Azza Shamseldin had a smile that could fuel the sun. People commonly say, “she had a great smile.” But with Azza, they meant it, to the 10th power. She was always smiling, smiling until she beamed, smiling at you so you knew you were special.
That’s what everyone thought — children, her colleagues, her friends. Everyone was aware of how much Azza loved them. And in return, she was the beloved “Ms. Azza” at Santa Fe’s Little School.
Azza was a devout Muslim, originally from Egypt. She moved to the States from Alexandria, where she left behind a career as a physician. She was hired as a preschool teacher by Santa Fe College in December 1995 and did just that — taught preschool to 3 and 4 year olds — for 16 years. She died peacefully at home on Aug. 17, surrounded by her family. She was 58.
Over the years, recalled her dear friend and supervisor, Nuzhat Shamin, people would tell Azza it was time to go back to her “real” profession.
“She said, ‘no, I like children, I like my profession,'” recalled Nuzhat.
And she excelled at it.
“Azza possessed that perfect balance between kindness and firmness,” said Karen Bennett, Director, Little School. “She was always smiling and respectful of everyone. She was always concerned about their point of view and what they were thinking and feeling. She had a way of tailoring her lessons to what was special to each child. Everyone thought that they were her favorite, because she had a way of making everyone feel special.”
Azza was a gifted teacher to whom the “roughest” kids were assigned.
“She had a special way with the most challenging children,” said Heather Faison, Azza’s Little School colleague. “They would be given to her and she would make progress with them. That was one of her talents.”
Families would stop in years later to check in with their beloved Ms. Azza. Emmett Kendall, 12, says Ms. Azza is the first person he has loved deeply who has died. The summer after fourth grade, Emmett volunteered in Azza’s classroom, reading to the preschoolers.
“It brought back memories of sitting at her table,” Emmett said. “She was a great teacher. She cared for every kid, and during recess, she taught me to count to 10 in Arabic.” He rolls off the Arabic numerals. “Once in a while, when my mom would pick us up, we would just stop by and say hello, and she would always say she had been thinking of you.”
Karen Bennett’s work is to train teachers. Azza was “called” to work with children, and possessed qualities one cannot teach to a teacher.
“She had this incredible sparkle in her eye and was always smiling when she was working with the children,” Karen said. “Her eyes communicated joy and enthusiasm. You can’t teach that to teachers. There’s a saying, ‘Teaching is a work of the heart.’ She was naturally warm and loving. Even when she was sick, all she could talk about was how and when she could get back to working with the children.”
Azza retired from Santa Fe at the end of May. Her death on Wednesday stunned her friends and colleagues. Several of them had recently pooled their resources to buy her an iPad. They took it to her just a few days before she died, and her family loaded it with an app that played a recording of Azza’s favorite holy passages.
“So we know she got to enjoy that for a couple of days before she died,” said Nuzhat.
Azza’s faith was central to her life. Karen said Azza was the first Muslim she had ever known well, and Azza taught her, “that it is really about the person, about the individual. She made me feel like the world could be at peace if we were just people to people, getting along. She really practiced her religion and I learned a lot from her.”
Writes Professor Vilma Fuentes: “Miss Azza was a beautiful human being who emanated the love of God that so many Muslims wish to convey. Everyone who knew her loved her and would have had a difficult time condemning Islam and what it represents after knowing that she was a devout Muslim. This alone was, in my view, a major contribution to our community, which has struggled so much to come to terms with Islam in the past ten years. My children are too little to fully appreciate Ms. Azza’s loss. But I am devastated.”
Barbara Jones is the office manager at the Little School and worked with Azza for 16 years.
“She never had anything bad to say about anyone,” Barbara recalls. “She was always in a very good mood. Whenever she went home to Egypt she would stop in the front office and say, ‘Miss Jones, what can I bring you?’ She was a very compassionate person. She was very nice, very sweet. I will miss her smile so much.”
Ramona Miller-Ridlon, Library:
Ms. Azza taught both of my children at the Little School. I made a special request for her because I had heard so many wonderful things about her from other parents and teachers. And I have recommended her as a teacher to many people. She was one of the reasons the Little School is the great school it is.
She was a fantastic teacher. My children thrived under her and I know that they are better because of her. She was always so kind and patient. She always seemed to exude a serenity and calm that affected all those around her (which is a bit of a miracle when you are dealing with 3 and 4 year olds). My children adored her and I feel we are all better for having known her. I cannot imagine how many lives she has helped shape over the years. Ms Azza’s death is a great loss to Santa Fe and to the many children and parents who have known her. We will never forget her!
~ Mother to Katie-Beth (Ms. Azza’s class 2008-2009) and Carl (Ms. Azza’s class 2009-2010)
Dr. Ed Bonahue, Academic Affairs:
Ms. Azza taught both of my sons (Edward and Alex) when they were 3 years old. She loved them and made them behave, helped them become “big boys,” and was patient with them at nap time. She took joy over the years in watching them grow up and always hugged them when they visited the Little School; with anyone else they might have been embarrassed, but not with her.
Carol Edwards, Educator Preparation Institute:
I met Azza when I started working at SF in the Little School office 14 years ago. “Miss Azza” was a very sweet, kind lady. She had a good sense of humor and was loved by the children, staff and parents for her calm, pleasant manner. I know she will be missed by the entire Little School family.
Virgine Crisalle, ITS:
Ms. Azza has been my daughter’s pre-school teacher for the past year and a half at the Little School.
Besides being an outstanding teacher, Ms. Azza was loving, understanding and compassionate. She had a real gift with little children. She helped my daughter feel more secure and encouraged her daily. She will be truly missed.
Larry Keen, President’s Office:
“Ms. Azza” as we called her helped raise my daughter Rachel at the Little School. She was a beautiful spirit. We often talked and often about more than child care and development. She loved the children and was thankful to be in this country. All the Keen family is heartbroken about her passing.
Kalpana N. Swamy, Counseling Center:
Ms. Azza was my daughter’s favorite preschool teacher. My daughter blossomed under her loving care. Ms. Azza was affectionate, yet firm, and loved the children very much. My daughter learned so much from her and remembers her fondly. We will miss her always but know she is in a better place, free from pain and suffering.
Douglas Robertson, Business Programs:
My daughter, age 3 at the time, was making a transition into her new class, new building, and “new” teacher.
Ms. Azza saw she was having difficulties “connecting” with students and adults alike. She intervened with a very caring and compassionate manner. Abby soon realized she was in the right place and blossomed. We visited with Ms. Azza a few times after we left the Little school, and she marveled at Abby’s growth, mentally, socially and physically.
We will miss you, Azza! God bless.