I had just finished teaching Engineering Graphics to my class of Senior year students when the school receptionist called me to the office. There was a DHL delivery man waiting for me with a small parcel. I showed him my ID card and signed the receipt and got the professionally wrapped box from him. I looked at the senders address. It said “Miracle Construction and Interior Designers” and gave the corporate address of the firm. I had heard of Miracle Constructions. Who did not? It was quite famous in town. But I wondered why they would send me a registered packet. Even though I was curious, I did not want to open the packet in the school office. I hurriedly walked to the privacy of my empty Engineering Graphics hall to open my little surprise. After carefully cutting away the binding twine and layers of external wrapping paper, I was left with a black velvet jewellery box. My curiosity rose to a higher level and I eagerly opened this little box. Inside was a beautiful charm bracelet crafted in gold. I lifted it carefully out of the box and examined it. Tears of joy began to well up in my eyes as I recognised my own ‘Memory Bracelet’. I looked for an accompanying note or a letter and I found a letter among one of the layers of packaging. I was in a hurry to open the packet that I somehow missed it. Now that I found the letter, I tore it open and read as fast as my eyes could read. Tears of happiness and pride rolled down my cheeks and I made no attempt to wipe them away. I cherished the moment and I knew it was not every day I would feel something like this. The letter was signed Asghar Khalifa. I sank bank into my chair and thought of Asghar and how he was all those years ago. I thought of how I impacted his life and he, mine. I held my memory bracelet and slipped it onto my wrist. In my mind, I travelled back in time. Eight years.

Asghar was one of the students of the first batch that I taught at The Good Shepherd School.  I joined the Good Shepherd School as the Engineering Graphics teacher for the junior and senior students just after the summer of 2003 when Aaron, my wonderful husband of four years was diagnosed with terminal lymphoma or the cancer of the lymph nodes. I did not want to take up the job. All I wanted was to stay by my husband’s side and care for him. His health was failing fast and the chemotherapy sessions weren’t kind to him either. We had a live-in paramedic at home as my husband did not want to stay admitted in the hospital for his treatments. As a result, one wing of our not-so-small villa was converted into a mini-hospital and it certainly felt like one. I, who always was queasy when it came to hospitals and medicines did not enjoy this medical renovation of our house, but if I had a choice, I would first make my Aaron better. But he showed no signs of getting better. His health kept deteriorating so fast that every day when I got back from work, I felt he had aged 2 years in the past few hours. I would then mentally make a note to resign my job and stay with Aaron but he would not hear of it. In fact, the job was his idea. In the nine years that we were together, he had asked only two things of me. One was to marry him after a whirlwind romance of 5 years. The other thing was to take up this job. Even though I was a civil engineer by profession, I never wanted to spend hours in the office. I did freelance work for friends and family and that was about it. But when the job offer from the school came to us through one of Aaron’s professional acquaintances, he was adamant that I take this job up. He knew I hated the hospital atmosphere and he knew my heart broke to see him sick but his logic which almost never coincided with mine was that I needed a change from the sickly hospital atmosphere at home. And my freelancing work wouldn’t be able to guarantee that. It was useless fighting with him over this and I knew it. With every last ounce of strength in him, he pleaded and begged and threatened and ordered me to join work as soon as possible. He had constant medical support from the hospital and  to top it, there was the live-in paramedic. He said he was going to be fine. I had no choice but to believe him and take up the job at the school.

I do not think I did justice to my two batches of senior and junior students, not at least in the first month of work. My mind was always at home with Aaron and I kept checking my phone every 15 minutes to make sure that I did not have any missed calls from home. I hurried to finish off the syllabus and did not make any particular attempts to know the names of students even. I was doing something that I was forced to do when I’d rather be at home. It was evident in my classes. Even though the feedback forms from the students said that I taught well, I knew that they were just being nice. I did not do a good job and I knew it. Aaron was in my thoughts always and when the school day got over at the end of the 9th period, I rushed home to stay with him. All I wanted to do was just stay with him.

