‘Fail Test’: A father’s responsibility to his children

Syed Adil Ahmed, UK

You will fail in life. It happens to the best of us. Often, we learn from our failures and this prevents them from happening again, although this isn’t always the case. Explaining this concept to a class of Year 10 teenage boys wasn’t easy, but as I attempted to enlighten them on this topic, it got my mind moving in a direction I wasn’t expecting.

Teaching at a working-class city secondary school in the UK isn’t always easy, but you can come back from a day of work with some stories to tell. One such story starts with the Head of the Department planning a term’s worth of ‘social skills’ lessons that I had to deliver to a cohort of apathetic Year 10s. Normally, I would be emailed the lesson plan on the morning of the lesson and would take a quick look before attempting to do my best to deliver it in the most engaging way possible. Occasionally, I would be pushed for time and rush to the lesson, not having looked over the material but backing myself enough to wing it once I got there. This was one of those times.

As I entered the classroom, I prompted the students to come in and take their seats while I scrambled around the teacher’s desk to find the printout of the lesson; a sheet of paper with a breakdown of what needed to be delivered in the lesson, including the title, learning objective and activities, along with any accompanying worksheets. When I finally unearthed the printout, ‘Fail Test’, from the mounds of marking around the computer, I scanned the document, got the gist of it and went into full-scale teacher-winging-it mode. As a teacher for six years, I was fairly comfortable doing this, although things didn’t always go according to plan. From what I had gathered from the printout, the purpose of this lesson was to teach the students about failure and change their minds about it.

“You will fail in life. It happens to the best of us!” I exclaimed to the class to grab their attention.

“Not me, sir, you couldn’t pay me to fail. Never taken an ‘L’. You’re looking at the personification of success. Failure isn’t in my…” Steve chuntered away.

“OK. I’m going to stop you before your nose ends up on the other side of the classroom.” – I abruptly cut Steve off before he completely derailed my lesson with his sensational prattling. Hopefully, the quick Disney reference will lighten the mood of this sombre and unenthusiastic class.

“Who can give me an example of failure they have experienced or are anticipating? Gary, any thoughts?” I quizzed Gary in a desperate attempt to squeeze some life out of the room and Gary seemed to be the only alert student within it.

“Err, no idea. Actually, my brother just failed his driving test. So that…,” sighed Gary who was half asleep when I picked on him. He just about got the words out of his mouth.

“Yes, perfect example! You may fail your driving test, especially considering that only a small percentage of people pass the first time. In fact, statistically speaking, those who do not pass the first time are safer drivers in the future and are less likely to get into an accident. This leads perfectly into today’s learning objective and lesson…” Rambling on, I scuttled over to the whiteboard with my pen and started to write the title.

“Are you only saying all of this because you failed your driving test, sir?” Dan spluttered through a mouthful of gum.

“Pfft, no, I passed the first time.” I said it somewhat smugly with my back to the class as I continued to write.

“Then how can you talk to us about abject failure?”, grunted Greg.

“Abject? What? Who taught you that word?” Perplexed, I turned back to the class. Greg couldn’t give me an example of an adjective in a previous lesson and was now throwing around terminology like “abject failure”. Naturally, I was caught off guard. The class clearly needed a little more explanation.

“Anyway, driving tests don’t apply across every aspect of life. Of course, I’ve failed in my time. I’ve failed at a lot of things. The point I’m trying to get to is that failure often leads to success!” I said as I snapped my fingers at Dan and pointed towards the bin.

“Like when, sir?” Dan said as he slowly got up, and had a few last chews of his spearmint before spitting it into the bin.

Then it hit me, not the chewing gum, but an idea! A spark that would hopefully capture the imagination of this ragtag group of Year 10s. In this moment of inspiration, which couldn’t be overcome even by the general odour of perspiration in the room, I announced:

“Well, on the topic of driving, I failed multiple times when my father taught me how to do handbrake turns, in the mosque car park.”

It’s fair to say there was stunned silence and a couple of dropped jaws. It’s as if the combination of ‘handbrake turn’ and ‘mosque car park’ hadn’t been uttered in the same sentence in the history of man. Disinterested students who had previously had their heads down on the desk had now popped up like meerkats during feeding time at the zoo. I had them on the ropes. It was time to bring it home.

Over the course of my tenure, I’ve found that if you can convince the class that what they are about to learn is of interest and applicable to their lives, then they will buy into it, applying a positive attitude towards their work. You have to do it early in the lesson in order to peak their interest. This can be easier with a topic such as ‘failure’, than, say, ‘trigonometry’. I can’t say why this particular memory came to mind. I guess it was because we were talking about driving and I wanted to make myself more relatable to the class.

I went on to theatrically describe the events of the night when Abba (father) taught me how to do a handbrake turn in our old beat-up family car. As I passionately took my class on a rollercoaster of a ride, emphasising and highlighting key details of the occasion, I realised I didn’t often get this into teaching. I soon realised it was because I was talking about something I deeply cared about. Something that was so ingrained in me and held such significance, I couldn’t retell the story in a manner that did it any injustice. It wasn’t because I was talking about family, fun times in my formative years, or mischief. It’s because I was talking about my connection to the House of God, how it developed and how my father was one of the key catalysts for this connection.

Surely one of the best ways to develop your relationship with Allah, is to visit His home and pray to Him there. So how do you do that as a child? Well, you need help from your family. Your father can take you there, but how does he help his child understand its relevance and develop an attachment to it? As they say, you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

My father (and many other family members) helped me with this by taking me to the mosque for congregational prayers and also helping me make other memories there; memories such as playing basketball, cricket, or table tennis in or around the grounds of the masjid [mosque]; memories of Atfal classes and Khuddam events; memories of meeting new people and building friendships; memories of emotional prayers that were accepted in one way or another. This masjid was a second home to us, and this recollection I was making to my class was one of those key memories that helped me make an attachment to the masjid.

