Weightless

As I continue to jump on the trampoline, my Under Armour shirt becomes damp with sweat. I turn my head and see a teenage boy perform a front-tuck. A child runs across a trampoline to meet one of his friends. I enjoy the repetitive nature of jumping on the springy apparatus that catches me every time I land. Gaining height, I prepare myself to perform a front-tuck. Toes push off the trampoline harder and harder before I take off. Knees tuck in to chest. Arms hug legs. Energy carries the body into an upside-down position in the air. My heart is weightless. I have no room for worries in a mind that is overflowing with positive energy. Pause. In the split second that I am suspended in midair, I imagine all of the children and parents who watch me in awe. They are my audience, and I am the performer. Their attention gives me the confidence to continue to run, tumble, and flip.

Whether I was going to land safely was uncertain, but I trusted that my body would meet the stretchy fabric once again. And a smile would come across my lips as my sister gave me a gesture of encouragement. As predicted, we exchanged a glance of mutual happiness. I perform another front-tuck, and another. The stunt allows me to achieve a weightlessness of the mind and body. The routine motion directs the thoughts toward elation. Toes push off the trampoline with strength and grace. Hands reach toward the sky to gain more height. Arms hug legs as knees are pulled in to chest. And then the final take-off. The heart is once again free. Free from worry, anxiety, and stress. As my eyes are shut, I enjoy a glimpse of darkness. Once again, my body hits the springy apparatus, as I land on my bottom. I want to reproduce this feeling of euphoria over and over. I want to laugh with the children who parade in this happiness, as music fills the room. I want to suspend my body in the air. So I can become weightless again. Even if it lasts for a mere second.

I continue to run around the trampoline park, completing one stunt after the other. Round-off. Cartwheel. Front-walkover. Split jump. Front-tuck. Heart pounds inside the chest, as the mind replays lyrics of my favorite songs. The musician sings, “I can feel something inside me say, ‘I really don’t think you’re strong enough.’” But the body disproves discouraging notions. I perform three consecutive split jumps. My legs splay in opposite directions as I am suspended in the air. Youth and energy stretch through my hamstrings and toes. My pulse is a drum-beat against my neck, as the rhythm quickens abruptly. Exhaustion says it’s time to take a break. But not without experiencing that short-lived freedom once more. Elation is the beauty of the front-tuck. Simple and short-lived, yet powerful and healing.

Tuck

 

 

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Freedom

Everyone wants to hear an uplifting graduation speech, not a five-minute spiel on the follies of the public school system.  But to me and many of my friends, receiving our diplomas symbolized the relief that we have long anticipated to meet a new freedom. I would love to talk about the upsides of my high school career—the cross-country races that delivered a rush of euphoria, the inspirational students and teachers I’ve had the honor to work with, the projects that helped me realize my eagerness to be an active learner. But as I exited Hayfield Secondary on graduation day, I imagined what the future held. I want to enjoy the summer air on the campus of George Mason University as I walk to class. I look forward to pulling the sleeves of my sweater over my hands as I exit the Patriot Center after a school-sponsored poetry slam. I aspire to balance academic work with building new friendships and maintaining old ones. Overall, I want to feel that I am part of a greater community, an aspect of the high school experience of which I often felt deprived.

On my last day of school, I asked several teachers to sign my yearbook. Mr. Viviani, a dedicated track coach and avid athlete. Ms. Passino, a bubbly English teacher who promotes an inclusive environment. Mrs. Poquis, an intelligent and experienced English teacher who demonstrates powerful leadership skills. And many, many more. As I read the uplifting remarks in my yearbook, I was dumbfounded. A substantial portion of my school schedule was spent with teachers who didn’t express their support for me that it was shocking to meet with those who did. It almost became normal to me that some staff members found it suitable to play a passive role in the school community and, well, just let time pass before the clock hit 2:45P.M. But it is crucial to work with those who strive to create an inclusive, uplifting, and productive environment rather than to criticize those who fail to do so.

