In the second part of our interview, PakTurk Schools Mathematics Teacher Hacer Bahar Çokarslan narrates her first teaching experiences in Karachi and Lahore, her rapport with parents and the tests she went through.
-You had your first teaching experience in Karachi. What do you remember from those days?
Karachi is the most crowded city of Pakistan, but our school was not very crowded back then. We had a small school building where we had a branch for each class. The number of students in each class was not even 20. That’s why we also had a small dormitory. I stayed there as a single teacher besides 10 students and 5-6 mentors. Since the attic was cooler, we would not stay in separate rooms, but all in the attic together. Due to security problems, boarding students could not go outside, and we could not accompany them. They were often bored. We used to watch movies together to pass time, but that was really a tough year. The assistant ladies, whom we call bajis (sisters), could not come on time due to the unrest in the streets. We used to prepare breakfasts in turns. I didn’t have a night shift at the dorm because I had a shift at the school in the evenings, but I got a breakfast shift because I had to get up with the students in the morning and go to the school.
One day, I hurried down the third floor to prepare breakfast for the students. I prepared doodh-patti (tea with milk) the way they liked their tea. I also prepared boiled eggs and some other things. When the things were ready, I set them on the table and went upstairs. When I came back, I saw the breakfast had not been touched. Because they liked their eggs hard-boiled while the eggs had been soft-boiled because I was in a hurry. They couldn’t eat that. That was their culture, and I would say nothing. One of the 7th graders asked, “Where is the breakfast?” in Turkish. I said nothing to her, but I was offended. Later, I gave them money to buy themselves something for breakfast.
At that moment, something came to my mind from the seminar I had attended in Turkey. Teachers working overseas shared their experiences in their respective countries. A teacher told something about herself. She asked a student, “What was your favourite thing about your previous guidance teacher?” and the student replied, “She used to prepare sumptuous breakfasts for us.” Hearing this that day, I had said to myself, “This is who I am! This is just my cup of tea! I will do that and I will win the students’ hearts!” That day when I prepared breakfast for the students in Karachi, I ate the humble pie. I was tested by a thing which I called ‘just my cup of tea’. When I remembered that, I said, “It’s not my thing. If Allah wills, He makes you loved by your students.” Allah reminded me of this. He showed me nothing was my cup of tea. I wished to work abroad. Yet, you encounter such things to come to your senses. My first year in Karachi was such a difficult year.
-How was your rapport with the students? How was your lesson routine at the school?
People in Pakistan are sensitive about following the Prophetic traditions (sunnah). For example, we used to stop teaching whenever the call to prayer was recited; we would listen to it with the students. When I entered the classroom for the first time as a teacher, the call to prayer began. I kept quiet and stopped teaching. The students also covered their heads with their dupattas. Hanging from the shoulders, dupattas are indispensable in their school uniforms and traditional clothes. The children’s conduct impressed me a lot in that first lesson. My eyes were welled in tears. I had been excited already before taking the class. They impressed me with a higher sense of sincerity. It could not be compared with Turkey. When we were students in Izmir, some used to look down upon us on the street for wearing headscarves. It proved a great blessing for me to live and work in Pakistan after such a setting. Even if there was no dedicated place for prayers in a restaurant, the staff would lay a sheet on the floor and arrange a place.
In that first year in Karachi, I endeavoured not to take any class without ablution. When the students left in the classroom, I would read the Surah al-Fath and Surah Ya-Seen. It has not remained the same. Some things have been in the backburner. I had more time when I was single.
‘TEACHER, YOU ARE AS SWEET AS SÜTLAÇ!’
Karachi also gave me a lot of things. It was good to start from a small school. Maybe it has something to do with my nature. It would have been worse had I failed at a big school as it was my first teaching experience. Karachi was a difficult place in terms of physical conditions. Allah Almighty had me learn that one can serve for seeking and attaining His divine approval only. I thank Allah for this inspiration. By Allah’s favour, I did not lose enthusiasm for perpetuity in service.
I had reached Karachi in midterm. Everyone had been assigned their classes. I taught no class until the end of the semester, until April. Until then, I attended the students in the dormitory. We were already staying together. Once, things were hard for me in terms of food and hygiene. After April, I visited parents at their homes.
I experienced my firsts in Karachi. My first students, the first parents, the parent visits… they all remained back there. There was always excitement at first; the parents trusted their children to our care. I was also worried because I was not fluent in Urdu. Sometimes I took students along to help me whenever I visited parents. I had a student who texted me “Teacher, you are so sweet like sütlaç (rice pudding)!”
In my first year, I couldn’t get used to the food. It felt spicy and pungent. Whenever she cooked biryani in the dorm, baji used to reserve some chicken for me and I would eat that with bread. I couldn’t eat the spicy rice. She would tell me, “Your plate is here!”
I wept as I left Islamabad on my way to Karachi. On my way to Lahore, I wept because I left Karachi. It was my first year in Pakistan and even though I said I had been tested, I wept when I left Karachi. Good ties were formed. You long for the past. When you serve for Allah, you are blessed with beautiful things wherever you go. I left Karachi with beautiful memories. In the same year, before the new academic year started, I was relocated to Lahore.
-Were living and teaching in Lahore any different? What did you experience?
