What It Means to Belong
With a teacher's help, a student claims his identity — and finds a powerful audience
I was a junior in high school when 9/11 happened. I remember the fear, utter confusion, anger, and urgency that I felt. I remember the teachers in my Islamic school reminding me and my peers to strive to connect with people regarding our faith in positive ways.
As I stood in my own classroom, over a decade later, in front of a group of downcast, trembling Muslim high school students, we spoke of the Paris attacks . . . and then, San Bernardino. Of how frustrating it was to work so hard to be “good,” and then have all of that drowned out by people to whom the word “Islam” actually means very little. I heard the words “fear,” “anger,” “frustration” — the same sentiments I had felt when I was their age. They asked, “Why can’t they see us for who we are?”
During one of these conversations last November, I was particularly emotional as I encouraged my students to think of ideas — to come up with ways for their voices to be heard. I told them there was power in words, but that they just had to find the right vehicle for them. I told the students that I would support them and strategize with them, but that they had to brainstorm what we could do to reach out. How can we make people see us? Hear us? The students were obviously moved, but naturally, the days faded into each other and no groundbreaking proposal came to my desk. 1984, Of Mice and Men, and Othello would take the forefront of our discussions for the weeks to come.
Then last Wednesday, I had a student, Hussein, approach me before class. He spoke timidly, as always. “Remember, that day you were upset, and you talked to us? Well, I was thinking and thinking of what to do on the car ride home that day, and so . . . I wrote to the President. I was gonna show you but I was just so upset, so I sent it. And the White House called our house yesterday, asking permission to quote my speech in today’s mosque visit.”
Now, this student is not my best writer, nor is he the most outgoing kid on campus. In fact, he is new to our school. He came to America from Iraq when he was a child and often struggles with the English language. But his letter was earnest, pure of heart, and compelling enough for the President of the United States to echo during a historic and sorely needed address to the Muslim American community.
We excitedly streamed the speech in my classroom during lunch. Many of the President’s words moved me to tears. Around me, I could hear sniffles, shuffles. But mostly I saw wide, listening eyes.
Then, President Obama quoted Hussein as saying, “We just want to live in peace.”
I looked over at him, and only a hint of a smile played at the edges of his mouth. Mostly, he was blushing. In shock. It must be the most incredible feeling, to watch the President of the greatest country on earth, reciting words that you had written. It must feel uplifting, for all those teenagers, to hear the president say that “you belong.” It must be empowering for them to see that one of their own peers had the power to reach millions.
Since then, Hussein has had a little more spring in his step. His voice resonates just a little bit louder, and when he plays basketball, a confident young man is beginning to emerge. He told me he used to be embarrassed about his mother, walking around in public with a head scarf. That he used to be afraid to even tell his friends that he was Muslim. I am honored and thrilled to be a part of the story of his becoming.
As teachers, we are oftentimes immersed in grading, textbooks, and lesson plans, and it is easy to forget that we are shaping people. For me, this experience has affirmed that my words do not fall on deaf ears, and that my passion does, and will, translate into the ambitions and triumphs of my students.
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