In the fall of 1998, Niloufer Manzur sent a letter to her students in Sunbeams. Dhaka, along with the rest of the country, was completely flooded. Millions were homeless. Schools were cancelled. In her letter, Mrs. Manzur asked her students to be patient and give to charity. She was optimistic we will emerge out of the suffering with greater compassion, energy and strength. Last month, 22 years later, she sent another letter to her students in tenth grade. She asked them to be patient once again, to help with simple household chores and most importantly, to remember that they are extremely lucky to be surrounded by family and unconditional love. She entrusted her students to do the best, to make her proud. She was confident even as the world was ravaged by a virus that we will re-emerge — together, stronger.
This morning, our “Mrs. Manzur” lost to COVID-19.
As her student for 14 years, I have written many essays in life. I wrote about summer vacations, the liberation war, my hopes and ambitions. Yet, today, I am at a loss for words. No one taught me to write an obituary. How can I ever measure up to write one now, especially about the person who helped shape my identity?
Since morning, I have been looking for photos of her, of us together, but I am extremely bad at archiving and could not find anything. I tried to find my old report cards with Mrs. Manzur’s immaculate signature, but moving between cities for the past few years meant I don’t remember where I misplaced them. And then I sat down — angry, frustrated, betrayed, in tears — because I have no memorabilia of our time together. Grief is a strange emotion.
Mrs Manzur had the enviable quality of remembering each of our names and our stories. “Sabhanaz, I know you were unwell and I am glad you have recovered. Your grades are not as expected but I know you are a good student. I am confident you can do better if you work hard. Take care, my Sunbeams child.”
To her, once a Beamer is forever a Beamer. She insisted on signing our report cards every year. She insisted that we have a separate assembly for girls who are entering puberty so we are not afraid. She insisted that we have two hours to play every week at Abahani Field so we can have the childhood everyone deserves. At her core, she did not care if we were a straight A student or struggling with algebra. What mattered to her is if we were good humans.
To ensure, in fact, that we all turned out to be good humans, she took it upon herself to not just be our school’s principal. She became another parent, our advocate and our safe haven. Despite the years that passed between graduating from Sunbeams and running into her at events, including my own wedding, Mrs Manzur never stopped being our cheerleader. Even at my wedding, she meticulously asked about my hopes and ambitions. On days I was not proud of myself, she reminded me she was and that she loved us.
I spent my childhood in love with Sunbeams. Our classes were small and carefully curated. Mrs Manzur was quiet but never shied away from questions. She knew exactly what we were up to, both in and outside school. After Sunbeams, I went through heartbreak. The real world had little in common with our cocooned perfect lives, and I felt betrayed that the culture I experienced at school was disconnected with what people experience everyday. Ironically, I realised the reason I could even fathom inquiry into my consciousness is because Sunbeams gave me the foundation to take on the world with courage and compassion. And so, just like that, I became forever indebted to Mrs. Manzur.
If there was one quality we shared with Mrs Manzur, it is her infectious ability to ask more of ourselves. She expected we would never compromise with doing the right thing, and in turn, we expected everyone to do the right thing. This common narrative bonded us into a community and to pick up conversations with another Beamer exactly where we left off. We don’t even have to try because Mrs. Manzur did the hard work of shaping our core thinking. She influenced more than just our education. She shaped the varied, yet similar paths we all chose in life.
Mrs Manzur taught her students to care. It may seem trivial to reduce her magnanimous presence to a simple word, yet the ability to care is the rare, vital quality we need in the world today. She taught us to care about injustice, about those who are at the fringes of society, about those who are different from us. She taught us to care about our families, our classmates, our roots. She taught us to be kind to ourselves.
The coronavirus does not care. It does not care that Mrs. Niloufer Manzur deserves a funeral surrounded by her family, people she loved and her students. It does not care that my world has lost her guardian angel. Yet, true to her spirit, Mrs. Manzur’s students care. And so she lives on, through our relentless battles to be good humans. She lives on because she forgot to teach us to stop caring.