On Sept. 11, 2001, Ayisha Irfan believed herself to be just another Brooklyn-born 13-year-old. “When I woke up the next morning, everything had changed dramatically,” says Irfan, now 27, and an analyst in charge of education, justice and policing for Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. “Before, when my family took vacations to Maine or New Hampshire, people would ask where we were from and we would explain where Pakistan was on the map. Overnight it went from neutral curiosity to completely negative feelings. If not for my teachers, I don’t know how I would have processed it all.”
From the first day of kindergarten at PS 217 in Ditmas Park to the last day of grade 12, at Midwood HS in Brooklyn, fortune lavished Irfan with wise and worldly teachers. “They didn’t fear controversy or complexity. They saw things as they were and gave me free rein to think, write and come to my own conclusions,” she says. “They taught me how to take action to make things better.”
She hasn’t stopped. Irfan’s life is a verb. Working in a full-time job. Studying toward a graduate degree in education and social policy at New York University. And active in the Muslim Writers Collective, an organization she helped found that brings together Muslim writers and performers to share their experiences and their work.
My parents came to the United States on vacation and stayed. My father is in finance and my mother is an accountant who opened her own business in Coney Island so she could be with her three children. They expected us to do well in school, and they believed in public education.
We spoke only Urdu at home so when I started school I was put into the ESL kindergarten. One day toward the end of the school year, we were talking about tigers, and in English I said, ‘Tigers are members of the cat family.’ My teacher, Mrs. Olga Elkind, looked at me in amazement. She called my parents in and told them I shouldn’t be in ESL — I should be in the gifted program. She made certain I was placed there in 1st grade.
She had noticed language and thinking skills that a teacher who had paid less attention would have missed. In middle school, at Andries Hudde in Flatbush, I got into the Johns Hopkins math program. I wasn’t a math whiz, nor was it my favorite subject. But I grew up believing I would go into medicine, though I kept finding ways, or ways found me, to end up in the humanities.
I was in the 8th grade when 9/11 happened. Within a week, my history and English teachers combined their classes to co-teach. They put a sentence on the board by Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” We wrote essays, debated and read; we learned to think about what our values were and what was happening around us. I would go to the mosque, for example, and notice that people we knew for years were gone. Some were deported, others left out of fear. I look back and realize how it was both subtle and shocking to experience that.
I got into the Medical Sciences Institute in Midwood HS in Brooklyn, a college prep program for medicine and research. I wanted to be in the other program, the Humanities Institute, but I have parents who honestly couldn’t understand why I’d turn down medical science. I took lots of humanities classes anyway. In 10th grade, Mr. Jeffrey Savage’s history and humanities class was the place I first heard the phrase “white supremacy.” We studied colonization, racism, inequality.
Even with all my great teachers, I owe the most to Ms. Catherine Kaczmarek, my journalism teacher in junior year. She shaped my life and my life’s work. She carried her passion and journalistic integrity in the way she taught us. She was very clear that there are different points of views. She taught us that if you care about issues, you need to think, research and write about them; you need to play a role in formulating public opinion, which can translate into action. She planted the seeds for my research, activism and community organizing.
As we are seeing social change movements take place around the country, it is important to note that schools have a role to play in this process. My own teachers were instrumental in showing me that our experiences don’t happen in a vacuum. They define every aspect of our academic, personal and professional lives.
— As told to reporter Christina Cheakalos