reaction I see is one along the lines of

  • You mean you couldn’t find a X (insert a characteristic) person to appoint?
  • Are you saying no X person was better?
  • You SAY you’re colour blind but…

I’m speaking for myself as I write this. I have had all of the above said to me at some point or the other. The fact is that

  • I can only look at the applications which come in
  • I do judge them on merit
  • I can’t say if a person better than the one appointed isn’t out there but I can only appoint if they apply
  • Yes, the information which goes out will show that being inclusive is important to me

And why can I say the above? Because I can look myself in the mirror, I can sleep at night knowing I’ve done the best for the children and because I have a strong moral purpose which tells me that I need to do the best I can for the children. I will not appoint someone less able than the other candidate in order to tick a box. My moral compass is always pointing towards my moral purpose and that’s the direction I travel towards when making these decisions. Again, to reiterate, I am talking about myself. I don’t doubt that there are others who are also driven by strong morals. I’m also not making a judgement on your moral purpose if you don’t think the way I do. All I’m saying is if you see/read someone saying they appoint the best candidate/ask the best available person to sit on a panel/are colour blind then just do them the honour of believing them and don’t pass judgement on them or put them down by making a patronising remark.

People talk a lot about needing to give children role models. Well, it’s time we put our money where our mouth is and become a role model on how to react when we hear any of the above.

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My grandfathers, my father; my heroes

My father and I

The other day I read a wonderful blog by the wonderful Jill Berry. This was one of a series of Shero blogs and Jill talked about how her mum was her shero. Jill encouraged me to write one too and I wrote about two women who are a huge influence in my life, my grandmother and my mother. Today I want to talk about three other people who shaped me and helped me become the independent, articulate, assertive woman that I am; my grandfathers and my father.

My maternal grandfather (Abbajee to us all) was a lawyer by training. He gave up practicing law when he realised that sometimes he had to, if not lie then at least not tell the whole truth, if he wanted to get his client acquitted. He bought some agricultural land and became very successful. He belonged to the generation which did not give daughters a share in inheritance, certainly people who were as successful as he was didn’t. They did not want to dilute the family’s wealth and reduce the landholding. Abbajee was different. He said he would not deprive his daughters and would give them their rightful share and he did. He practiced what Islam preaches and taught me that sons and daughters, men and women, have rights and obligations. He was as loving and affectionate towards his daughters as he was towards his sons. How wonderful for me to have such a grandfather!

I was two when I went to Pakistan and first met my paternal grandfather. He was introduced to me as my daddy’s daddy so that’s what I called him, DaddyDaddy, and the name stuck. DaddyDaddy was an eminent agricultural scientist. His contribution to Pakistan’s cotton industry is huge. He authored over 140 research papers and published books and received numerous national and international prizes and honours. My sister and I feel hugely honoured that he dedicated one of his books to us. From him I learnt the importance of hard work and of good education. As a child I used to enjoy listening to him and my father talk about agriculture, especially cotton, politics, religion, etc. At the request of my father he wrote about the history of our family which is a treasure trove of information for us and for which we are all ever so grateful. He used to write to me frequently when I was away at university and those letters were a welcome reminder of how much he loved me and was proud of me.

And then my father. Whatever I say about him can never do him justice. The bond between a daughter and her father is said to be a special one. The bond I have with my father is especially strong and special. He is handsome of face, mind and soul. He has always been there for me; rejoicing when I succeed and encouraging me when I need it. I can’t remember a day of my school life when he didn’t drop or pick me up from school. A few years ago when I went back to Karachi and met some of my old school friends, they all asked how he was. They told me they remember him as the one dad who was always at the school gate.

My father is a man of principles. When he started working for UNESCO in Sri Lanka he was told by a few people that he would have to serve alcohol if he wanted to network. Being a Muslim, buying, storing and serving alcohol is against his principles. He did not compromise and invited people for gatherings at our house and never served alcohol. The fact that he was not willing to compromise was appreciated by his friends and no one ever refused his invitation. This goes to show that if you explain why you do or don’t do something people will understand, but it needs courage to stick to your principles. I have followed his example in my social dealings with people. I have a very large circle of friends and they know I don’t drink or serve alcohol. Seeing my father stick to his principles has made it easy for me to stick to mine.

