This article was originally published in Reality Magazine, January 2007.
He blew into my classroom with the wild melody and spirit of a Moroccan griha, bringing intrigue and chaos, singing his song fortissimo, confident that the rest of us would join in the refrain. Thirty years ago, Naseem would have been my ideal friend: the kind of guy who would’ve driven around town with his friends in a blizzard, top down, laughing and rapping as the car filled with snow. In college he would have convinced me to abandon cramming for finals in favor of helping out a friend who needed to talk. Had he been a father, he would have made his children’s lives a rich amalgam of spirituality and adventure, combining loyalty to Allah and the Shariah with his love of family and madcap fun. I say, he would have, because Naseem’s life ended tragically on a beautiful October day in 2006. A freakish snowstorm swirled around me the next afternoon as I stood weeping at his unmarked grave, struggling to comprehend, praying I would remember the melody he taught me.
The advent of 2007 has brought the unexpected: a teacher ought not outlive his students, particularly one whose very name had become synonymous with exuberant living. He would have hated the idea that any of us would be sad on his account, preferring instead that we continue in his joy-filled wake, making our own music. I’m not diligent about keeping resolutions, but this year I find myself committing wholeheartedly to a path that both honors Naseem’s memory and fosters the best within myself.
Most of us are content to be passive receptors of a life that seems beyond our choosing, as if we were not always 100% responsible for the paths taken, the decisions made or unmade. We delude ourselves into thinking that we are mere inheritors of our life, that we have somehow found ourselves placed willy-nilly in a work masterminded by Someone or something else. We struggle to find our melody line, but we are uncertain of our purpose, so making sense of our life proves elusive. Making the mistake of confusing who we are at our core with the stories of what has happened to us, we founder. We become very competent at writing bridge after bridge for our life’s song, avoiding the necessary composition of our own refrain. Some of us run out of time before we run out of excuses.
In his book, How, Then, Shall We Live? Wayne Muller says that “A life is made of days. Each day is an opportunity to say something honestly, to make something more beautiful, to create something precious, to give a gift only we can provide for the family of the earth. To dedicate a single act to the healing of others is a day well lived.”
Knowing and accepting the fact that our life is precious is cause for celebration, something that I expect Naseem always knew. As I look back on 2006, I see clearly that I’ve expended energy on things that were not worthy of my time, things that really didn’t matter. Educators like myself are compelled to provide reams of redundant assignments, recommendations, documentations, justifications, just to maintain employment. My role as educator is becoming that of a “delivery system for state-approved curriculum”, in precisely the same way that cigarettes are a delivery system for nicotine. Who I am as a whole man is not as valuable as the product I can provide. I admit that I have, despite my knowing better, allowed myself to become caught up in the business and bean-counting aspects of education to the detriment of my students. And yet despite the machinations of the larger system and my complicity in it, students connect with me on a deeper level. I try to pack my 50 pounds of personality and intelligence into a 5 pound state-approved sac, but, like Dolly Parton’s bra, sometimes the constraints are insufficient and the better part of me is left, well, spilling out. Students respond to this authentic me, and they connect their journeys with my own. I learn so much from them in return, and thankfully, there always seem to be an ample population of special students in my life, students like Naseem, who keep me laughing at the existential absurdity of life and our shared human condition.
The bittersweet lesson of Naseem’s life is the core lesson of 2006: life is precious and wonderful precisely because it can end at any point. I have a song to sing, and there is no one who can sing it but me. Like him, I am committed to singing my song out loud, never allowing tedium to overwhelm my sense of wonder. I agree with Diane Ackerman who, observing how fragile our life is observes:
…then it probably doesn’t matter if we try too hard, are awkward
sometimes, care for one another too deeply, are excessively curious
about nature, are too open to experience, enjoy a non-stop expense
of the senses in an effort to know life intimately and lovingly…
Our neighbor, fetching her mail, sees us standing in the cold with
our own letters in one hand and a seismically red autumn leaf in
the other, its color hitting our senses with a huge grin, too paralyzed
by the intricately veined gaudiness of the leaf to move.”
And so I cross the threshold of another year, no longer fearful that I will forget Naseem and the lessons he taught me. I remember the gifts, and I feel humbled and incredibly fortunate. My future is my conscious choice, so I focus on what matters most, leaving second-rate things behind. In 2006, Naseem was bound by time and space, located in a specific geography. Now, he is everywhere I need him to be, always accessible, always ready to laugh with me at life’s ironies, to cry at its injustice, to celebrate its inexpressible joy. Most of all, I remember Naseem’s song, the one he taught me with the example of his life, and in singing his melody I move closer to crafting the refrain for my own life’s song. So, if you happen to see me this winter, a middle-aged white guy, driving around town in his car in a snow storm, top down, rapping at the top of his voice, don’t be alarmed. It’s just me, living in the joy of the moment, with Naseem riding shotgun.