Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Losing a brilliant mind

Last week while I was vacationing in Florida, my friend Georgie sent me an email saying that one of our former teachers - Ashraf Ali - at Cumming's Lodge School in Guyana passed away after a massive heart attack. It was such a shock. His birthday is less than a week before mine. He would be turning 63 at the end of this month and too young to die.

I recall my first day of school at Cumming's Lodge in 1965 where he was the head prefect. He had the curliest hair and looked so serious - as if he was taking his role of head prefect very seriously. I spent a lot of time with him in detention (me in detention and he supervising) so I got to know that he was very smart, read voraciously, and could play a mean game of table tennis. He used to play with my friend Paul who was also an excellent table tennis player. We as students used to spend most of our lunch hours (if I was not on the field playing rounders, cricket or volleyball) watching them hit that tennis ball over the net for what seemed like hours, and he never seemed to run out of energy although he sweated profusely. 

I also recall that he wrote his O level exams and was the only person to get distinctions in every subject he wrote and he wrote a lot of subjects! That was pretty amazing. Then he became my Biology teacher at the same school. He had the neatest handwriting and would write copious notes on the chalkboard which we would have to furiously copy because as quickly as he would finish on the board, he would start erasing from the top, so we learned to write very fast. His diagrams were perfect and I remember trying to draw them as skillfully as he did. 

I left Guyana in 1970 and did not see him again until 1997 when I went to Guyana for a visit. By that time, he was teaching at St John's College in Georgetown. He told me that after I left Guyana, he also left and went to Mc Gill University in Montreal and graduated with a science degree. He later worked for a pharmaceutical company making perfumes and then decided to go back to Guyana to teach. He was also a brilliant bridge player, representing Guyana in many international competitions, mostly in the Caribbean and South America. I was with him once when he was at Bourda playing bridge and he was quite good (I don't know anything about bridge, but his opponents said that he was very good). He spent most summers in the last two decades going to the Caribbean islands to mark exam papers.

I don't know how long he was at St John's College but during that time, many of the students he taught were very successful in their CXC exams and they credited that success to him. He became the Deputy Head Master, and the school honoured him by naming their science lab after him. He was brilliant at everything he did. I visited him in 2007 when I was last in Guyana and he was sitting in a hammock reading a book. I asked him what he was reading and he said that he reads anything that he comes across. He was still an avid reader. 

It is a great loss to our community of friends who knew him as a very down-to-earth person, wanting little in life of material things and always loving to live in Guyana where his heart was. We'll all miss him terribly but we also know that his teaching contributed to all of our successes.