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A Person That I Did Not Know



Karim Ajania


When I was fourteen years old, I had just begun high school in London, England.

Prior to that, I was born and schooled in Nairobi, Kenya, and had graduated middle school in Kenya.

I recall that it was a sunny Sunday, when I embarked upon a big bright red London Transport double decker bus, to visit a schoolfriend who lived a few miles away. I had brought along a book with me for the bus ride, which was a book my high school English teacher had recommended for me to read. It was a book that had just been released and it was entitled The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

I was sitting near the bus window and deeply immersed Solzhenitsyn’s book, when a kind Jamaican lady’s voice asked me for the money for my bus ticket. The only reason I knew she was Jamaican was because I was very familiar with her distinct accent as I had several Jamaican friends. The Jamaican lady was the bus conductor, the person who collected the fare for your bus ride and then prints out your ticket for you.

I handed the bus conductor money for a child’s fare. Back then, a child’s fare was one-third the price of an adult fare. Adult fares kicked in when you turned 16 but, as I was 14, I was still entitled to a child’s fare.

The Jamaican lady objected that I had not given her enough money, and that I needed to give her the full amount of the fare. I did look a little older than 14, and so this was not the first time I had been mistaken for a 16 year-old. Back then, there were no ID’s as such for school students, but, as a back-up plan, all school students were required to carry an original copy of their most recent school report when traveling on London Transport, which officially stated proof of their age. I handed the bus conductor my school report.

What happened next, both surprised and bewildered me:

She refused to look at the school report and waved it away nervously, and then became flustered and upset. A somewhat disjointed and unproductive discussion followed, after which, to my further surprise, the bus conductor said I was to get off at the next bus stop if I was not willing to pay the full adult fare.

I got off the bus.

It was not a huge sacrifice on my part. The bus had gotten me quite a distance before I was asked to pay the fare. The bus conductor kindly returned the child’s fare portion to me. Moreover, it was a beautiful sunny Sunday, and I had a pleasant walk to my friend’s house from the bus stop, so no harm done.

However, there was a matter of principle here that did not sit well with me.

I had been obediently playing by the rules: I had carried my accepted ID – my school report – as I was supposed to have done. Yet, this bus conductor refused to check my ID and dismissed me off the bus for no apparent reason. I was baffled by the bus conductor’s rather odd behavior. It bothered me.

The next day, a Monday, when I went to school, I explained the situation to my English teacher.

She agreed that what had occurred between me and the bus conductor, was not principled.

My English teacher suggested that I write a letter of complaint about this bus conductor to London Transport, and said she was willing to help me compose the letter of complaint if I wanted to write it.

My English teacher further explained that any adversity in life presents a hidden gem of opportunity.

The adversity I had experienced on the London Transport bus, may prove to be a unique opportunity for me to learn to advocate for myself, and the first step in this direction was to write a letter of complaint to London Transport. As was usual with her, she underlined her thoughts by quoting Shakespeare:

Sweet are the uses of adversity,

Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,

Wears yet a precious jewel upon its head.

I wrote my letter of complaint to London Transport Bus Services Department.

A few weeks later, I received the reply from London Transport in the mail. I was so excited to receive this letter, and did not wish to open it until I could see my English teacher again. I approached her after English class, when we had some time during recess, and I opened the letter then. We both read the letter.

What happened next, both surprised and alarmed us.

The response letter from London Transport stated that after an official enquiry into the Jamaican bus conductor’s conduct with me, given that I had merely presented her with my school report. they had ruled in my favor, and had initially decided to simply reprimand her for her conduct toward me, a London Transport customer. However, they continued in the letter, upon deepening their enquiry into this bus conductor, they had decided to fire her from her job! The reason they presented was that she had deceived them into assuming that she was literate, where as, in fact, this Jamaican lady was illiterate.

The letter from London Transport concluded with thanking me for bringing this situation to their attention.

My English teacher and I sat in stunned and saddened silence as we both stared at the letter from London Transport. We, who both enjoyed words, written words, and spoken words, were at an utter loss for words.

My English teacher was in deep thought as she contemplated the response letter from London Transport.

After a long while, she looked straight at me and uttered the same exact quote from Shakespeare:

“Sweet are the uses of adversity,

Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,

Wears yet a precious jewel upon its head.”

This made no sense at all to me. My own ‘adversity’ of being asked to get off the bus was no longer important. Of far greater importance, in my mind, was the ‘adversity’ facing this Jamaican bus conductor who had just been fired from her job, thanks to me, a precocious teenager, who had decided to write a letter of complaint against her. I made my thoughts clear to my English teacher in no uncertain terms.

“I agree,” she acknowledged, “The adversity of this lady fired from her job is the relevant ‘adversity’.”

I told my English teacher that I was glad she agreed with me, and that furthermore, I had a lot more thoughts to share with her: Had my English teacher any idea how guilt-ridden and tormented I felt that I had – inadvertently – caused such harm to a fellow human being? How could I ever forgive myself?

How could the bus conductor ever forgive me?

World War II Royal Ambulance Corps for Women

Perhaps she is a single mother, who was trying to barely make ends meet? Perhaps she had young mouths to feed? I went on, and on, until my English teacher finally stopped me with this reprimand:

“I have absolutely no patience whatsoever for namby pambies!”

