Hungry for learning

After a Taliban bomb killed their father in Kabul, the Abdul Nabi girls and their family fled to a Pakistani refugee camp. Laila and Jaila cooked, cleaned, sewed and dreamed of going to school. They wanted to be doctors. But it wasn’t possible. Then UNICEF resettled the family in Boston. When they were 13 and 14, Laila and Jaila started school for the first time. It was like offering food to the starving, their ESL teacher, Charlotte Dumont, remembers.

“It was so hard for us to believe we were finally at school,’’ Laila said. “Every day, as soon as we got home, we would study. All we had was our books, and we loved them.’’

. . .  Within 18 months, the two inseparable girls with the long dark hair had made it up to grade level, taking places in mainstream math and science classes, where they shone.

In high school, the girls qualified for honors and advanced placement classes.

They studied through nights, asked for extra help, reproached themselves when their work fell below their own exacting standards. They found time for volunteer work, jobs, and summer leadership camps where they kayaked and hiked. They were ferocious about all of it.

Less than six years after they walked into their first classroom, Laila and Jaila Abdul Nabi earned their high school diplomas. Laila will go to Bryn Mawr on a full scholarship. Jaila will live at home to care for her mother and brothers and go to UMass Boston. Both girls plan to go to medical school.

About Joanne


  1. see what happens when students value education?

    i know we’re all for giving education, leveling the playing field and all that. but free education makes education common. and common things are not held as things to be valued, but things to be taken for granted.

  2. Sigh. When you see what human beings really are capable of achieving you just have to be disgusted with the system we have.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    I hope the report was using fake names and fudging other personal information.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    These two are outliers. No system is going to take a slacker, an intentional non-learner, and turn him into some kind of scholar.
    I mean, nobody says home schooling will turn any farm kid into Abe Lincoln.

  5. On the other hand, too few people say that a public education system that’s indifferent to whether the kids learn is entirely capable of turning an Abe Lincoln into a drug lord.

  6. Richard: By “system” I wasn’t limiting myself only to the educational system, but the whole of our society. There’s no reason to believe that these girls were exceptional in any sense except that they placed a very high value on education. Armed only with that one attribute, they got a high school diploma in half the usual time.

    Properly motivated and taught, there’s no reason not to expect that nearly all of our students could be coming out of high school twice as prepared as they are now. It’s a depressing waste of human potential that they aren’t.

    Or, there is an alternate possibility: elementary school may possibly be a complete waste of time. I don’t really believe this, but it would sure be interesting to collect more data points.

  7. Proper motivation is as rare in people as high intelligence is. The sad truth is, from ancient Rome to today, 80% of the Human population just doesn’t care, or is smart enough to care. And it’ll be just as true when we have starships exploring the Galaxy, too. It’s just the sad nature of Humanity.

  8. Homeschooling Granny says:

    Take a look at how little kids, before they enter school learn voraciously all the time. Consider how adults learn about the things that interest them. Then ask what is it about schools that can turn off the love of learning and why kids burn out in fourth grade.

    The desire to maintain a love of learning figures in the motivation of most of the homeschooling parents I know.

    I gained a great deal of insight on this through reading the unschoolers. They are more non-directive that I am but they really understand that all kids want to learn to be their best and strongest selves. They do not need to be forced to do this; it fact attempts to force can boomerang.

  9. Richard Aubrey says:

    “properly motivated”
    How are we as a society going to “properly motivate” eighty percent of the kids?
    That would require fixing their parents’ motivation years before the kids are even conceived. It would require banning MTV. It would require flogging parents whose kids don’t read by the fourth grade.
    IOW, impossible.
    I once tried to sell an article to a parenting magazine pointing out that almost all toys for a kid who can at least crawl are analogs of adult implements. Doll=baby. Toy guns and toy trucks and toy hammers and toy…think of a toy which isn’t an analog of an adult implement.
    I said that kids are born with a drive to grow and learn to be competent at being adults, else the race would have gone extinct.
    Toy stores are for adults’ guilt when they have no way to grow the kids’ intellect–on the farm, in the shop, wherever–day by day.
    The editor invited me to look over their advertisers before I submitted it again.
    The point stands, however.
    But public, mass education cannot provide the same experiences. We are not born with a driving instinct to learn algebra for its own sweet sake.
    People have to see education as the only means to a desirable end, which, if you were a girl in deepest Crapistan, would be obvious.
    These two estimable young ladies aren’t going to be piling up degrees merely for the sake of learning without regard to their future situations. They’ll get where they’re going and then, in their spare time, indulge whatever intellectual energy is left them from their vocations.