My father always makes me feel like a princess. I remember how safe and secure he makes me feel when he holds my hand when crossing the street. The only time he won’t hold my hand is when he has his grandchildren with him and then it is the grandchildren who are safely taken to other side of the road. I used to teach at university in the good old days. One day there was torrential rain and roads were flooded. My father rang me and told me that he would come and pick me up. He brought someone else with him who drove my car and I went with my father in his car. This may not seem a big deal to you but the fact is that the university was at a great distance from home, when Karachi has torrential rains the roads are impossible to drive on and not everyone does what my father did. It’s his nature to be caring.

My father has taught me that family is important. He taught me that my teachers deserve my respect. He taught me the importance of sticking to one’s principles, of doing what’s right. He taught me that education is important. He taught me that what’s worth doing is worth doing well. Most importantly he and my mother have taught me how to be a good parent and for this I can never thank them enough.

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My grandmother, my mother; my sheroes

I recently read Jill Berry’s excellent shero blog. She asked me if I was going to write one so, here is mine.

I have two sheros; my grandmother and my mother. My grandmother was born in colonial India. She was an educated and an enlightened woman. She and I spent a lot of time together and I worshipped the ground she walked on. I used to love listening to her when she talked about her life as a young girl and about the time Pakistan was created. She had lived history and brought the past to life for me. I have studied history of the partition of India but what I gained from listening to her is something no book could have given me.

I saw how she was with her sons and daughters, her grandsons and her granddaughters and can honestly say I saw no difference in the way she treated them. Unlike many of her generation, she would expect the same standard of behaviour from boys and girls. She embodied equality and equity.

My mother, being the daughter of my grandmother, is the same. She went to university and did her Masters. Like her mother, she has always treated us fairly. Hand on heart I can say that my sister and I were bought up and treated just like our brother was. My brother wanted to go to USA to study Engineering and she and my father supported him in doing so. I wanted to go to England for my higher studies and again she and my father supported me. There weren’t many Asian women in the 1990s who would allow their Muslim daughter to go abroad by herself but my mother did. My mother, like her mother before her, values education and did all she could do to encourage us to follow our dreams.

People talk about generation gaps but I have not experienced it. My grandmother and I enjoyed each other’s company. She suffered from arthritis and used to prefer to stay at home. I used to stay with her when the rest of the family went out, not because it was expected of me but because I wanted to and could think of nothing better than to spend time at home with her and have her all to myself! My mother and I too have not experienced the generation gap. She lives in Pakistan but we talk almost every day and talk for hours! She is now a grandmother herself and like my grandmother, she too is loved by all her grandchildren. My daughters love visiting her and spending time with her like I used to with my grandmother. My mother is now a hero for my daughters (they actually said this to me the other day).

If I can be half the woman my grandmother was and my mother is, I’d be the luckiest woman on earth! Thank you Ammijee and Mummy for being the best role models I could have wished for. Thank you, Jill, for encouraging me to write this. You, too, are a shero!

Three generations of strong women; my mother, my daughters and I.

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A letter to Miss Soares

Picture Credit Zarine Mogal

Dear Miss Soares,

It is with a heavy heart that I write this. You are a legend, almost an institution yourself. You gave more than 50 years of your life teaching Maths to girls in a school, St Joseph’s, in Karachi. If one talks about girls’ education or about education in Pakistan and specifically Karachi, one has to mention St Joseph’s. If one talks about St Joseph’s then one has to talk about you. You dedicated your whole life to making maths come alive for us. Is it any wonder that when we heard of your passing away we were shocked and deeply saddened? Tributes are coming in from all over the world. You taught grandmothers, mothers and daughters and left a mark on each and every one of us.