Growing up in the northeast seaside town of Hartlepool had its pros and cons and one of the pros was that we were lucky enough to have a purpose-built masjid. Since Nasir Mosque was built in 2005, Abba would consistently take my older brother and me to Fajr, Isha and Jumuah. This inculcated the habit of attending Salat in the masjid, which I can confidently say has had a lasting impact throughout my life since. To this day, if I haven’t attended the masjid or offered salat in congregation for a period of time, I feel the weight of this void on my heart. This feeling motivates me to go back when and where I can.

I was 11 when the masjid was built, and as the years rolled on, Abba would continue to take us, rain or shine. When my elder brother went to university and moved to London, it was just me and Abba. On those 6-7 minute car journeys to the masjid, Abba and I would talk about small things, big things, important things, funny things, serious things, general things, specific things and sometimes nothing. One snowy winter’s evening, after Isha, Abba sat in the masjid’s office for slightly longer than usual, completing some Jamaat work. Once he had finished, we walked quickly out to the car as the snow piled up in a heavy downpour. Abba turned the engine on and allowed the car to warm up like he usually did in cold weather. We sat in silence as I watched my breath create a fleeting, misty cloud of water vapour around the passenger window. I looked at the tracks the other cars from tonight’s congregation had made in the snow. It was just us left now. Not having set off yet, I turned to Abba who sat in quiet contemplation. Maybe I should bring up something to talk about. Something of interest would be good. Abba liked interesting things. Has something happened in the news recently? Should I make a comment about the weather? I stared at Abba trying to figure out what would be of interest to him. Yes, that’s it – the weather.

Catching my gaze, Abba turns to me (thankfully before I can open my mouth and bore him with my weather chat) and in Urdu says,

“Adil, now you have passed your driving test, I’m going to teach you something.”

Swiftly, he wraps his arm around the passenger headrest and does the classic ‘father looking out of the back window instead of using the rear-view mirror to reverse the car’ from the parking bay onto the road. With the 2001 Renault Scenic’s engine idling, the scene was set. This car was not built for the task set ahead, but nevertheless, it was about to venture out of its comfort zone. It’s safe to say, this was much better than talking about the weather.

Nasir Mosque’s grounds include a large car park in the shape of an L around its surrounding gardens. The car park was quite big and had more than enough space on the bend to drift the car. The snow had laid a few inches on the ground and was frozen underneath, so the wheels would skid if the brake was applied at high enough speed. The conditions were perfect.

From memory, the next 15 minutes of this night are a blur of fun and frolics that I won’t forget. When I close my eyes, I can see us whizzing around the masjid’s car park, turning on the bend in slow motion, a huge smile on my face, as a younger version of me grows deeper roots of attachment to his father and this place. The grounds of the masjid. The House of Allah. My second home.

As I described the events of the night to my class, I could see the same glint in their eyes and smiles on their faces that I had on my face when I was behind the wheel. Many of them could relate to what I was talking about in some way or another. Others, unfortunately, couldn’t, but longed for the day that their own fathers or father figures in their lives would share a similar moment with them. In the meantime, my story would suffice. This realisation reminded me of how lucky I was. Lucky that I had a caring father who understood the importance of bonding with his children and taking them to the masjid. Lucky that I had a mosque nearby my home. Lucky that I was an Ahmadi Muslim and that family values are entrenched in the Islamic faith.

As my story came to a close, I slowly walked back to my chair and fiddled around with the computer in order to pull up some information on the screen at the front of the class to continue with the lesson. The class was silent, as was I. It seemed that we were all thinking about the aforementioned moment with wry smiles. The lesson eventually ended, but the thoughts of that evening stayed with me for the rest of the day. It got me thinking about how important it is to make memories with your loved ones at the masjid. Now, as a disclaimer, I don’t necessarily recommend you teach your children how to do handbrake turns at the mosque (even if conditions are perfect and completely safe), but making fond memories with them there is a must. They need to know they belong somewhere and have a second home. Somewhere they can go with ease and comfort, even when those loved ones who took you there initially are not here anymore. When people in your life leave this world, and you are left, you will have your connection to the mosque and the memories you have of your loved ones there. The people who took you there and helped establish roots for you. Now that I have my own young son, I pray I am blessed with more so I can make memories with them at the mosque, insha-Allah, with the aim of bringing them closer to their creator so that on judgement day Allah might say to me: “Well done, you brought your children closer to Me just like your father did with you.” Maybe we’ll all reap the rewards.

I don’t live in Hartlepool anymore. I don’t live as close to a masjid at my current residence. Now I live about 20 minutes from the masjid. There is also no L-shaped parking available. A bit further out, but I get there as often as I can. It’s not as close, but on the plus side, I get 40 minutes to talk to my son about things on our journey.

So, I told my class about Abba teaching me how to perform a handbrake turn and how Abba made me stick at it until I got it, even after all of my ‘abject’ failures. I’m sure some of the students left the classroom having learned something about resilience and perseverance. Most importantly, that forgotten memory that was stuck in the back of my mind somewhere was unearthed and reminded me about my relationship with Abba and my connection to the masjid, my faith and my Creator. We should fulfil this responsibility of developing this connection with our own children so that they learn to love Allah through it. As a father to my young son, this is now my responsibility. This is my test. I will do my best not to fail this test, insha-Allah.

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