When Learning is Magic

Faisal Bari

I WAS in the first year of ‘O’-Levels, when I realised, for the first time, what a joy learning mathematics and physics could be. It was due to our physics teacher Father John Burns. It was thrilling to watch him explain concepts and tackle problems. He would read out a question, write the main points on the board and then take a couple of steps back and think about how to attempt the question. Those seconds were pure magic. Something would be happening in his mind. And then he would attempt to answer the question, in a beautiful, elegant way.

I tried emulating him. I would try to think hard about how to attempt a question. I often struggled over even the slightly more difficult ones. Once I asked him after class to explain to me the way he thought: how did he choose how to tackle a problem, what determined his approach to a problem. He smiled. “That’s a hard one,” he said. He helped me tackle some specific questions, but the larger issue eluded me. But he did tell me to think hard and long and on my own before approaching others and to practise thinking and tackling problems a lot.

He said that there were no short cuts to learning and that it was okay to be confused at the beginning and every time an attempt was made to reach a higher, deeper level of learning. Learning was hard work and there were threshold effects to learning. But persistence was important.

He had the same attitude when he was setting up experiments for us in the physics laboratory. It did not matter if an experiment had been done thousands of times before for the many classes he had taught. His excitement, as we took our first steps in basic experiments in mechanics or light, was palpable. He had a sense of humour and a hearty laugh and could enjoy a joke. The only time I saw him getting upset was when he felt we were horsing around and not taking learning seriously.

Father Burns passed away last year. A classmate posted the news on a social media site recently. Many of our class fellows expressed their grief and shared memories of their interaction with him. It was gratifying to learn that the person who had such a big impact on my life, whether he knew it or not, had a similar impact on others — the excitement he created, about learning, about being curious, about the ability of knowledge to help us think better. May Allah reward him.

There have been only a handful of teachers throughout my years at school, college and then graduate/post-graduate studies who have left a mark on me. The majority of teachers, even in the well-reputed institutions that I was fortunate enough to attend, were just subject specialists, who, though competent, could not make learning come alive for me or have an impact on my person. But a handful left deep marks, irrespective of the subject they taught. One teacher was able to inculcate in us the love of Urdu poetry; another made philosophy breathtakingly adventurous; another made me dream I was having discussions with Immanuel Kant; yet another made me live my life through the economics that he was teaching.

Though these teachers came from various disciplines and could not be more different from each other in many respects, they had several traits in common too. They knew their subject well; in fact, they knew it inside out. But more than that, they lived their subjects: they thought through them, they played with their material and, often and unabashedly, struggled with new questions and perspectives right in front of us. They were excited by challenge and they made learning exciting. They loved and respected their subjects and all those who made attempts to take the journey of learning with them.

But it was something more than their knowledge and love for their subject that made them stand apart. It was the force of their personalities that made them who they were. The sincerity and honesty of their purpose, their empathy for what the student was going through, their ability to put themselves in the student’s shoes, and their strong moral presence was an essential part of all of them.

They were all very comfortable with who they were and hence were not (easily) challenged by what students could throw at them, from within their subject area or as human beings. It was hard to come in their sphere of influence and not be affected by what and who they were.

It has been more than three decades since my ‘O’-Levels and since the last time I saw Father Burns. But I can still see him clearly — when he would step back to think about a problem, a piece of chalk in the curled fingers of his right hand, the hand raised so that his thumb was pressed against his pursed lips. There would be a look of concentration in his eyes and on his face; then, after a few seconds, the light of clarity would come shining through. What a privilege and joy it was to be taught by Father Burns and other teachers of his ilk. May our future generations have such teachers as well.


From the Dawn, Pakistan, Friday 23rd May, 2014


2 thoughts on “When Learning is Magic

  1. Someplace, somewhere we seem to have lost an intangible element that acknowledged and respected sincerity,honesty and dedication.
    Thanks Faisal, for your brilliant espousal of Father Burns and teachers of his ilk.

  2. Mr Faisal Bari, you were very fortunate to have had the privilege of having been taught by Father Burns, a devoted teacher. His devotion, honesty and dedication seems to have left a mark on you. There are very few teachers and other professionals who are so dedicated to their jobs. This reminds me of my Ammi Jaan’s aunt (Phoophi Jaan) who was Dr. Ajmal Makhdoom’s (Professor and later Principal of Govt. College, Lahore) mother. She was a highly respected teacher in Victoria School. She would invite her weak students to her home and help them with their studies, long after she retired and free of charge.
    Father Burns dedication left a deep impression on all his students. You were all lucky to have him as a teacher, and he is lucky in death because you all remember him with affection and admiration. I often read your articles and enjoy them thoroughly.

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