You know how they say fate is cruel? Well, I can write a book on the cruelties of fate. I lost my father when I was just 4 years old. And when I was in my second year of college, my mom went away to join my dad in heaven. I have had to wage a war against my odds to make it out in the world and the only good thing that happened in my life was Aaron. And fate took him also away after we lost our battle with his cancer. Devastated was an understatement to describe the way I felt. I was under shock for a few days and all the procedures were carried out by our family friends. I watched how my life was not going to be the same again through a third person’s eyes. We did not have any children. Our first attempt at having a child resulted in an aborted foetus and my uterus was ruptured. I could never conceive ever again (Didn’t I tell you fate was cruel?). Whatever Aaron made in his lifetime was transferred in my name in the last few days when he was alive. Maybe he had an inclination that he was going to die real soon. When I was away at school during the day, he had painstakingly called a lawyer and made a will entrusting everything to me. He had sorted out all his bank formalities, changed the ownership in the bond documents and bank accounts. He knew me well enough to know that I would not be in a position to handle any legalities after his death and so, he had done all of that for me and I hadn’t had a clue that he did all of this. He knew that I would never marry again – I had sworn it to him the day he was diagnosed with cancer and he wanted to make my life better  – or at least liveable, in whatever ways he could before death called him away. And he did. Starting with making me stand on my two feet without anybody’s help – my job at the school. True, the pay was not all that great, but it was enough and more for a widow like me who had my dead husband’s savings to fall back on in case of emergencies. My Aaron did all he could and beyond. He was the one person who knew me inside out. For shouting out loud, he was my soul mate. And now, he was gone.

The school officials were gracious enough to give me a month off to mourn Aaron. Now that he was gone, I felt so empty inside. It was as if there was nothing worth living for. I agreed with the Bible and sincerely believed that suicide was a sin. If I did not, I would have gladly taken my life the moment death came knocking at Aaron’s door. But now, I was here. Alone. The day I went back to work, my students were sympathetic and kind enough not to give me any trouble. They quietly did the diagrams that I drew and explained on the board. They did not even ask me any doubts in class and I was grateful. When the bell rang at the end of my junior class, every single student in the class of 41 got up and came to my table. One of them had a  hand-made card and it was signed by all of them. I looked at the serious young faces and heard them say “Our Condolences, Teacher. We are really sorry”. And then, one by one, they came closer and hugged me, starting with the girls. This little, selfless action of theirs was so earnestly done that I felt so much better than I had in ages. One by one, they filed out of the class and I sat back in my chair. I couldn’t help but smile. True, I would never be a biological mother, but here I was in a class of 41 kids and the least I could do was make an effort to be the best teacher they ever had. I knew I had to focus on something else other than my sorrow and the engulfing hands of death that had taken so many important people from my life. And my class of students was a good distraction. In more ways than one.

I started putting more efforts into my classes and made sure my students knew what I was teaching. True, my class of students was considerably better than other divisions in the 11th grade, but there were academically weak students in my class too. I did not know how to work with them. It was challenging because I had never worked with such a  diverse group and I did not know how to get through to them and help them pass in the annual exams which were just two months away. I was working on  a plan to get them to pass their exams when I was called by the principal for a parent-teacher interaction session for the benefit of these weak students. I brightened up slightly because speaking to the parents first hand would give me a better insight into the lives of these children and I would know how to get across to them. I was right and wrong.

The Parent Teacher Interaction was nothing like what I expected it to be. For each division, all the teachers who taught the various subjects sat around in the room and each student along with his/her parents were called into the room. Then each teacher shared his/her opinion about the student with the parents and got the parents’ version of things. The discussion was supposed to be a productive one but I was horrified to find out that it was far from it. I was the new teacher on the block and nobody really cared much for my opinion. When the students came in one by one with their parents in tow, I was sad and horrified to note that my fellow teachers were so critical about the students and had almost demeaning comments about their performance in class. It was anything but positive criticism. It was unkind, hurtful and saddening. The kids sat with their heads bowed and the parents looked embarrassed. Whenever I could interject this discussion, I did talk about the positive things I could think of about the student. From my junior class of 41, 12 were called for the interaction. Of this lot, maybe 4 or 5 were genuinely not interested to be in school and the only reason they were there was because they had no choice (Exactly how I felt a few months before). The remaining others just needed help and I was determined to do all I could to help them out, at least in my subject of Engineering Graphics. There were tears shed and depressing looks and heads bowed and for the first time in my life, I felt this was what I was called to do. I had worked in an Interior design company before I got married and I also did freelance work on and off. But never before had I felt this way before. I knew God had definitely worked through people and certainly through Aaron when he forced me to take up this job. And I was now grateful. I had my task outlined clearly for me. I belonged here. I had to help these students. This is what I was called to do.

