The massacre at the school in Peshawar, Pakistan just before Christmas shocked both nations and individuals around the world.
It was the words of 18-year-old student, Aakif Azeem, which really got me thinking. He, along with some of the school’s other students arrived at school after the shooting in their green blazers and ties.
He said: “You can take away our teachers, you can take away my friends, but you can’t take away my identity. This school is my identity.”
What an incredible young man. It is tragic that only despicable events caused the world to see what his family and friends probably already knew: that here is a young man of integrity, courage and wisdom.
Identity is so important. How do we define who we are? By the uniform we wear, by the school to which we go, by our job or family or activities? I think all those are important in establishing our identity. But for a student, education is absolutely fundamental in helping to form and build that identity.
I wonder how many of our students here would consider uniform to be an identifying factor. Generally uniform is detested by pupils. It is ‘unfashionable’, they say. The colours are ‘vile’, and they say they look like idiots wearing such outmoded dress.
In fact the main aim of many is to see how they can ‘adapt’ their uniform. But in a situation such as this – one our students will hopefully never have to face – it all becomes so much more important. Maybe we only really become fiercely proud of our institutions, and our identities, when they are under attack and their very existence threatened.
This amazing young man voiced the words of students throughout the world. The problem we have however in our local communities is that students in our world, where education is often seen as a chore, not a privilege, have never had to consider beyond the immediate.
They, quite rightly see education as an entitlement, and have never had to consider what life would be like without it. And in many ways, thank goodness for that.
I don’t pretend to understand exactly why the Taliban needed to attack children who were learning and studying. They said, I believe, it was in revenge against the Pakistan army and the parents who worked for the army, who had children at that school.
This may be true, though wholly cowardly, to take revenge against the parents through the lives of the children. But does the attack also suggest that those who want to take control realise that putting a halt to education enables people to be more easily manipulated?
If that is the case, even the most apathetic of our students should surely strive for a better education. Maybe that is the job that we as teachers need to refocus on with renewed fervour: that for some, education could mean being potential targets for killers. And that there are those who wish to limit the broadening of horizons and the exploration and celebration of differences in the world.
Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head in 2012 at the age of 15. The only thing she had done ‘wrong’ was to speak up for the right of girls to be educated. As educators, we surely are duty-bound to help children realise why they should value and even treasure education and their own identity.
Time has passed since the atrocity in that Peshawar school. In the last few weeks the school has been reopened and students have returned, even though it is to a very different place. Parents, as well as children must have had to find enormous reserves of courage and strength to return to the scene of such a horror.
Moving pictures of before and after the scene have been posted on social media pages and remind us all of the devastation caused on that fateful day.
I hope and pray that for those who survived and for the families of those who didn’t, that they have been able to begin to find some peace in a situation where little hope can be found. But it must never, ever be forgotten. We must learn from their dignity as well as their suffering and never again forget what we have for so long and so easily taken for granted.