Starting at the Top: Karachi Grammar School

By GIRLWITHABOOK co-founder, Olivia Curl

If you’re American and you’ve heard of Karachi, then you’re probably a bit ahead of the game (at least compared to the Average Joe’s Game). If you’re American, you’ve heard of Karachi, and you have a positive impression of Karachi, then you’re ahead of pretty much everybody’s game. 

If you’re a Karachiite and you’re reading this and already feeling grumpy about this blog post, let’s just clear something up right now: I LOVED Karachi and want to go back. It’s a great city, we got to see a lot, talk to a lot of people from all backgrounds and neighborhoods, eat great food, hang out with Lena’s super great family (y’all are the best), and over all get a good feel for this coastal city of 22 million people. 

Still though, most Americans who have heard of Karachi probably don’t have an overwhelmingly positive impression of the city. I don’t have official polling on this, but we’ll rely on the fairly consistent expressions of “You’re going to PAKISTAN?!?” that I got from concerned friends, family, and complete strangers in the months leading up to our departure, as a reasonable barometer for Average America’s Thoughts on Pakistan and it’s largest city. 

I think it’s fair to say (and Lena just backed me up on this) that I’m more aware and have a better understanding of the human landscape of Pakistan than most people. I knew going in that we were going to visit great schools in Pakistan, with driven and privileged students, and I knew that we were going visit poor schools with limited resources in tough areas. That’s just the reality of the country (of any country, really).

The first school we visited in Karachi was Karachi Grammar School (KGS), considered by most to be one of (if not the) best schools in Karachi. It’s an elite and historical English-medium institution with students from kindergarten through O-levels and A-levels (high school and pre-university) and it regularly sends students abroad to top universities in the U.S. and U.K. Notable alums include Oscar-winning filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. I knew all this ahead of time, and I was expecting to see a range of educational experiences in Karachi (and all of Pakistan), but it’s one thing to know something and quite another to see and understand it. 

"It’s one thing to know something and quite another to see and understand it"

When we pulled up in front of KGS’s recently heightened and fortified walls, I was really excited. This was our first school in Pakistan and I was just about bursting to start expanding upon the work we’d done in Kyrgyzstan and to see what, if any, similarities there would be between girls in both countries (spoiler alert: there are tons of similarities, and a couple of systemic differences that are really interesting). Due to recent attacks against schools in Pakistan in the past year, KGS had significantly increased their security at each of their campuses (we were visiting the higher secondary campus) and we weren’t allowed to film or take photos.

The front of the college campus of KGS (taken from their website)

The front of the college campus of KGS (taken from their website)

KGS is a pretty snazzy temple of learning. For starters, the buildings and grounds are beautiful brickstone with open courtyards for students to mingle during break times, and top-tier facilities including science labs, a swimming pool for the swim team, a gym, basketball court outside, and a dirt field where students play cricket. But what really got me was talking to teen girls in the last two or so years of school, looking towards university plans and their futures. 

In the sunny courtyard, we introduced ourselves to a few students and jumped right into our questions. Wearing super cute uniforms of white salwar, lavender kurtas, and white dupattas, these girls blew us away with their drive, ambition, and acute awareness of their privilege in the context of broader Pakistani society. Many of them were looking towards the UK and US for their college plans, and they spoke eloquently (in rapid-fire English, by the way) of social expectations of women and how they navigate the spaces of privilege, education, and expectation. They also spoke of a fierce desire to take their education (wherever they may go) and then to return to Pakistan to better their country. At just 16 and 17 years old, this group of five young women all expressed a deep love of Pakistan, and an understanding that if things are to improve, people with means and access to the best of educational experiences had a responsibility to come back and apply their opportunities for the betterment of others. 

KGS college students during a campus clean up day -- taken from a former student's personal blog.

KGS college students during a campus clean up day -- taken from a former student's personal blog.

It was deeply moving to hear young teen girls talk fluidly about loving math (or “maths” as it’s called in Pakistan and throughout the British system— made my American self chuckle quite a bit), science, their discussion-based social and current events courses, and then pivot to parties and dancing and sport and then back to their families and how hard their parents had worked to earn medical degrees abroad (in one instance) and then came back to Pakistan to raise their children. It was a broad and eye-opening conversation. 

Yes, it’s one thing to “know” that in Karachi I would find elite institutions that would easily rival U.S. high schools, but it’s quite another to stand and chat with young girls with big dreams. In Karachi, we absolutely encountered crushing poverty, and we didn't shy from it. It’s important to cover all aspects of a city, all segments of society. Extreme poverty and extreme wealth require context and serve to inform each other in the puzzle of society. 

I am glad that we started our tour of schools in Karachi with KGS. When it comes to Pakistan, soul crushing poverty is, in many ways, less surprising to the Western mind than academic excellence and Ivy-league bound teenagers. I am glad that we began with an institution that flips the common narrative of education in Pakistan, and I am equally glad that from KGS we turned around and jumped right working class neighborhoods, slums, and rural communities. 

Pakistan is diverse in many ways, and we took our obligation to honestly represent that diversity very seriously. I think we did a decent job.