Education Opinion

From Queens To Karachi

By Sam Swope — February 01, 2001 26 min read
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A teachers’ conference in Pakistan gives the author a new perspective.

It took 19 hours to fly from my home in New York City to Karachi, Pakistan, an airplane hurtling me through time and space to a land of mosques and woven carpets, military coups and holy wars, men in turbans and women covered head to toe. I was on my way to a conference of English teachers from schools funded by the Aga Khan—the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims, a direct descendant of Mohammed, and a philanthropist as rich as Croesus. His progressive organizations fund hospitals and schools in countries throughout Central Asia and East Africa. (In places like rural Pakistan, where Islamic fundamentalists believe women should not go to school, an Aga Khan school may be a girl’s only option.)

The conference, held last August, was organized by Mohsin Tejani, the principal of an Aga Khan school in Karachi, and Lou Bernieri, director of the Andover Bread Loaf Writing Workshop, a three-week teacher workshop held each summer at Phillips Academy in Massachusetts. Because the Aga Khan’s son had gone to the academy, a relationship between the Aga Khan schools and the writing workshop developed in the form of an organization called the International Academic Partnership. Since then, IAP has brought teachers to ABL from Aga Khan schools in Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Pakistan, and Tanzania. At the Karachi conference, a dozen of these alums would be giving workshops to approximately 40 English teachers from Aga Khan schools in Pakistan.

I was an invited guest, a children’s book author who works as a writer-in-residence in New York City public schools through the Teachers and Writers Collaborative. In Karachi, I was to give poetry workshops and then launch my students’ verses into cyberspace, where they’d be designed using an education Web site I helped found—www.chapbooks.com—then printed and bound in real paperback books.

The author.

Before the conference, I didn’t know much about Pakistan. I’d taught immigrant Pakistani children in New York but never had much luck getting them to describe their native country in detail. (Inevitably, naturally, they were more focused on their adopted country.) I was, however, aware that there had been a military coup 10 months prior to my visit, that General Musharraf was in charge, and that Pakistan had the bomb, as did India, with whom relations were so tense that war seemed a possibility. To travel to Pakistan, I would need a visa and several shots.

Before the conference, I didn’t know much about Pakistan. I was aware, however, that there had been a military coup 10 months prior to my visit and that Pakistan had the bomb.

Like a good student, I prepared. I read the history of Pakistan’s violent birth in 1947, when the British pulled out of the subcontinent and divided it in two—Pakistan for the Muslims and India for the Hindus—a partition that set off an epic, tragic migration of Hindus fleeing Pakistan and Muslims fleeing India. Thousands of innocents were brutally slaughtered; there was blood on everybody’s hands.

In other books, I learned that Pakistan is extremely poor and has violent political factions and a corrupt system of government. Indeed, the country has been described as a terminal patient with a dozen fatal diseases. In addition to internal terrorist bombings, anti-American sentiment is strong in parts of Pakistan, and the U.S. government advises Americans not to travel to the country at all.

Surfing the Web, I found information on Karachi. The city sits on a swamp at the mouth of the Indus River on the Arabian Sea but isn’t ancient, dating only from the 19th century. In 1940, Karachi had a population of 300,000; today it has 13 million residents, many of them Indian immigrants, 98 percent of them poor, and one in 15 addicted to heroin. I also learned that summers are brutally hot, you can’t drink the water, and the mosquitoes can carry malaria. In case something terrible happened, I was given “emergency evacuation insurance.”

But still: Pakistan! What an adventure!

The plane landed in Karachi near midnight. I was jet lagged and exhausted, apprehensive as I stood in line to show my passport. Waiting with me were tough-looking Pakistani men, sun-creased with callused hands and missing teeth, laborers who worked in the Middle East and were sent home every other year for a visit. They wore rough versions of the national dress, the shalwar qamiz, a loose, long shirt over baggy trousers. The mustached guard at immigration was scarily severe. Not many Americans visit Karachi, so he studied me, and then he studied my passport for long enough that I began to worry. At last he brought his stamp down with a thud. It was official: I was in Pakistan.

Empowered by a Navajo blessing, Tamarah Pfeiffer (center) is a fearless traveler.

Three other Americans had been invited to the conference: Hazel Lockett, an African American high school teacher from New Jersey and a co-director of ABL; Tamarah Pfeiffer, a Native American high school teacher from the Navajo Nation in Arizona; and Richard Gorham, a white male, like me, and a high school teacher from urban Massachusetts.