Even though I felt a pull at my heart strings during the course of the Parent Teacher interaction, the one time I felt tears well up in my eyes was when Asghar and his father  came into the room. He was the last student of the day. My colleagues went on their usual lines about how he was not going to pass in his 11th grade if he kept failing his internal exams and term papers. Asghar stared at the floor with vacant eyes while his father visibly fumed up. When the teachers were done with their individual monologues, the father added to the long list of complaints about Asghar’s academics and the works. Suddenly the big man got to his feet, lifted Asghar to his feet holding onto his shirt collars and slapped him hard across his face again and again. It all happened so suddenly that we teachers were stuck to inaction for a few seconds. Then when it sank in that the father was physically hurting his son, the male teachers got in between the father and son and tried to calm the father down. The tears which were threatening to flow down my cheeks finally did. I went over to Asghar and put my hands around him. Asghar was way taller than me and broader too. With some difficulty, I got him to sit down and tried telling him that it was going to be okay. But Asghar did not even raise his eyes to look at me. He kept staring at the floor and after a few minutes of comforting him, I seriously began to wonder whether he was able to even hear me because there was absolutely no response from him, not even a sign from his body language. I then held his chin and lifted his face to look at him. Tears were flowing down from his cheeks too. When he realised that I saw his tears, he wiped them off furiously and sneered to me “Go away” and walked out of the room. By now his father was much calmer and nobody had to say that the meeting was over, we saw the father walk to his car parked outside. By now, Asghar was already inside the car, with his seatbelt on. The father got into the driver’s seat, put on his seat belt and drove away. My fellow teachers looked visibly relaxed. Senseless banter continued between the teachers and the principal who was present. I do not remember the conversations, I just wanted to get home and have a good cry. And when I got home that day, I did. I cried long and hard. On one hand, I had had my revelation that this was what I was called to do for the rest of my life, and on the other hand, I was too heartbroken to see the way the Interaction went and especially how Asghar’s father hit his grown child. I knew there was a lot of work I had to do if I had to help these children and I prayed for strength and courage because I was all set to change the predictions that my fellow teachers made that these kids not seeing their 12th grade and graduation.

The next day, I was ready to take up my new challenge. During my class, I made an announcement asking all the 12 students who had attended the interaction session yesterday to stay back after class. From that day on, I started extra classes for Engineering Graphics and made sure I gave my personal attention to my students during their regular classes and the extra classes. Slowly but steadily, I saw small improvements in their performances. Asghar was an exception. No matter what I seemed to do, he stayed dumb – literally and otherwise. He looked uninterested in whatever was happening in the class and stared at me with a  blank look in his vacant eyes. I tried in vain to get him to talk to me. I tried the friendly approach and when that did not work, I tried the stern-teacher approach. Nothing seemed to make a difference to Asghar. He was always quiet in the class and lagged way behind the rest of his class. I was at my wit’s end and I had no clue what to do. After my multiple failed attempts, I began to ignore Asghar completely. Now when I think back at that, I see that as my failure as a teacher, but then again, I had tried everything I could and it was all useless.

The Annual Exams were just a week away. My group of special 12 was gearing up to get at least enough marks to pass. Once I helped them with their Engineering Graphics sums, I gave them time to study the other subjects they were giving exams for. I could not clarify their doubts and questions when it came to the other subjects, but at least I could give them an atmosphere to study and practice sums and write their reports and essays. They seemed to make some kind of progress. Well, everyone except Asghar. He was a super-special case. Even though he made it a point to attend all the regular classes and extra classes, I seriously began to wonder why he was wasting his time and my efforts by even being in the class. It was one of those days when I was particularly vexed about my students, especially Asghar when I saw him drawing clumsily on his drawing sheet. I couldn’t help but yell at him. “Why on earth aren’t you using a 30degree set-square to draw that diagram??” My voice came out louder than I intended. The class went silent. I did not lose my temper very easily with my students and this was one of the rare moments. I walked over to the elevated drawing table where Asghar was standing with his incomplete drawing sheet.

I repeated my question again. “Why are you not using a set square?? Don’t you have one?”. Asghar stared at me intently for a moment and asked a totally unrelated, random question “Teacher, can I have your bracelet?”.

I was visibly surprised and taken aback. It was the second time I heard what his voice sounded like. “What?”

“Can I have your bracelet?”

“Why do you need my bracelet for?”

Asghar just stared at me. His speech-quota was over.

I asked him again “Why do you want my bracelet, Asghar?”

He stopped looking at me. He looked down at his table and tried to continue his drawing.

I was quite puzzled at this weird exchange that we shared. I just stood in front of his table and asked the other students to resume their drawing. End of the day, I watched as the students took their backpacks and left for their homes. I hoped to speak to Asghar then. But he did not stop even when I asked him to and I felt like an idiot, I did not know why.

As I lay on bed that night, I could think of nothing else but Asghar and his strange request. He wanted my Memory Bracelet! Of all the things that Aaron had left behind of our life together, the Memory bracelet was my favourite. To anyone else, it was an ordinary charm bracelet, but it was anything but ordinary for me. Crafted in Sterling Silver, my memory bracelet had 12 tiny round slots where the charms were hooked on. Even thought there were 12 slots, only 9 were taken up by the charms. 9 tiny charms to denote the 9 lovely years that I got to spend with my Aaron.

contd.. Part -2 in the next post.

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