Today, I attended my friend’s graduation party and met with parents and graduates who live up to the values that our high school represents. Feelings of support, care, and inclusiveness hung in the air. But it felt so foreign to me, to simply be asked if I was doing alright (as I had been sick for the past few days), to be embraced in the arms of countless individuals, and to be uplifted by members of the Hayfield community. And in the midst of laughter, conversation, and music, I remembered another adult who had supported me for many years, my cross-country coach. Before the graduation ceremony began, Coach Geraty said, “Hey Naima, it’s been a pleasure.” We exchanged expressions of gratitude and a heartfelt goodbye. As I met with these supportive individuals, I realized I had spent so much time in the dark that I forgot there was light.

The signatures in my yearbook symbolize a goal that I will satisfy as a college student. I will surround myself with teachers, peers, and friends who have a genuine desire to promote a productive learning environment. I will promote values that are vital for a healthy school, such as inclusiveness and freedom of expression.

As I walked onto the stage to receive my diploma, I thought of all the times I had imagined this moment. I didn’t know how to feel. Should I smile, or just carry on in the blur of short-lived applause? The diploma in my hand was tangible freedom from a staff member and classroom that triggered my anxiety time and time again (for reasons that are disclosed here). I felt that I was finally given permission to move forward—physically and emotionally—from the peaks and valleys of my high school days. I can now integrate myself as a part of an adult community at George Mason University where I will meet students who wear the green and gold with pride. I hope to meet individuals who demonstrate a genuine eagerness to learn, make a difference in the world, and take responsibility for the community.

Congratulations to the Class of 2016! I wish you all the best in your future endeavors.

 

 

Express

I recognize that dance is a form of self-expression. Body bends into a front walkover, waist sways from side-to-side, and legs slide into a split. I move to “Never Be Like You,” to every beat of the drum, to every powerful lyric. As my body interprets the emotion of the song, I kick my leg up into a tilt. “I would give anything to change this fickle-minded heart,” the musician sings. One skill after the other, my worries fade from memory; they are no longer the center of attention. This beautiful yoga studio, this wood floor, this is my stage. My leg kicks into a scorpion, head tilting backward, arms opening up to encourage myself to breathe easy. Emotions guide movement. Straddle press handstand. Split. Scorpion. Full turn. “Please just look me in my face, tell me everything’s okay,” the musician continues to sing passionately. Body bends into a bridge, leg kicks over into a standing position. I embrace my femininity, my flexibility, my body’s strengths and flaws. I can move without restraint. Self-expression knows no bounds.

My heart embraces movement, every tilt, every graceful walkover, every gentle sway led by the waist. I can express myself in any way I choose. I briefly settle into warrior one pose, eventually resting my hands on the ground to transition into downward dog. I subconsciously place emphasis on opening my lungs. “What I would to take away… allegiance to the pain,” the musician sings. Her lyrics allow me to heal slowly. I sit still for a moment, head spinning from countless upside-down poses. I breathe. My freedom came alive. And the reflection in the yoga studio’s mirrors was the only one to witness it. But I am healing. I am free. I am unrestrained, unapologetically expressing myself. A front walkover, another over-split, and one more tilt, and I’m ready to head home. Ready to face any challenges that I may encounter later.

Why Did I Speak out against the Wellness Week Photos?

Writer’s Note: This blogpost is an addendum to “Beyond the Surface Level“, the article I wrote in response to the Wellness Week photos. It is vital for me to give a thank-you to everyone who read the post, as your support helped me achieve an improved sense of wellbeing and confidence.- Naima

Why Did You Write about the Wellness Week Photos?

