Sunday, May 13, 2012

Good Afternoon, Ms. Darasha

I wasn't a particularly cock-sure child. Like most people between the ages of 5 and 13 (is that where childhood ends, nowadays?) I had my particular and not-so-particular enthusiasms and anxieties, quirks and oddities. I grew up before parents thought it was necessary to convince their offspring of their exceptional brilliance, so I'm glad to say I didn't see myself as a class apart, didn't grow up with a sense of entitlement. In spite of all this, there was one thing about me that I knew was unique, different, an advantage. I went to JB. And my world was presided over by one Shirin Darasha.

Ms. Darasha passed away a little over a week ago. When I heard the news, I was momentarily devastated. I wouldn't be there for her funeral, just as I had not been able to attend her retirement dinner. I knew hundreds of others would attend, that I would not be missed and that my presence was in no way important. But it felt wrong. And today, when I read articles, blogposts and messages of tribute dedicated to her, all contributed by members of the JB community, it feels superfluous to say anything at all. What could I say that others haven't already? Anyone who encountered Ms. Darasha knew that they were in the presence of a force of nature - a force that favored cotton sarees, large semi-precious pendants, and later, floral shirts. Anyone who was taught by her felt their horizons expanding, felt themselves beginning to understand and appreciate music, art, history and culture. She encouraged debate, enjoyed it in fact. She wanted to hear questions, to be challenged, to rouse us and animate us.

But it wasn't all easy going. We also chafed under the weight of her expectations, wondering why it was always up to us to uphold standards of personal excellence, why she was burdening us with a knowledge of women's issues and women's rights, why we needed to become cognizant of the difficulties our fellow citizens contended with. Why did the school plays always need to center on female protagonists who changed the world? Why was it so important to donate money, three or four times a year to social causes? And to also bring old clothes and food-grains to school? Why did she always remind us that we were privileged and that we needed to employ that privilege towards greater ends? Why couldn't we compete at sports, have an extravaganza of a sports day like everyone else? Why couldn't we be young, ignorant and comfortable? Why wouldn't she just let us be?

Why? I am beginning to understand only now. When I wade into an argument, when I proclaim a point of view, when I express what I am thinking in a professional situation without much regard for my designation and anyone else's, when I find that I am eager to learn one thing, and then another, and then a third, when I look at art or secretly listen to Beethoven, when I try to do the right thing, when I pay attention to how others feel and how they live, when I make an effort to challenge myself  - I am living the lessons she taught me and so many others.

She wouldn't let us be because she knew we had to be better than that. She was better than that. Her school, which she ran in her image, was not a place for people who let things be. If there are JBites out there who don't have a little bit of 'why not' in them, it is because they were determined not to cultivate this quality and it is very much their loss. Shirin Darasha never stopped trying to make thinking, questioning, strong individuals of us and it is remarkable how often she succeeded.

This complicated and confusing world needs more women and educators like her. Women and educators who open up possibilities, ingrain values and build personalities, all at the same time.  In saying this, I'm not saying anything original or insightful. I'm merely stating the obvious. But it would be wrong not to.

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