We were put up at the Karachi Sheraton, a hotel like any expensive chain hotel you’d find just about anywhere. My room had a balcony overlooking a busy intersection and, beyond, the city. Karachi’s buildings aren’t very tall, and most are modern, made of poured concrete. Because electricity is expensive, the city doesn’t glitter at night. As I stood on the balcony, I could see pockets of blackness. Across the boulevard stood the empty shell of an unfinished luxury hotel, a building started by a past president and halted when the army hanged him. It had been there for years, too expensive to complete, too expensive to tear down.

I went to bed exhausted but so excited that it took a while to fall sleep.

I woke at 5:30 to the call to prayer. Five times a day, these chanting wails sound from minarets all over the city. The prayers are recorded and recited in Arabic, not in the native language, Urdu, and are broadcast through scratchy loudspeakers, but even so, they’re haunting and beautiful and lonely:

God is most great. There is no God but Allah. Mohammed is God's prophet. Come to pray, come to security. God is most great.

I opened the balcony door and was met with a blast of humid heat. Thank goodness for air conditioning. After showering, I joined my colleagues for breakfast. I tried the halwa, a Pakistani porridge, but it was a little sweet, so I headed back to the buffet for corn flakes. The others ate croissants, muffins, and omelets but found the eggs’ consistency a little strange. I’d read that fruit juice can be risky, but Tamarah wasn’t worried, and I jealously watched her enjoy a glass of fresh-squeezed mango juice.

Tamarah was a mystery to me, both very familiar and “other.” She’s German on her father’s side and looks all-American, but her cultural identity comes from her mother, who is Navajo. She told us that when she was 12, her parents decided she was spoiled and didn’t appreciate her culture, so they asked her what country she’d like to live in. After choosing the Philippines, Tamarah was sent to live with a Filipino family and didn’t see her parents again for the next two years. She didn’t see anything extraordinary in this and, in fact, seemed grateful to her parents for sending her away.

Tamarah was fearless, ready to go anywhere at any time, perhaps made brave by the “Blessing Way” she’d given herself before leaving the Navajo Nation. In that ceremony, Tamarah’s 100 invited guests sat in a hogan (the traditional Navajo dwelling) for two days and nights without eating, drinking, or sleeping.

Various rituals were performed and songs were sung, led by a medicine man, and at one point, the guests placed items (job applications, for example, or car keys) on Tamarah’s body in the hope that some of her blessing would rub off on them. When the ceremony ended at dawn, everyone filed out of the hogan and greeted the sun. Then Tamarah threw a feast with “lots of food and lots of drink.” All told, the Blessing Way cost her $6,000.

The conference’s opening ceremonies would take place that evening. During the day, we were to visit an Aga Khan school. A car picked us up at the hotel, and our Pakistani driver had the not-very-Pakistani name of Robinson. “I am Roman Catholic religion,” he explained, then proceeded to tell us how hard it is for Catholics (along with Jews and Hindus and Buddhists and other religious minorities) to get good jobs in a Muslim country.

Robinson drove fast, and he kept to the left side of the street, one of many vestiges of British colonialism we’d see that week, along with cricket and afternoon tea. Many of the signs were in Urdu, a beautiful script I couldn’t even guess at—couldn’t make out one single letter!—and it made me see how scary it is to be illiterate: If you can’t read the signs, how do you find your way from A to B? But English was also everywhere, mostly on billboards and advertising, and when we saw our first McDonald’s, we laughed, it seemed so strange.

By far the coolest thing about Karachi’s streets were the buses.

By far the coolest thing about Karachi’s streets were the buses. They were eye- poppingly colorful, like Chinese New Year’s dragons, mosaics of bright paint and tin that could have rolled out of a children’s picture book. Female passengers sat up front; the males sat in the back or, since it was rush hour, hung out the doors. Taxis and small cars were likewise crammed with more passengers than seemed possible, and laborers crowded on trucks atop freshly slaughtered beef or onions or crates of live chickens. Even scooters carried up to three riders, with female passengers always sitting sidesaddle, their scarves billowing behind them. And weaving in and out of everything were bicycles, motorized rickshaws, herds of goats, carts pulled by donkeys, and now and then a camel, the sight of which always made me shout with excitement. The air was thick with diesel.

We entered a poor but lively and chaotic neighborhood with an unpaved street crowded with people and small shops, their wares spilling onto the sidewalk. We parked beside a large closed door in a wall topped with barbed wire. Addicts sleep on this sidewalk every night, I was told. Then the door in the wall opened, and we entered the Aga Khan School Kharadhar.

