By Maria Bossa
It is hard to describe what happens when we meet a friend for the first time because we need to write about one individual moment, deep feelings and sudden emotions, but in this case… it is very easy. I ‘met’—in the virtual sense of the word—this teacher the very last day of an online course back in 2011. I had written my final reflections about a session on using web 2.0 tools in the classroom when a stranger suddenly popped up in my messaging application and wrote that my words were the exact words she, “wanted to say but didn’t know how to express them.” Since that first exchange of messages, we have become colleagues, friends and sisters-of-the-heart, sometimes even referred to by people who know us as the ‘online twins.’ Ayat Al-Tawel is not only a teacher of English from Cairo, Egypt but might also be seen as my “serious half”.
Ayat has been teaching English for some time and recently she has also become an Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) trainer. She has helped me a lot in my professional life because she is always willing to “jump in” on one of my crazy projects. In fact, right after that course on using Web 2.0 tools was finished, I decided that I wanted to use Skype in my classroom, and I wanted Ayat to be a part of it. The idea was that my students could interview her. I didn’t have any specific topic in mind, just to interview her as part of using a new tool and for my students to have contact with someone from so far away. Ayat and I discussed this idea and she liked it. Then, she decided to do the same with her students but in her case, she introduced the topics of ‘forests in South America’ and ‘Messi, the Argentinian football player’. Students from both classes were eager to ask questions and participate. One of my students even danced Arabian music for Ayat! Ayat and I felt there was no need to let all that energy simply disappear, so we created the Facebook group called ‘ArgentEgypt’ and for three months our students in Egypt and Argentina shared everything from birthday wishes to dreams about their futures.
When I was ready to take the next step in my professional development and wanted to reach out and share what I was doing in my classroom in a more formal setting, Ayat was there for me again. She helped me to organise my experiences into presentations for webinars. And when I was unexpectedly invited by the Secretary of Education to talk about our “ArgentEgypt” project at an Education Congress in my city, Ayat advised me on what to include in the slides; with her help, I ended up expanding my presentation to include other ways I had used information technologies in my classes and, I hope, conveyed how important ICT is to learning in general. Ayat wasn’t able to attend my presentation physically, but she was there in every word I spoke, from beginning to end. Last year I was honoured to receive a scholarship from the University of Oregon (USA) to do a professional teacher’s course there and was named “City Ambassador” by our city’s mayor. This recognition of what I have accomplished wouldn’t have been possible without Ayat.
Even though we became fast on-line friends, I only first met Ayat in person in December 2012 when I traveled to Cairo. We had finished the ArgentEgypt project and I felt such a strong connection and sense of gratitude that I went to visit Ayat’s school and her students. My trip was a bit long as I had to travel from Buenos Aires to Rome and from there to Cairo. It was nearly 24-hours of travel in total. Ayat was at the airport with her sister and when I walked through customs we immediately knew we were going to be friends forever. When we were finally standing in front of each other, she gave me the best and warmest hug two friends could ever have. And here is the thing, it was spending time with Ayat that I learned that Professional Development and Personal Development are one and the same thing. The welcoming and warmth of Ayat’s family, spending time in her home, learning about her city, all of these things were just as important to me as spending time at her school and seeing how Ayat taught. I rode a camel, I hung out with King Tutankhamen, and I climbed the pyramids! And as I grew closer to Ayat as a friend and explored and shared her world, I also grew as a person.
No matter how many kilometres apart Ayat and I may be geographically, we are always emotionally close to each other, our hearts just one small step of empathy apart. Yes, I know it is important to support other teachers. I know that we should respect and further each other professionally. I know we must help each other grow as teachers. But I also know now, thanks to Ayat’s example, how much kindness and openness can also help us grow and develop as people. As her “older crazy sister” I just want to say “thank you”. Thank you for helping me learn about myself and the world around me. Thank you for being my sister. ‘Thank you’… It’s quite simple, right? Amazing how a simple message of thanks is often enough to allow us to both give and receive so much.
[In Argentina, we celebrate “Friend’s Day” on July 20th. Though I called Ayat very early in the morning, I could not give her a gift in person. In honour of, and to celebrate our friendship, I dedicate this post to my friend and sister Ayat Al-Tawel.]