The day I met a genius: a somber reflection

Have you ever met or had a conversation with someone and thought to yourself: ‘this person is a genius’?

This happened to me during the holy Islamic month of Ramadan in 2011 at the Islamic Center of Boston in Wayland (ICB), Massachusetts.

One evening, while the largely South Asian community broke the fast, I found myself talking with an academic from Boston University, who earlier that week had kindly welcomed me into her office for a chat about my research.  This academic treated me as her own son, introducing me to people left and right, and indeed to her husband and family.  One member of her family, however, stuck out to me more than the others.

That person was her daughter.

My first impression was the striking similarity between mother and daughter.  The daughter was exceptionally bright.  And I mean exceptionally bright.  Indeed, it was almost intimidating for me to be in her presence (and I was 26 years old and a Ph.D. student)!

They say ‘like father, like son’.

Nay, ‘like mother, like daughter’.

The daughter was so mature and grounded that I thought she had to be at least 21 years old, in college, and going on to pursue a postgraduate degree in physics at Harvard or MIT.  She asked me questions about my research, questions I had never really thought about, questions that stimulated my thinking.  Her awareness and overall composure amazed me.

And she was only 15 years old!

I felt like I was in the company of something truly special.

This passage from a local newspaper is telling:

She spent a few weeks working with the very littlest children and a few weeks working with the older children. Everyone one loved (her), teachers, children counselors. She was a talented and amazing artist. She was quiet, compassionate and very, very kind. At the end of the summer, I asked the teaching staff to provide feedback on the counselors. (She) received glowing reports across the chart. All adored her.

It’s with sadness to write that the world is now one genius, one beautiful young lady, one great sister, and one future leader, short.

Her passing is all too familiar for me and strikes a chord of a distant heartache.

When I was 16 years old, growing up in the Boston suburb of Needham, Massachusetts, my best girl friend, Stephanie Kenney, passed away after being struck by a train.  She was my first crush, but more than that, as we grew older, a close friend who I could run to when I had to talk about things that 16 years old deal with.  She was always more mature than me.

For me, as I wrote this now, I can’t help but think of the similarity between the young daughter and Stephanie.

As they say, ‘only the good die young’.

Rest in Peace, Shaira Ali

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

– Irish blessing


2 thoughts on “The day I met a genius: a somber reflection

  1. What a beautiful thing to write. Shaira was my niece, and has been intimidating me for over a decade now. She was such a taleted, sweet, loving young woman. Thank you for taking the time to post.


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