I went to a nun school. And while it definitely contributed to my obsession with toeing all lines, real, imaginary, or merely suggested, I often feel it contributed little in terms of a classical education. The Sisters, focused on cultivating poverty of spirit and inculcating a desire to serve, had clearly decided to forgo a hard core education. If the meek are to inherit the earth, its best to set children up right from the start. No education, no success. No pride, no fall.
So I spent my childhood blissfully uninformed, gazing vacantly out of the classroom windows onto the huge flame of the forest dominating the school courtyard. Lessons didn’t revolve around content, the teaching seemed merely a well placed diversion between the actual highlights of the class: the greeting ceremonies. You see, every time a teacher entered the room, we all stood up, and intoned ‘Good Morning Ms. *Insert Name Here.*’ And every time the teacher left, we leapt up to our collective feet for a repeat performance, only this time we also expressed our gratitude for the enlightenment received. ‘Good Morning and Thank You Ms. *Whatsername*.’ The whole bow, kneel, greet routine was of such importance, the only time the principal swept into our class, she came to chastise our motley crew of fifteen year olds for singing it instead of saying it. ‘Crisply!’ she roared, and we roared right back, our ‘Good Morning’s ringing out until we had got it down to under five seconds.
The nun-sicles may have skimped on the information, but they ended up giving us a childhood. I can’t remember ever wanting to skip school; to me it was like home, but with more people to play with. Sure, I spent my life in mortal terror of not finding a partner to stand with in the morning assembly, and often woke up in the middle of the night to polish my shoes, but those are little fears. No matter how little you are yourself, those fears are never big enough to swallow you. You’ll get scolded for dirty shoes, so you learn to polish them the night before. Problem solved.
I didn’t grow up speaking French, or quoting Chaucer, or knowing where Ukraine is. But I grew up believing every obstacle was surmountable, every problem had a solution, and everything could be fixed. I grew up believing that we all get our just desserts in life. Even as a grown up, when life is anything but reciprocal and fears can swallow you whole, that’s a lesson I can’t forget. That’s one lesson I can’t thank them enough for.
I still wake up in the middle of the night, thinking about everything that went wrong, everything that could still go wrong tomorrow. And, purely by reflex, I reach for the shoe polish. Grown up shoe polish. Which, like grown ups themselves, is more elusive and less reliable than its childhood counterpart. But no matter how unreliable and ineffective it may be, I look for it. I polish my shoes. I try it, because that’s what I was taught. Its also all I can ever do. Try.
Another thing the nuns achieved, this one quite by accident, was to instill an unbearable thirst for knowledge in me. Its like that thing from New Girl, where Nick decides he’s going to make his children beg for school, so they’ll appreciate it more. I appreciate school. I appreciate information. I appreciate it hard. One of the happiest moments of my life, I kid you not, was when our Physics teacher told us that weight is relative, and what we commonly refer to as weight is actually mass. I believe her exact words were somewhere along the line of, ‘Every time the shopkeeper says the weight is 500g, he’s making a mistake. The mass is 500g.’ This. Blew. My. Mind. My toes curled, my pupils dilated, my hair stood on its end. I had been initiated. I knew something that most people (I’m looking at you, candy shop guy) did not know. The universe, in the guise of my disinterested Physics teacher, had let me in on a secret. I was hooked.
I haven’t felt like that in a long time. Its not because I know everything now. Its because knowledge went from being doled out like candy when you least expected it, a pleasant surprise on a Thursday afternoon, to a commodity that was grudgingly paid for and viciously fought over. Instead of being slipped into my hand, a well deserved tip from the gods, I was now supposed to fight over it, like a horde of cackling hyenas fight over a bleeding carcass. And fight I do, because I’m hooked. But I don’t enjoy it one bit. The gains, for all the work it takes, are ill gotten in my book. There is no rush anymore.
The closest I get to that rush today is when I pick up an old copy of Byron or Faiz, and read a verse that speaks to me. When I make a visceral connection over time and space with people who shared their wisdom and talent without any prejudice. When I am slipped a note across the centuries, proof that someone, somewhere, felt what I do, and dealt with it in the most magnificent way possible. When I see thirst turned into art, rather than pain.
Oh, and also when I get a free biscuit with my tea. That, is pretty fabulous.
یہ جو سرگشتہ سے پھرتے ہین کتابوں والے
ان سے مت مل کے انھیں روگ ہین خوابوں والے
Stay away from these lost souls, clutching books to their hearts
They live in a land of dreams.