The best thing about giving a hug is that nothing ever gets lost in the translation.
For Simran Bir, who lives each day with a serious hearing impairment and a broken heart, it’s a simple act that tells the world what so many words can only begin to preface.
“She will come into the gym and the first thing she will do is run up to somebody and give them a hug,” marvelled Sharon Staples, a longtime basketball coach at Surrey’s Fleetwood Park Secondary, the place where Bir has spent her entire five-year high school life, one which began in September of 2008 just weeks removed from an unthinkable family tragedy.
Each year, as part of our annual Head of the Class tribute to B.C.’s best-and-brightest student athletes, we present one graduating senior with our Adversity Award, honouring that rare combination of tenacity, compassion and the will to succeed in spite of all obstacles.
This year, from a field of deserving candidates, readers of The Province voted Bir the winner, inspired by her story of inner strength and resiliency.
The latter is a mystical response, a willingness born from hope to press forward towards a future filled with the unknown. And it’s what has carried Bir to the start of a new life in the fall as a post-secondary student-athlete at New Westminster’s Douglas College.
Back in July of 2008, just weeks away from reaching her teenage years, Bir and her large, extended family had gathered at a hall in Surrey to celebrate the engagement of her aunt Rupi.
Returning home that evening, a red BMW driven by Rupi and carrying three others, including Bir’s grandmother Bakhshish and grandfather Dilbag, was struck on its rear side by a speeding driver, causing it to spin out of control and into a utility pole.
The two in the front seat, Rupi and her sister Varinder, were injured but survived. Both of Bir’s grandparents, each a guiding force in her life, were killed.
The driver of the speeding car initially fled the scene, but in March of 2012 was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison for various counts of dangerous driving causing death, dangerous driving causing bodily harm and leaving the scene of an accident.
And while it was such a public story, played out in the headlines over a span of more than three years, one aspect of that tragic night went unreported: The story of a 12-year-old girl who loved to hug, and who was seated between her grandparents in the back seat of the running BMW as it prepared to leave the party.
HONOURING THEIR MEMORY
It’s a Sunday afternoon in late May and Simran Bir has donned a traditional Indian dress for her Head of the Class photo shoot. Her mom Jatinder, whose parents were the ones killed in the crash, and her dad Shin, both watch their daughter.
In the foreground is her basketball, and in her arms Bir is holding a framed photo of her late grandparents. She has tried her best to honour their memory, and because of that, while gazing skyward, she can afford a smile.
“I had decided I wanted to sleep over,” said Bir, taking herself back to the tragic night which she had planned to spend at her grandparents’ home.
“I got in the car,” she continued through tears. “I was (sitting) in the middle of them and we were reversing. Then my dad knocked on the door and said, ‘You have a soccer game tomorrow. It’s just easier if you come and go with me and we’ll go home.’ Everything was fine. I said ‘bye’ and went home.”
It was the last thing she said to her grandparents.
“I went right to bed and it had been a fun night,” Bir said. “And then we got a call. I knew right away something wasn’t right. Like, I just knew.”
Immediately, the family headed back toward the accident scene.
“We got to a road block and the police officer wouldn’t let us through,” Bir recounted. “Then there were cars that were coming (in the other direction) and my mom asked what happened. People kept saying ‘Red BMW, it’s really bad.’ I knew right away.”
It’s why, all these years later, hugs are so especially meaningful to her, and why helping others has become her mission in life.
PAYING IT FORWARD
Her aunt Rupi is a nurse. And nurses have been there for Bir for as long as she can remember, not just helping her through issues directly related to her hearing loss, but with all of the social issues that accompany being different at a young age.
“Even with stuff like self-confidence,” explained Bir, who will enter the nursing program at Douglas College in the fall.
“In elementary school, especially, I was bullied constantly. But I had them to talk to. They could relate to me.”
Her new school, in fact, seems the perfect fit, a place to pursue both her academic and athletic passions.
Born with substantial hearing loss, Bir has worn hearing aids in both ears since the age of three. She’s also become an expert lip reader, and it’s a combination that allows her to bring out the best parts of her personality as she engages in easy conversation.
But it’s when Bir steps on the basketball court that she sheds herself of the devices, confident enough to rely on a sort of sixth sense, even though she’s largely missing one of her first five.
And make no mistake about it, Bir is a scorer.
“She is a fantastic shooter,” says Emily Wright, this past season an assistant coach of the Fleetwood senior varsity and now an assistant at Simon Fraser.
“She is one of the best shooters in the province.”
In her Grade 11 year, she scored 50 points in one game against Chilliwack. This past season, she scored 46 points against MEI. She also scored 31 points to lead her Dragons past crosstown rival Holy Cross in the championship final of the Surrey RCMP Firefighters Classic.
One person who has marvelled at that so-called sixth sense is Curtis Nelson, her soon-to-be head coach at Douglas College.
“She has had to be more aware, and her senses are more attuned to the subtle things that happen on the floor,” Nelson said of the 5-foot-9 Bir.
“It’s amazing to watch her play because her basketball IQ is so good.”
Dan Nayebzadeh, Bir’s head coach at Fleetwood Park and the head coach at Kwantlen Polytechnic, loves her coachability.
“She is one of those kids who all she ever says is ‘OK’,” said Nayebzadeh. “She never negates anything you say as a coach. She is a great listener because she has to be. She makes eye contact and she listens.”
But more than that, Bir has an ingrained sense of family and big-picture understanding.
“People in this life have difficulty understanding that there are things greater than ourselves,” Nelson said, “but she is completely the other way. I want us to be greater than the sum of our parts, and she is. Her adversity is a fuel, and there is an outgoing component to her that just fills a room.”
HUGS ARE FREE
Indeed, those who know Bir well speak of a personality that seems larger than life.
“To me, she is like the big sister I never had,” said Cyrille Butac, Fleetwood Park’s dervish-like Grade 10 point guard.
“She cares so much about everyone, she never puts herself first. She is so selfless. We are never more than a phone call away.”
Added Staples: “Simran’s strength is that she knows when other people are hurting, and it’s nothing for her to send me a text that says, ‘Love You.’”
All of this from the depths of a broken heart, but one that has grown to find an empowered voice.
“If none of this had happened, they would still be alive today,” Bir said of her grandparents.
“They would be there for my graduation, they would be there for my marriage. When you’re young, you think of your grandparents being there for everything.”
Bir admits that, during games, she will look into the gymnasium stands, happy to see her family cheering her on but always remembering the supportive faces of her grandparents.
And now, as she begins her journey into adulthood, it is with a much clearer understanding of how she can make a difference.
“There’s a lot of young kids out there with hearing aids, and when they see me, I want them to be inspired,” she said with a smile.
“I know they are going through bullying like I did. But by my way of thinking, we are unique. I am different and I am proud of it. And I want to be there for them.”
Chances are, hugs will be a huge part of that therapy.