When 10-year-old Rayyan saw his teacher walk in with thick brown envelopes, purportedly from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, he couldn’t believe his eyes.
How could scientists - scientists who have been to space! - have replied to him overnight? He’s a fourth grader in Karachi, after all. No authority figure ever responds that quickly. But it wasn't NASA that had replied. It was other scientists – world-famous ones, who had also been to space. And they had replied to him and his classmates. Overnight.
He was in disbelief. His teacher, Miss Aimun Faisal, was surely playing an elaborate prank on them.
“But this is Miss’s handwriting…” Anabiya, 9, voiced his concerns out loud.
Aimun, however, just quietly handed out the envelopes.
Little does Rayyan know that his Miss Aimun is full of wonder and curiosity herself. And more importantly, she has a Twitter account with over 12,000 followers.
Aimun is no stranger to childish wonder. Her own Twitter handle is inspired by the British science-fiction show about a ‘Time Lord’ who takes his human companions on wondrous adventures across time and space in a spaceship which looks a lot like the quintessential British red phone booth, except that it is blue.
With her big round eyes, Aimun, too, loves adventure and thrives on the possibilities of this vast universe of ours.
So when Rayyan and his classmates thought out loud whether they could send NASA their queries about space, Miss Aimun did not blink. Instead of asking why, or saying no, as adults often do, she simply said: why not?
You’ve all heard how renowned astronauts, including American scientist Emily Calandrelli, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, our very own space technology applications researcher and scientist Ali Imran, and, on Saturday, NASA itself, replied to the queries of six fourth graders from The Cornerstone School in Karachi.
The details went viral on social media. But who is this teacher who said ‘sure’ when her students asked if they could write to the biggest space agency in the world? And why was it so important to her that her students all get answers?
It's important for teachers to be encouraging, she says. "Teachers are your cushions outside home. Your home is supposed to be safe, but the world is a different place, it is more self-serving, and there, the first guide you get is your teacher," says Aimun.
Recalling her own teachers who inspired her, she first credits her mother, who introduced her to word searches, crosswords, books, stories and art supplies, then her primary and secondary school teachers at Mama Parsi, and then her history professor, Ali Raza, at LUMS University.
“I’ve also gotten some not so good teachers. I know what it’s like to go to school every morning excited for a class, and to go to school in the morning dreading a class,” she laughs.
She knows what will get a child to respond, she says; for her, it boils down to kindness. “The only teachers who have ever gotten the best out of me were the ones who showed me kindness. You don’t always have to be nice but you have to be kind.”
When asked why it was so important to her that her students get answers, she explains, "So that they know that they can ask questions, that there are possibilities and they just have to try. The worst that can happen is that you don't get an answer. But you won't get one if you don't ask anyway."
In her own life, education has made her only more curious about the world. If she had had her way, Aimun would have been halfway through a PhD right now, but the restrictions that society often places on women caught up with her. While she still aspires to achieve her ambition, at the moment she is happy with where she is.
Quite proudly, she tells The Express Tribune that young Haniya has made a thank you card for her, using a glitter pen she won after a class quiz. “I have antennae on my head [in the card] because she imagined me in space.”
Aimun has introduced her students to Pakistan Space & Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) too and finds it tragic they are more aware of NASA than SUPARCO. Now, though, they refer to SUPARCO as Pakistani NASA.
Today (Monday), she is anxious as NASA has replied only to four of her students’ questions. She awaits responses for the other two as it would break their hearts, she says, to be left out. She may just email scientists to ensure they get answers.
All Aimun wants is to see the kids retain their wonder. Whether or not they will be future scientists is not something she is concerned with. As long as they keep asking questions, learning, and growing, and are happy, she says she'll be happy.
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