Lahore was a different place, it was beautiful. The issue is all about ‘becoming mundane’. When I first arrived in Pakistan, I had focused on sincerity. I had set off without expectation and without knowing whether I had been destined for Afghanistan or Pakistan. I also had health problems. My father had said, “You will not have any health insurance there. What will you do?” I hadn’t even thought about such things. I had set off for Pakistan as single and actually, you do more while single. When you get married, as in the literal translation of the Turkish idiom ‘dünya evine girmek’, you enter the house you build in this world with your spouse. Yet, it also means growing mundane by indulging in earth-bound things. Rushing from pillar to post to keep the balance among home, job, spouse, food, family, and future concern about children, these things frequently inhibit the spirit of the things done for Allah. One thing that made Karachi and Lahore beautiful was that I was serving in those cities as a single individual. I gained many experiences in the years after my marriage. Firsts are always unforgettable, my firsts remained in those places. My first teaching memories are there, my first students are there…
The school in Lahore was large. The upper floor was allotted to the dormitory. There were nearly 50 boarding students. I shared a dorm room with a single teacher colleague. The best part was that we were blended with the boarders. The students considered us no different than their mothers. I have a strong sense of compassion. I also struggled with my emotions to keep a balance. It was hard for me to leave my students in Lahore. We still keep in touch. One student even came here last year to have her university education. She came to my house and stayed with us for three days.
I EXPERIENCED THE THINGS I HAD READ IN STORIES
My year in Lahore was also a year I felt Pakistan. There were many students and a few teachers. I was the guidance counsellor for the 7th and 9th graders; I supervised 96 students in four classes. I paired the students in these classes as older and younger sisters. Whenever I couldn’t cope with it all by myself, this would facilitate my task. The younger students liked older sisters. We had a busy teaching routine at the school. It was a busy year in terms of parent visits, student guidance programs and reading programs. We were busy at the dormitory. In that year, I experienced the things similar to the events I had read in stories and become enthused. It was great to spend time with students. I got my first mother’s day gift there while I was yet to become a mother. Even before I was married, students celebrated my mother’s day. They presented me a ring, of low material value, but priceless for me spiritually. I still keep it and I remember my students whenever I see it.
In Pakistani culture, compassion and love are two deep-rooted emotions. They are sincere people. Students were happy to have found that love in us. They lived in a dormitory away from their mothers. They used to visit their families once in two or three weeks. They considered us similar to their mothers or sisters. We were family.
-Do you have any unforgettable experiences with the students?
One day, a 9th grade student fell while riding a bicycle in the school playground. She was a boarding student and I was also her guidance counsellor. I had to take her to the doctor. A Pakistani colleague, who also stayed in the dormitory, was a medical student. She said, “Let’s not visit with the hospital for nothing. There are some osteopaths (bonesetters) here. Let’s get her to one of those.” When a local colleague who was also a medical student said so, I thought, “She knows something for sure,” and said “Okay”. The place we went was a wooden hut on a lane. I thought the student’s kneecap had been dislocated. It hurt. The hut did not seem a hygienic place. The bonesetter examined the girl’s knee over her shalwar. He did not open it because it was privy. He touched and pressed around the kneecap to know where exactly it hurt. The boarding student was hurt and she cried non-stop. I tried to soothe her. I was scared too when I saw her in that state.
I thought, ‘We brought her here for some improvement. Have we made things worse?’ We had not informed anyone that we went somewhere other than a hospital. Only the three of us knew. The bonesetter then prescribed things. I took care of that student daily until she got better. She eventually recovered. We had such a private experience. We adapted to a lively tradition there. We have so many memories with those students. We still keep in touch. They graduated in time. One of them visited me last year here at my house before the start of the pandemic. I heard some got married and had children.
I ENVISIONED EDUCATING FUTURE MOTHERS
I felt I got into cultural setting a little more in Lahore. Girls get married early there. There were some who got engaged before they got graduated from the high school. Normally, we used to think about what task we would give to the students whom we trained as guidance counsellors. This was a reality of that place and we had to accept it. Many of those students would be married instead of having advanced studies. We could not even imagine they had a profession like teaching or else. Those who could continue their education would choose medical schools. It is very common to study medicine in Pakistan. I considered those students as the mothers of the future. I envisioned they would raise their children well. It was mentioned that the former students who got married and had children brought them to have education at our schools. While guiding female students, I envisioned ‘raising the mothers of the future’.
Yet it wasn’t all like that. We also had students to whom we could say “These places are yours from now on”. They still call me and we keep in touch. During parent visits, I used to ask mothers, “Why did you send your child to PakTurk?” Some used to quote the quality of education or say “I had seen your schools’ stall and their achievements at a science fair,” but there were many who preferred our schools in terms of outstanding character education. For example, a parent had admitted one of her children, and when she was satisfied with the guidance and counselling system, she admitted her other children.
-How was your rapport with parents?
Visiting parents at their homes was an indispensable element of education at the PakTurk Schools. All teachers routinely did that. I had phoned a parent in Lahore and said my wish to visit her at home. After a while, the parent herself came to my doorstep. She was a Pakistani lady who had lived abroad for some time. She and her husband cared a lot about their children’s education. They had not been accustomed to the culture of our school. I was surprised to see her at the door. She had come out in her home clothes. She asked, “What happened? What did my child do?” when she saw me. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing,” I replied. “I wished to meet you, see your residence, and your daughter’s study room. I wished to talk to you about the need for our coordinated efforts to boost her success,” I added. Parent visits were something different for some parents anyway. In time, they got used to our school culture. Later, we invited parents to our homes. In time, we established a more prolific rapport with the parents.
To be continued…
Part One: Mathematics teacher Hacer Bahar Çokarslan’s mysterious journey from Izmir to Pakistan (1)