The cloistered campus was quiet, a different world, with flowering bougainvillea, grass, and trees. Even the air seemed fresher. Nursery school children greeted us, singing boys with pompoms, smiling girls who tossed rose petals in our path.

We were met by Mohsin, the school’s young, moon-faced principal and a co-organizer of the conference. Mohsin’s an impressive guy, one of the first Aga Khan school teachers to travel to the States to attend the Andover Bread Loaf Workshop, an experience that changed his life and in small increments is changing education in Pakistan. At ABL, Mohsin was introduced to progressive education philosophy, teacher research, and the notion that the best way to turn teachers into better writing instructors is to make them better writers. He was so charged up from his experience at ABL that he enrolled in its partner institution, the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont, and has now spent several summers there pursuing a master’s degree.

The classrooms at the school were large and arranged traditionally, in rows, the English school model. The rooms were dark and shadowy, not blindingly bright the way American classrooms typically are. The only light was natural and soft, the windows shaded—a good thing since there was no air conditioning, just fans that circled slowly overhead. (It was 9 in the morning, and already my shirt stuck to my back.)

In accordance with Islamic tradition, boys and girls at Aga Khan learn separately.

Class size averaged 40 students, and all the kids wore uniforms. The male teachers wore Western ties and button-down shirts, but the female teachers wore traditional Pakistani shalwars, which were bright and colorful, and matching diaphanous scarves were draped around their shoulders, elegant as flowers. (I saw some women in Karachi dressed in the burqa, the costume that covers the entire body, leaving only the eyes peeking out, but most women in that more progressive city wear the shalwar.)

The girl students were in school for four hours each morning, the boys four hours each afternoon. All of them studied English and their native Urdu; in religion classes, they studied the Koran, but that they learned in Arabic, a language they didn’t speak and, in any other context, couldn’t read.

The school was K-10, grade 10 being the final grade in Pakistani secondary schools. Student writing and projects were on display in the corridors, and inspirational sayings on the walls seemed emblematic:

God will not look for your medals, degrees, or diplomas, but for scars. The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.

The school didn’t have a lot of books, even in the library. Privileged as these private Aga Khan institutions are, they’re not as well-equipped as many of our public schools. But I was happy to see they had recess, something the school where I taught back in Queens had done away with years ago.

Education isn’t compulsory in Pakistan, and although there are public schools, Pakistan’s illiteracy rate, at 70 percent, is one of the world’s worst. Most Aga Khan students come from middle- and lower-middle-income families (tuition is about $14 a month), but 25 percent are on full scholarship. Obviously, there are a lot more applicants to Aga Khan schools than there are seats. The dropout rate is zero.

There are no discipline problems in Aga Khan schools, none.

There are no discipline problems in Aga Khan schools, none. The students were quiet, orderly, and well-behaved, and they giggled when I smiled at them and were thrilled whenever I took their picture.

Late in the afternoon, we went back to the hotel to shower away the day’s heat and change for the conference’s opening ceremonies. Hazel was giving the keynote address, and she was understandably nervous, uncertain that her speech would work. “I don’t know these people!” she told me. “I don’t know what they’re up against as teachers! Who am I to tell them anything?”

Hazel has been teaching on the front lines, in urban public schools, for more than 30 years. She’s won lots of awards and has a reputation as a classroom dynamo. Although she hadn’t traveled much, there she was in Pakistan, gamely trying the food she found too spicy, eager to ride in one of the tiny, three-wheel, motorized rickshaws that seemed more toy than taxi, and keeping her wary, interested eyes open to this different culture.

Like me, Hazel is a private person and takes her time opening up. She hated the way people in Karachi looked at her, a black woman in Western dress. “Everyone’s always staring at me!” she said more than once. “You’re exotic,” I told her. “I am exotic!” she agreed, laughing. “They look at me and they’re thinking, What’s that all about?”

In her address, Hazel said our ultimate goal should be to transform schools and ourselves as teachers and thinkers. This wouldn’t happen overnight, but the conference was a beginning. She told the story of her own transformation. After years of successfully teaching grammar to her students, she came to the painful conclusion that they weren’t learning what they needed to know most: how to communicate. Children, she told us, don’t have to know how to identify gerunds. What they need is a compelling reason to write; once they have something to say, they’ll acquire the grammar to say it.

