In addition to what we learn in school, other people we meet can give us valuable lessons, too.
MONDAY this week was National Teacher’s Day. I had lost touch with this day until a friend reminded me in a rather unique way.
Although we usually think of teachers as the ones in school, my friend used a broader definition of “teacher” and thanked all the people she had learnt something from in life including, to my surprise, me.
Going by the conventional definition, I did have a lot of good teachers. I can remember my primary school teachers, Miss Ong who came to school in a bright orange flared skirt, and Miss Chew whom everyone adored so much, we all cried when she was transferred.
I had teachers who gave me my love of the English language and who made sense of Mathematics to me, who guided me all the way through my exams and believed that I had more potential than I thought.
I had a History teacher who taught me to organise my thoughts so well when writing essays that I still use her method today. And last year I visited my old Physics teacher and found out that although I always thought I was quiet, she remembered me as very opinionated.
Of course, there must have been teachers who were also mean and nasty but time seems to have softened my memory of them. In any case, I don’t remember them being too awful and none of them were bullies like those I hear about today.
My teachers taught us a lot about values, about the need to be aware of what is going on not just in our country but also around the world, about right and wrong.
If anyone says I am well educated, I have to say that my education started well in my childhood and continued all the way until adulthood.
As I grew up I had many more teachers, some of whom were in unexpected quarters. When I first started working on HIV issues and knew nothing about any world different from my own, my teachers were all the people who were most affected by the epidemic.
I remember Jack, the first Malaysian to ever come out as a person living with HIV, teaching me how to use non-discriminatory language when I wrote about the people most vulnerable to the disease.
Drug users and sex workers told me their life stories and taught me that some people have been dealt really bad cards in life yet they soldier on, especially when other people depend on them for survival.
All of these people taught me that every human is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their circumstances in life. And I think that’s an important part of everyone’s education.
A great teacher is one who is able to make you see something so clearly that the world never looks the same again afterwards. Dr Jonathan Mann was the first director of the Global Programme on AIDS at the World Health Organisation, and then went on to head the Institute of Health and Human Rights at Harvard University.
In 1994, I was fortunate enough to hear Dr Mann articulate a human rights approach to health that made more sense to me than anything I had ever heard before. From that day I really wanted to learn more from Dr Mann but it was only four years later that I got to meet him at a conference in Geneva.
I really should have used that opportunity to talk to him as much as I could but I thought I had time. Sadly, only two months later, Dr Mann and his wife were killed in the crash of Swissair 111 off the coast of Nova Scotia. In the worst possible way, I learnt that we must always make full use of every opportunity given to us.
Of course, I have had many other teachers as well. Women’s rights activists are a particularly inspiring lot, Muslim women activists even more so because they are often misunderstood by everyone.
Women like Amina Wadud, Asma Lamrabet, Kecia Ali and our local Zainah Anwar, Norani Othman and the late Dr Nik Noriani have so much knowledge based on both scholarship and the lived realities of women that their detractors can do no more than question their credentials.
Yet all round the world, their work is resonating with women, including me, because it provides hope, something we don’t find anywhere else.
So we go through life meeting many teachers, not just the ones at school. School teachers may be the ones we meet first but we should always be open to all sorts of other teachers in our lives, sometimes who we don’t even recognise at first.
Education doesn’t end with school. Too bad not everyone learns that.
Marina Mahathir is a human rights activist who works on women, children and HIV/AIDS issues. The views expressed here are entirely her own.