You were petite, bespectacled and usually wore a knee-length skirt and blouse and walked briskly. The only jewellery you wore was a wrist watch. You would enter the classroom and we knew you were not going to let us waste even one second. You didn’t smile but your eyes twinkled and we all loved you. You would start each lesson with a small test covering the topics taught earlier. The marks of these tests counted towards our final mark. As this is what you did during every lesson, we weren’t stressed by these tests. This was low stake testing designed to test our knowledge of what had already been taught. While we would be busy doing the test you would walk up and down the class (we sat in rows, facing the front) looking over our shoulders. This would have given you an indication of who was struggling with what. You were so ahead of your time. Regular, low stakes testing of previously taught material is now known to be the way to go about teaching and learning. We would then open our homework, you would call out the correct answers and we would check our books ourselves. You would go over the difficult problems by solving them on the blackboard. Whole class feedback and again ahead of its time! You would collect the books and look over them later. This would give you an idea of how well we had understood the work you had set us but as we had already checked it ourselves it would reduce your workload, giving you more time to plan any adjustment for the next lesson.

You lived and breathed maths. I have been going through all the messages left on the school Facebook page. One of your students has posted that she visited you last year and you told her you missed teaching. You taught for over 50 years and you loved the vocation so much that when you finally retired you still missed it. That sums up who you were.

So many of your students are saying that they grew to understand and love maths because of you. If a student develops a love for a subject because of how it has been taught, then that is the biggest accolade for a teacher.

You were strict but you were fair. You were a disciplinarian, a no-excuses teacher but you were never harsh. And you had a wonderful sense of humour. Your one-liners are legendary! “They look but they don’t see” being one of them. Your strictness, your fairness and your humour endeared you to us. There was never any low level disruption during your lessons. We worked hard and we worked silently. But it was a happy place and there was laughter too. You taught us maths and you taught us so much more. You taught us the value of hard work and the value of not giving up.

In Pakistan students don’t sit public exams in their own schools. Instead they are assigned another school where they do the exams. You would come to the exam centre on the day of the Maths exam, your presence reassuring to those who may be feeling nervous. You didn’t have to do this but you did and we were all very grateful to you for that. At the end of the exam season you would treat your whole class to a trip to the cinema.

You embodied what St Josephs’ stands for which is that every girl who walks those hallowed corridors has a right to a good education. You played a huge part in making that a reality and for that your students can never thank you enough. Miss Soares, you will continue to live in the hearts of all your students and your memory will be kept alive by us remembering and talking about you and the time spent with you.

Rest in peace.

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@BeyondLevels #LearningFirst Conference in Greenwich. Videos

I tried my hand at live streaming during the #LearningFirst conference on 30th Sept 2017. I missed the earlier sessions as I only thought about live streaming after the conference had already started. I was doing it through the “Live” Twitter function using Periscope. This led to a technical hitch during Sean Harford’s presentation. Someone phoned me which cut off the live streaming (my phone was on silent, thank goodness, or Sean may have rated me as Requiring  Improvement as an audience member!).

Below are links to the live streams

Dame Alison Peacock

Jo Penn

David Weston

Clare Sealy

James Pembroke

Sean Harford

Mary Myatt

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A case for having uniforms

Years ago, when I was young, my father told me about someone who worked in his office. What this gentleman was earning barely made ends meet. He had two daughters and was determined that they went to school. Pakistan, like other countries, has private as well as state schools. The state schools have a nominal/no fee. Many of these state schools operate two shifts, a morning and an afternoon one. This allows them to teach twice the number of children using the same facilities and staff. The gentleman I’m writing about, sent his daughters to one such school. One daughter went to the morning school and the other attended the afternoon shift. When the daughter attending the morning shift came back home she’d give the uniform to her sister who would then go to the afternoon shift. When she came back, the uniform would be washed and dried, ready for the next day. He said the only reason he could afford to send his daughters to school was because, firstly, the school had two shifts, and secondly, because the school had a uniform. If there hadn’t been a uniform then his daughters would’ve needed different sets of clothes each day which was beyond their means. Because of the two shifts his daughters shared the same uniform  and none of their friends were any the wiser.

The other day I saw an advertisement for admission to a Pakistani school. The school provided free uniforms for students meeting certain criteria. I assume they are able to do this as they bulk buy and can offset the cost of supplying free uniforms. This is another example why I think schools having uniforms is a great idea. If you’re thinking to yourself that the cases I’ve quoted are those of schools in Pakistan and don’t apply to U.K. then spare a thought for the families using food banks, think of the girls/women dealing with period poverty and then you may agree with me that uniforms (with the caveat that they should be affordable) are a good idea.

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