My English teacher was a unique and particular breed of person that we rarely see in our world today.

When she was a young woman during World War II, she had driven an ambulance in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the bombing of London. She had seen the horrors of war, and she knew the meaning of sacrifice and that had shaped and strengthened her character. She embodied what in England they called the Blitz Spirit, and she belonged to what in America they often call The Greatest Generation.

She was uncomplaining and just got on with things. She did not suffer fools nor a feeble character.

When I had finally stopped whining and was ready to listen, my English teacher repeated the quote:

“Sweet are the uses of adversity,

Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,

Wears yet a precious jewel upon its head.”

She explained that the true ‘adversity’ here, was not the adversity imposed upon me, nor the adversity imposed upon the bus conductor. Nor was this an adversity imposed by London Transport. Beyond the labels of ‘victim’ and ‘villain’ the true adversity being presented to us, was adversity borne of ‘ignorance’.

“In my experience as a teacher,” she explained, “There is no ignorance in our world that cannot be remedied by education. Moreover, ignorance of the plight of others is greatly alleviated if teachers first vigilantly inform and educate themselves, and address their own ignorance on these matters.”

In this case, she explained, the specific ignorance was society’s ignorance of people who suffer the crippling shame and deep humiliation of living their entire lives not knowing how to read or write.

In her spare time, my English teacher had worked for years as a volunteer teacher in the East End of London, to bring literacy and reading to children in low income communities. As she explained to me in her modest, understated, self-efficacious manner:

“I strive to overcome my own ignorance of the plight of those who are illiterate through my self-education.”

She urged me to do the same, by learning and researching case studies of people who are illiterate and the economic circumstances that cause them to not have the opportunity to learn to read and write.

I was skeptical about the value of this suggestion.

“What is the point of researching case studies on people who are illiterate?” I asked her, doubtingly.

“It is a first step,” she explained calmly, ‘Like ploughing a field before planting a seed. Being informed and preparing your thinking to be receptive is the first step. If you prepare your thinking, then one day, perhaps many years from now, you will be able to plant the seeds for a solution to those who must endure the adversity of illiteracy. And if you plant enough of these ‘solution seeds’, you may one day even witness a bountiful harvest. That harvest will become the ‘precious jewel’ in that profound quote from Shakespeare.”

About a decade later, when I was in graduate school in the United States, and was considering becoming a school teacher, I called up my English teacher and asked her if she had any advice for me. She advised:

“My only advice is this: You can only be an effective teacher, if you yourself remain teachable.”

All of this happened many years ago.

I have thought often over these many years about that bus conductor in London, whom I refer to in my mind as “A Person That I Did Not Know”. She will forever remain “A Person That I Did Not Know”.

Fast forwarding to this past summer, the Pencils for Africa (PFA) middle school program had accomplished some very specific milestones. First, Chyah and I had just completed five years of teaching PFA.

In addition, we had worked with editors, Peter Meringolo and Denise Sutherland, and authors, Lucia, Carly, Ella, Shannon and Charlotte, and our guide and mentor Paola, to publish the What is Smart? book.

What next then, for Pencils for Africa?

I had an idea, and so the first person I met with was the Elder in our PFA Global Community, Paola.

Paola and I had breakfast at the Dipsea Café in Mill Valley, Marin County, and I presented to Paola the concept of ‘Smart Libraries‘: a franchise of make-shift, modest libraries, in the slums of Africa, that provide access to books, as well as free literacy lessons in reading and writing. The prototype Smart Library would be created in the Kibera slums of Kenya. Paola heartily approved of this idea and gave her blessing.

PFA Global Community Elder, Paola

With Paola’s blessing I then began to methodically put the team building in place for Smart Libraries:

Shannon signed up as Smart Libraries summer intern and made presentations to our team members.

Muyambi, Smart Libraries Strategic Advisor

I began the strategic planning with Muyambi, founder of Bicycles Against Poverty, who is currently in his final year at Dartmouth getting his MBA. Chyah and I also met with Santa Clara University business student Brandon Rowell, and with Yema Khalif, who graduated summa cum laude with an MBA from Domincan and grew up in Kibera, where Smart Libraries would like to build the prototype library.

Yema speaking with the PFA Team last year

Paola, Muyambi, Brandon and Yema, all signed up to be on the board of Smart Libraries.

Last Thursday’s PFA Fundraiser 

When the school year began, we discussed literacy with the PFA Team as our theme for 2017-18 which is Literacy in Africa. Furthermore, it was decided amongst the PFA students and teachers, that all the PFA fundraiser funds this year would be donated to PFA for the Smart Libraries project. Last Thursday, the enthusiastic PFA parents and students all worked together to raise close to $500 for Smart Libraries.

As I stood observing the PFA students selling cookies and lemonade at the fundraiser, I so wished I could have shared photos of this activity with my high school English teacher, who passed away a few years ago.

She would have loved to have seen the planting of these seeds in anticipation of a bountiful harvest.

Last Thursday’s PFA Fundraiser for Smart Libraries

It was my high school English teacher who taught me that sometimes in life, a person whom you have never known, might unexpectedly provide you with an insight into an adversity, such as illiteracy, of which you would otherwise remain completely ignorant. Specifically, in my own experience, that particular person was the bus conductor, whom I met all those years ago, when I was a high school student in London.

A Person That I Did Not Know.