That lesson hadn’t come easily to Hazel. She warned us, “This conference isn’t about a bag of tricks.” It was about developing learning strategies that would help us begin the process of looking honestly at our teaching and asking, “Is this working?” Inevitably, transformation is a private journey, but it need not be taken alone, especially today, thanks to the Internet and its ability to connect teachers and classrooms around the world.

Listserves and e-mail communication can do a lot for teachers who feel isolated in their schools, but these tools are most useful when teachers know each other and feel part of the same community. That’s why an essential goal of the Karachi conference was to build a sense of community.

The following morning, that work began.

The Institute for Education Development, where the conference took place, was founded in 1993. IED is part of the Aga Khan University and is a brand-new facility on a pleasant, landscaped campus. IED’s mission is daunting: to improve and reform education in the developing world, where untold millions of children have no schools to go to. (Some of those children, seeking an education, come to the United States, and many of them wind up in Queens, where every day I’d see a line of new admits outside the school office and pray they weren’t headed for my already crowded classroom.)

IED’s rooms were air conditioned, and the teachers, my students, sat around tables. They were mostly female and mostly young, although a fair number had been teaching for years. I told them: “In the next few days, we’re going to write poems that we’ll publish in a book, a book that will be made on the Internet. The book will have a poem written by each one of you, accompanied by your photograph, and you’ll each get a copy of this conference anthology.”

“But I’ve never written a poem!” one of my students said. Others worried that, although they taught English as a foreign language, they didn’t have a strong enough command of English to write poems.

“Not to worry!” I told them. “You can do this. Every one can do this. Poetry is easy!”

That statement might get me into trouble, but it’s true: Poetry is easy, as easy as singing, and it’s a shame so many teachers are intimidated by the form, because so many students love it. In poetry, the rules of grammar are relaxed, no sentences are required, and even those uncomfortable with English can have success with just a simple thought or deeply felt emotion. Often, much more often than you’d think, the poems students write are even good or may have one striking image or a phrase that makes you catch your breath. And even if the poems aren’t all that good, they are important. I hear it in the classroom all the time: I didn’t know that I could write a poem!

Poetry is easy, as easy as singing, and it’s a shame so many teachers are intimidated by the form, because so many students love it.

We wrote only the simplest sorts of poems: list poems, poems with a single word per line, poems in which each line begins with the same words, and haiku. When I taught the lesson on haiku, I asked for three short lines and told them not to bother counting syllables, no full sentences allowed, only brush strokes needed, a phrase that paints a fleeting image of a thing that they could see or taste or feel or hear or touch. I added it would make me really happy if they tossed in something unexpected at the end.

“Is this clear?” I said.

Mamoona, in her 60s, gentle face and lovely smile, tilted her head and shrugged, as if to say, “Not really, no, I’m sorry.” So I explained haiku a second time, but once more Mamoona tilted her head and shrugged. So I began again until Rozina, young and sassy, stopped me, crying: “No! We understand!” I discovered that a head tilt accompanied by a shrug means “Yes” in Pakistani body language. Everybody laughed at my confusion, which actually made me happy, because when students laugh, they feel more comfortable, and so they write much better poems.

I told them: “OK, now let’s write haiku. But remember, as a poet, you are free to break any rules I give, and if you have another kind of poem burning to get out, write that instead.”

The women readjusted their beautiful scarves and picked up their pens, willing writers all. I walked among them, helping when asked, happy to be in a room with people writing poems.

The breeze Like a whisper Speaks to the blossoms. —Shameem Noorani

The second day of the conference was given over to an all-day field trip. We boarded buses and were taken to various Karachi sites—an interesting experience in itself, of course, but the day would also help us forge the friendships necessary if we were to communicate and collaborate online after the conference.

Ayesha, a 4th grade teacher, leaves business to men.

I sat beside Ayesha, an elegant young woman with perfect posture and aristocratic mien. She spoke English in a clipped British accent mixed with musical Urdu and with only minor and charming grammatical errors. I remembered Ayesha from the day before, when I was taking teachers’ photos for our chapbook. As I looked through the lens at each teacher, I’d say, “Gorgeous!” and that made both men and women smile, but matter-of-factly Ayesha had replied: “Of course it’s gorgeous. I am very photogenic.”

Following the custom in Pakistan, Ayesha called me Mr. Sam until I told her just plain Sam would do. When I asked her what she taught, she smiled and said, “4th grade, girls,” explaining she preferred to teach young girls because they’re easier to control and also a lot of fun. I said that I agreed completely, yes, the younger ones are best, and then she smiled at me, surprised but pleased.

