A TFM Christmas: His Own Hero

As we approach Christmas, we take the time to reflect on our greatest source of strength and inspiration: our students. Today, 2013 Fellow Joel Ryan Lee tells us about Ali, a student who faces impossible challenges each day, and still manages to smile.


Joel Lee, Teach For Malaysia 2013 Fellow

“I once wrote about Ali*, my most inspiring student out of the two weakest Form 4 classes that I teach English. His father passed away about three years ago and his father told him to chase his own dreams before he departed.

I always knew that it was tough for him not having his father anymore in his life – he shares with me details in his journal (all my students have to do this in class). But only today did I find out the extent of how much he has to go through on a daily basis.

After sending him home to his flat, I parked my car at a nearby park, reflected over our conversation and the tap which had been sealed for quite some time loosened. I wept.

I wept because no child should have to lose their parent at such an age, especially to a preventable illness.

I wept because no child should have to wake up at 4.30am every day to go to school.

I wept because no child should have to walk up seven stories to his flat in a rundown area and sleep alone in it because his mother works as a night time security guard from 7pm to 8am almost every day.

Ali’s older siblings work in physical labour and in security as well in Sungai Petani and Johor Bahru. No one in his family has ever been educated formally past SPM and one didn’t even make it past PMR.

Despite all of this, Ali is like a beacon in his class. He guides his classmates who are lost and helps them with their exercises at the expense of his own.

He never fails to greet me with a smile when he sees me along the corridors. He always offers to help carry my teaching aids to and from the staff room. He borrows Malay and English books from my mini library all the time. He does his sports as well. He even had the foresight to ask me to help him find an art/culinary arts internship for him over the holidays so that he could get some exposure.

He is still failing most of his subjects like the rest of his classmates but his determination to succeed is so sheer it humbles me.

I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again. More than I’ve helped him, I think he’s helped me more. He truly inspires me. He consistently shows a positive outlook towards his life and he strives to overcome each of his own struggles each day. When he falls, he allows himself to mourn for a while, then he brushes the dust off his shoulders and becomes his own hero.

It’s very admirable.

Ali, I know you only have great things lined up in front of you for the rest of your life. Yes, you’re a little playful sometimes, but then again how complete is life if there isn’t any fun?

You are an inspiration and it is a joy to be your teacher. I wish you could influence more of your friends to be like you!”