Earlier this year when schools closed down because of COVID-19, one struggle that I did not see becoming so immense was dealing with my students. The pandemic turned everyone’s world upside down but what it did to my students; girls I have seen laugh and play and ask intelligent questions every day for almost a year, I could not even begin to fathom.
Like all Teach for Pakistan Fellows, I too reached out to my students’ families and fundraised to help with the financial constraints that were arising. I engaged in online teaching and check-in phone calls but there was a huge vacuum being created when it came to sustaining my connection with the students. I had conversations with the students, said hollow sentences about how everything will be okay soon but how could I really help? How could I recreate the safe space we had in our classrooms? Hearing the optimism seep out of my students’ voices was very heartbreaking. “Miss school kab khullay ga?” (Miss, when will the school open?) Such a simple question but it broke my heart nonetheless. I knew why my girls missed school. For each girl, I knew exactly what they were missing; their friends, their confidantes, a space to breathe, a ground to run around in. Picturing those girls stuck in their houses made me think of birds trapped in cages. Were these birds suffocating? Were their wings being clipped?
But despite all the fears, one thing that made me feel better and kept me going was including a lot of small activities in the Learning Packs we distributed among our students. I tried to put in colouring pages, drawing activities to give them some room to express themselves. I tried to encourage them to write a journal or start small by writing down at least one thing that made them happy, worried or sad that day. It gave me hope that once schools reopen, I will be able to help each girl through the hardships she may have faced during the pandemic. I kept moving with the faith that spending time together in class will make it easier to identify if any student is troubled and will also give room for one on one conversations. I nurtured the hope to be able to tailor my approach and attitude according to each student’s needs. Even as I am writing this, it sounds simple and uncomplicated but it is quite a complex project if you look at it practically. Handling the emotional well being of another person can take quite a toll on your own.
A lot of disturbing thoughts have crossed my mind over the last few months. I think I can’t articulate the helplessness I have felt, but when future looks extra bleak I turn to my most favourite memory from last year. In the Science class, we were studying plants and their parts. To model this more clearly, I gave both sections of Grade 4 their very own plant. A bright thing with yellow and orange flowers. I told them it was their responsibility to water it and take care of it, even name it. One lucky plant got named ‘Fun Shine’ after much discussion and excellent demonstration of voting. The girls took turns watering the plant. They would move it around for the best amount of sunlight and get very possessive when someone tried to touch it out of turn. The little plant that was supposed to be just a part of the science experiment became a very important part of our class. To me now, ‘Fun Shine’ almost seems like the perfect metaphor for my students; fragile, intricate but bright and full of life all at the same time.
My hope for my girls right now is that someone is taking care of them the way they took care of ‘Fun Shine.’ I hope their roots are being taken care of and their environment is nurturing. I hope that when we return to school they will continue to bloom the way I remember them.
Fello Maryam Imran teaches Science to 4th & 5th graders in Tarlai. She graduated from NUST with a degree in Economics.