Colorful buses compete with donkeys and rickshaws.

The bus driver cranked up the radio full blast, entertaining us with popular Pakistani songs. Teachers sang along and clapped their hands, making so much noise Ayesha and I had to shout at one another to be heard.

She told me she lived with her parents and her brother and would do so until she got married. She said her father didn’t have a “very smart pension,” but her brother had a good job that paid the rent. Ayesha contributed “a bit, not very much” of her $50-a-month salary to the household, spending the rest on herself: “I am very fond of clothes, perfumes, and movies, not violent American ones but Indian movies, romance-type movies.” This confession made her laugh at herself.

I asked Ayesha if she’d ever thought of living on her own. She looked at me as if she’d never heard of anything so strange. Then she said: “Our society is not like that. A woman who lives on her own has not security, not respect.”

When questioned about the recent military coup, Ayesha told me she was glad General Musharraf had imposed much-needed discipline; the streets were safer, and the rich were being forced to pay their taxes. Although the general was not universally admired, most teachers I talked to agreed that the democratic political system in Pakistan had been hopelessly corrupt and had made life miserable.

Primary school teachers earn less than secondary school teachers because the latter must prepare students for the make-or-break national exams that determine if and where you go to college.

She told me primary school teachers earn less than secondary school teachers because the latter must prepare students for the make-or-break national exams that determine if and where you go to college. She also said that teachers in the Aga Khan schools make less than those in other private schools, but the opportunities for professional development made up for the smaller paycheck. I asked Ayesha if she’d considered applying for a scholarship to ABL. She shook her head—"it’s much too far; I’m scared of planes"—but I could sense that she was interested, and throughout the day I worked on her, telling her she must try.

The bus stopped in the dusty, barren outskirts of Karachi at a historic site, a tribal cemetery several hundred years old. A hot wind blew, and the sun was so bright I had to squint. The tombs were elaborately carved, and there were lots of them, interspersed with piles of rock under which servants had been buried. Tamarah didn’t enter the cemetery. Navajos never enter other people’s graveyards, she said, but she did open a little sack filled with corn dust from back home and sprinkled some at the entrance, a kind of offering.

Back on the bus, a song every Pakistani knew came on the radio. Ayesha’s colleagues shouted out her name. She glanced at them, amused, then told me they were teasing her because: “I sit with you. The lyric of the song says, ‘I found someone.’ ”

This worried me a little. I didn’t get the sense she had a crush on me, though everybody teased her as if she did. I was just trying to be friendly, but in this unknown culture, I was at a loss, illiterate to signals between the sexes. (When Mohsin introduced me to his wife, I stuck out a friendly hand, which made her flinch; she was more conservative than women at the conference and would not shake hands with a man.) Karachi is more liberal than other parts of Pakistan, but not too far away the women aren’t allowed to work or even leave home, and pregnancy outside of marriage is punishable with jail. Even in Karachi, a mullah (similar to a priest) had followed a teacher not completely covered through the market, screaming: “She’s a she-devil! She-devil!”

There are job opportunities for Pakistani women, particularly in the cities, but they’re limited, and, of course, women are never paid as much as men. Yet Ayesha said that she was satisfied on the whole: “Women can help to run, organize, but some jobs we must to leave for men. Business, for example, because in business it is necessary to lie, and women are not so good liars as the men.” She said teaching was convenient for women because the school day was only four hours long, leaving them time to manage the household and take care of their children.

Our last stop was Karachi’s beach. It was misty out, the waves were big, the sand ran deep and broad and soft. There weren’t many people, and none of them was swimming or sunbathing. A street ran parallel to the beach, its ocean-view apartments in run-down, weather-beaten, two-story, concrete buildings, many of them vacant. It was difficult, though not impossible, to feel the romance of this ancient sea. It helped that there were no shops with postcards or seashell ashtrays, no ice cream cones or deep-fried clams.

Rich, the high school teacher from Massachusetts, wished he had his swimsuit on and ran to put his feet in the Arabian Sea. Meanwhile, hopeful entrepreneurs had spotted us and headed our way, men carrying blue plastic bags with papadum (a kind of bread), and others with trays of food atop their heads. An ancient, wrinkled man with a camel gave us rides along the beach, and there were other animals as well—a dancing bear, some ponies, and a mongoose, whose owner also had a cobra in a vase; for a fee, he’d let us watch them fight.

