Gabriel Garcia Marquez died last week, and social media was flooded with tributes to the late writer’s astonishing literary talent. He was a wizard with words, able to tell stories with the flair of a dastaan-goh and an unerring eye and lyrical ear for the secret beatings of the heart. Most of us have read his work in translation, and I can only dream of what a line like “it was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love” would sound like in its original Spanish. Oh, the wonder of a book! The incomparable delight of a phrase, a sentence, a perfectly placed word that resonates in one’s imagination forever! I will never forget the look of my students’ faces after we read “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Marquez in my creative writing class. They were thirteen, and most of them had never read anything like it. “The world had been sad since Tuesday”; an endless rain has drenched Pelayo and Elisenda’s village. And that is when a bedraggled old man falls from the sky and into their courtyard. He is bald, semi-conscious, almost toothless—and has wings. The rest of the story explores how the village reacts to the presence of this strange bird-man in their midst, and ends with him flying away, free at last. My students were captivated. I can’t speak for all of them, but reading Marquez lit a spark in many imaginations dulled by television and text and Facebook, and that is the beauty of language and the power of a class.

Someone—Woody Allen, or G.B Shaw, or perhaps just that ubiquitous Anonymous—once said, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach”. I wish I could deliver a resounding slap to whoever coined that statement. I never thought I wanted to teach—it sounded dreary to face a room full of young adults and tell them how to conjugate verbs whilst they passed notes and daydreamed behind your back. Of course I was forgetting all the teachers who gave me the skills that shaped my life—from the lovely Ms. Moss at my first preschool to my beloved third grade teacher Aunty M, who encouraged me to write; to Teacher A who never gave up trying to help my execrable math by having me do word problems (“you can understand the question because your English is good”) and Teacher S, who would reduce every one of my essays and stories to a mess of red slashes because, “I want you to do better”. The professor at university who explained why a certain graph has no limits—“otherwise the graph would explode”—to the one who gave me Helen Cixous to read for the first time and helped my own mind explode. I can’t imagine what I was thinking when I thought teaching wasn’t for me. My father had been teaching for years and loved it, but he’s enthusiastic about most things, so I was still skeptical. That changed when I became a teaching assistant in college. I realized I liked interacting with students. I wanted to know what they thought, and how I could help them shape those thoughts. I fell in love, and my first stint teaching found me in class with a group of thirteen year old girls, hungry and inquisitive and pretending to be bored and too cool. That classroom is where we read Marquez—and a little bit of everything under the sun, even Bob Dylan’s lyrics to Mr. Tambourine Man. I like to think I planted a seed in those classes, and even if a handful of those girls have gone on to read literature or become readers, or just remember that one teacher they had back in the day who made them draw a Jabberwock, I’ll be happy.

Our teachers are our greatest treasures, and it’s a shame how cavalier most of us are towards the profession. A lot of people practicing it are doing it as a stop-gap measure, killing time before they get married. Many women teach because it seems the ideal job to have (not factoring in marking ninety assignments a week, of course)—work when the kids are in school, get holidays the same time they do and a nifty fee discount to boot. There are few who teach because that was their life’s plan. The trend is changing, which is heartening. There are people now who read for degrees in education, there are training workshops for potential teachers and teaching as a profession is slowly being taken more seriously. The culture of feting one’s ustaad is one so familiar to us and yet it is being eroded with each generation. We would never have dreamed of the cheek today’s students show their teachers, the way our parents would have perished before sassing theirs. Our teachers are the ones who spend their mornings with our children, showing them how to find the power of x, the properties of hydrochloric acid, the correct way to hold a baseball bat. They spend years doing it over and over again with legions of our children, putting up with eye rolling, mean gossip, obtuse questions. Our teachers are the ones who are kind when our kids throw up in their class, when they have a panic attack before going onstage to make a speech, when they cry after losing an election or are jubilant after a football match. We all remember that teacher.

Teachers change our lives, and the good ones change it in ways that shape us forever. School teachers and university teachers alike, all of them have the ability to show us things we never imagined before, and for each and every one of you making the long, hard slog, I salute and thank you. Thank you for coming back with your foreign-university degrees and teaching at state schools. Thank you for battling it out at private universities. Thank you for braving the local system for your degree and joining the Civil Service and being posted to Chichawatni.

 One of the best teachers I ever had has been teaching public-sector graduate school classes for forty years. She could have taught anywhere she wanted, but she chose a public university and has stuck it out. The impact of her life’s work is stunning—she has students all over the country who will leap to their feet to greet her, who will spend a few minutes talking shyly to her, bending their necks forward, eager but still a little hesitant the way we are when we don’t quite know how to address a respected teacher outside the classroom. And she is unfailingly pleased to see each one of them, her pride in them genuine. People in her generation must have made a lot of money, gained power and influence, but she has been an ustaad all her life, and because of her, legions of men and women have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. I can’t think of a better legacy.

The writer runs The Sirajuddin Foundation and the lives of her three daughters, which is why she has no Twitter account and a long-defunct blog.

Email:m.malikhussain@gmail.com