At the morning assembly in a school in central India, a group of students sat on a carpet, with eyes closed, and hands folded, listening obediently to their principal. Bored with this routine monologue, two girls thought of an ingenious prank. They quietly tied the long braids of their classmates to the tassels of the carpet they were sitting on. "When the students attempted to stand, they fell flat on the floor," chuckles a grey-haired Gabrielle Dube, her wrinkled face full of mirth, as she recounts the incident from her school days 65 years ago. Seated in an artfully decorated villa in Sharjah with her partner in the prank and best friend Fatima Mamnoon, the duo traipse down memory lane of the time they were classmates in India. "The teachers, of course, caught our wicked plan and we were promptly paraded to the principal’s room," adds Fatima, a mischievous smile spreading across her lips.

A friendship that started between the two septuagenarians with playful pranks in St Ursula’s School in Nagpur, India, in 1955, not only bonded them for life but also led to a heart-warming work partnership when they co-founded Ibn Seena English High School in Sharjah in 1978. Free-spirited, open-minded and full of beans, Fatima and Gabrielle incorporated a part of their personality in the core ethos of the school they founded.

"Marks are irrelevant in our school, no learning by heart, no walking in a line. We encourage self-discipline. Our teaching methodology intends to stimulate the child’s mind and feed their curiosity," says 77-year-old Fatima.

Draped in crisp cotton sarees, Gay and Fati, as they affectionately call each other, break all stereotypes of authoritarian academicians. Fun and easy-going, they have together established a school where children enjoy a free and relaxed atmosphere to grow up and thrive in.

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After graduating from St Ursula’s in 1958, Fatima studied home science and did her masters in early childhood education from Syracuse University, in the US. But working for a few years as a teacher, first in India and then in the UAE, in schools where a rigid, unimaginative and conventional education system was followed, left her disillusioned.

Gabrielle, meanwhile, had met the love of her life when she was 16 years old, and promptly got married at 18. After earning her Master’s in English Literature, she dabbled in a few careers – as a lecturer in a college, a scriptwriter in a radio station and in the tourism department in India – before moving to Sharjah.

Staying in touch

Even after finishing school, the two kept in touch with each other exchanging long letters regularly. "We’d constantly stay updated about each other even when we lived apart," says Gabrielle. "While Fati was in the US, I’d visit her mother in Nagpur and when she came down on holidays, she’d travel many miles to visit me in Jabalpur."

Fatima smiles amd nods her head in agreement.

So, what led them to set up the school in Sharjah?

"I was quite disappointed by the way some of the schools were operating," says Fatima, who along with her husband had arrived in the UAE in 1966. "I had fresh ideas and wanted to make an impact on children’s minds. I felt what better way than to open my own school, and as I knew my concepts matched Gabrielle’s, I urged her to move to Sharjah to help me establish Ibn Seena."

At Ibn Seena school, their roles are well-defined – Fatima handles the finances while Gabrielle is in charge of academics
Ahmed Ramzan

Within minutes of meeting them, it is evident that the vivacious and chatty Gabrielle is the anti-thesis to the tall and quiet Fatima, who lets her friend do all the talking most of the time. At Ibn Seena school, their roles are well-defined – Fatima handles the finances while Gabrielle is in charge of academics.

"We argue almost every day, but we never take our differences home. And we give each other enough space," says Fatima.

Their successful partnership at the school has made Ibn Seena a notable educational institution in the UAE. From 47 students at the launch 42 years ago, the institution has grown to more than 2,000 in strength with alumni at MIT, Stanford, Yale, LSE, Oxford, Carnegie Mellon among other reputed universities.

"We follow an application-based teaching methodology, where we don’t allow a question to be repeated in the entire academic year. We still teach fractions by dividing a chocolate; directions in a geography class by making children sit in various parts of a classroom or hall to help them understand the concepts better," says Gabrielle.

Of simple times...

Reminiscing about the years gone by, both agree that things were simpler and easier earlier, including setting up a school. Back in the late 70s, they say, officials had more autonomy. As for the students, the duo admit that they were more emotionally observant and aware than their peers are today. "They might be smart today, but [many] lack emotional intelligence. Earlier, children could sense if their mother or teacher was feeling sad, or if their classmate had not brought their lunchbox, they’d offer them food. They were more aware of what was happening around them," points out Gabrielle. "It’s not the same now."

Gabrielle and Fatima with colleagues in 1989
Supplied

To inculcate a sense of empathy and to make children more emotionally aware, one of the activities kids in the school are asked to do every day is to list five trees and birds they saw while coming to school. Another activity is to mention what their mother/father was wearing in the morning. Small activities like these, the duo feel, help children to be more aware and go a long way in making them develop a more rounded personality. "At the end of the day we are proud to have achieved what we set out – to shape our students as good human beings," affirms Fatima.

Fatima and Gabrielle have two sons each and a brood of grandchildren, whom they often take out time to catch up with. Striking a balance between their home and work life effortlessly, the two also find time to read and cook. "I love trying new recipes, the newest one I made for Fati and her husband, who has a sweet tooth, is dahi kulfi with gur, (yoghurt ice cream with jaggery)," reveals Gabrielle. To this, Fatima makes a face and declares, "Well, I didn’t like it." And we all burst out laughing listening to this impish banter between the two. Although in their late seventies they both still giggle like school girls.

I asked them how do they keep fit? Fatima, a diabetic, says she walks and swims every day and follows a healthy diet. Gabrielle, who has arthritis, is quick to add here that she can’t walk much. "I move all the time and she does not," laughs Fatima, "she has a list of excuses to not exercise, but I push her because no one else will." They exchange indulgent glances, their wise eyes reflecting a deep mutual love for each other.

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