Tamarah offered rupees to a boy who had a scrawny monkey on a leash. “Monkey dance!” he said. But his monkey wasn’t in the mood, so the boy yanked the monkey to his feet and made it scoot around a bit. It wasn’t much of a dance, and I felt sorry for the monkey. But Tamarah disagreed, saying, “What I see here is a pet who’s helping his owner make a living.”

After each busy day, the Americans collapsed around a table in the Sheraton lobby and unwound, something I was grateful for. One evening Hazel was feeling down, upset by news that a few Karachi teachers had said they wished we’d given them more hand-outs and exercises, things they could use immediately in their classrooms.

“But I warned them that this conference is not about a bag of tricks,” said Hazel, looking at us for confirmation. “Didn’t I warn them?”

“Yes, you did,” I said. “But I can understand those teachers. I know I, for one, love bags of tricks. There have been times when I was drowning and was desperate for any trick that I could find.” But, of course, I was just proving Hazel’s point, that what a drowning teacher really needs to learn is how to build a boat. But that’s not something quickly taught.

One afternoon, Mohsin took us shopping in the Karachi market. We were all eager to shop. Based on the cost of dinner at the town’s most expensive restaurant ($6), we knew things would be inexpensive, but none of us was prepared for how incredibly cheap the prices were, and that was before the haggling started. It was an amazing experience to be able to buy whatever you wanted: the teacher as millionaire.

Often in the market, beggars would appear, never hordes of them but always one or two, usually a boy or girl or else a mother with an infant, always dressed in rags. Sometimes they sold flowers, but mostly they just gestured to their mouths to show that they were hungry. One beggar looked so like a student I had had in Queens, I gave him several rupees, at which a Karachi teacher cried: “Oh, no, Mr. Sam! Now all will come and want the same!”

“What could I do?” I said. “He’s a child.”

“You give a beggar money, and he stays a beggar,” she replied. But seeing my distress, she softened, saying, “Mr. Sam, I am afraid you do not have so many rupees you can give to all the beggars in the world.”

And so I didn’t give another rupee out. None of us did, and when we paused amid our shopping to chat about the things we’d bought, we ignored the gentle tugging on our trousers, the children pointing at their mouths.

On the conference’s last day, everyone gathered for a public reading of the work written in the classes. Some pieces were funny, some were sad, some personal, and several were political. It was quite moving, as such readings always are. Rich, who’d served as midwife to a number of pieces, was practically in tears. There’s nothing like a public reading to help build community.

At our farewell banquet, held outside, the campus was magical-striped tents, candles, white lights strung from tree to tree. A group of musicians sat cross-legged on a stage, playing sitars and drums.

Once the plates were cleared away, the music changed. It was time to dance. First out of their seats were the young women, but their joy was infectious and, as in a scene from an uplifting movie, more and more of us got up and joined the line, all dancing like a happy snake.

And then, like Cinderella’s ball, it was over. The bus was waiting, goodbyes happened very fast. In a rush, Ayesha gave both Rich and me wallets as gifts, and I gave her a copy of one of my children’s books. It made me happy when she told me she had changed her mind, that she’d decided, yes, she would apply to ABL next summer.

As always with teaching, it’s hard to know just how much good you’ve done. But spirits were high, friendships had begun, and several teachers had decided to conduct online exchanges, bringing together classrooms in India and Pakistan, Pakistan and Tanzania, the Navajo Nation and Karachi, and Kenya and Massachusetts.

I’ve been to lots of conferences in my life. What happened in Karachi is less easy to quantify and more profound.

I’ve been to lots of conferences in my life, but they’ve all been “bag of tricks” affairs where I’ve learned some useful things to bring back to my classroom. What happened in Karachi is less easy to quantify and more profound. I’d been thrown off balance—the world I knew had changed. The trip transformed me in ways I don’t yet understand, but I do know I now see my immigrant students with different eyes. I understand in ways I never could before that they have come from someplace real, a place where people live and shop and pray and ride amazing buses.

I didn’t want to leave, but it was time. When I returned to the airport, the stern-faced guards no longer looked threatening. I’d learned in the course of my week that Pakistani men are eager to return a smile, so I smiled at the man scanning my luggage. When he smiled back, I said, “You have a wonderful city.”

He looked surprised. “Really?” he said. “You like Karachi?”

“Yes,” I said. “I love Karachi.”

“Then I love you!” he said, smiling, beaming, proud.

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 2001 edition of Teacher Magazine as From Queens To Karachi


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