To every parent, student, teacher, and member of the Hayfield community. Thank you so much for your support. I need to express my overwhelming gratitude to those who supported me for publishing “Beyond the Surface Level.” I love coming in to school and receiving uplifting comments, such as, “Great blogpost,” and, “I love the way you advocate for your beliefs.” But I am not writing this post to emphasize the divided arguments that the Wellness Week photos resulted in. I wrote “Beyond the Surface Level” as a representation of the entire Hayfield community. In this post, I will explain why it was absolutely crucial for me to write about the photos. And the emphasis on this matter will place more weight on the gratitude I have for my supporters.

As a freshman, I struggled with social anxiety because I feared being criticized for the way I expressed myself through words, dress, and emotion. I am so thankful to have overcome this difficulty, as I often felt restricted by my fears. Despite this accomplishment, I have been struggling with anxiety lately, but I have been able to understand this emotion better than I did when I was 14-years-old. Currently, I am enrolled in two of Mr. Finneman’s classes, Advanced Information Systems and Web Page Development. And I have only just learned the trigger of my anxiety, hindrances on my freedom of expression.

After the Wellness Week photos were removed, Mr. Finneman argued against the administrative decision and expressed disagreement toward Alexis Beard’s article (which condemned the promotion of the photos). Whether you agree with the removal of the pictures or not, teachers should ensure that their students do not feel alienated because of controversial discussion. Because this issue sharpened a divide in the student body, I often felt afraid to defend my ideas. I wasn’t comfortable arguing against sexual objectification with those who will never have to fear being objectified themselves. This level of discomfort to simply express my thoughts led to unprecedented levels of anxiety, as I often spent more classes reminding myself to breathe than doing classwork. But in the school where Mr. Tremaine strived to make everyone feel safe and comfortable, we need to ensure that our actions don’t hinder others from expressing themselves. Teachers and other adults don’t discuss politics or religion in the classroom because it would only create divides in the school community. In the same way, the Wellness Week photos led to such a great level of controversy that those who argued against them were afraid of being ridiculed for their beliefs.

There is a stark irony in this issue. An approach that a staff member took to promote wellness only led to the decline of my mental health, so much so that I had to leave class several times to cry until I couldn’t anymore. Simply put, any hindrances on my freedom of expression led to an oppressive level of discomfort.

Ever since I published “Beyond the Surface Level”, my anxiety diminished because the doors to free expression were reopened. Countless members of our community reminded me that it is vital to have a voice, regardless of whether our opinions are popular or not. I want to let you know that I will be happy to befriend anyone who does not agree with my beliefs on any issue. And I will respect your point-of-view because I notice how detrimental it is to fear being the subject of backlash. Hayfield Secondary has taught us not to criticize each other if our beliefs don’t align. Rather, we honor diverse perspectives and reevaluate our own if needed. We are a melting pot of countless cultural identities, religious faiths, and intellectual thoughts. We must promote free speech, whether our ideas are popular or not.

Regardless of whether you agree with the posting of the Wellness Week photos, we can all say that we should never place unreasonable restraints on self-expression. We can all agree that no student should ever feel isolated. No student should ever have to spend a school day crying in a classroom because she does not feel comfortable to simply express herself. No student should ever have to end the week thankful that she does not have to return to school the next day.

I genuinely respect your beliefs because free expression is at the core of a healthy society. And we must do all that we can to ingrain this value as a part of our school community. By doing so, we will feel comfortable to discuss a plethora of subjects, controversial or not.

To every friend, teacher, and member of the Hayfield community. Because of your support, I felt comfortable returning to Room 1349. Because of your support, I found the strength to advocate for my beliefs. Because of your uplifting words, I learned what it took to alleviate the emotional pain that my anxiety often produced. I am a healthier young adult today because of all of your kinds words. “Hey, Naima, great blogpost.” “Thank you for voicing your opinion.” “You’re a brilliant writer.” “I was really impressed with your blog.” Every one of these compliments helped me realize how crucial it is that we never repress our ideas in a free society. And I wish that you will make a conscious effort to promote this American value. Thank you so much for reading, and I look forward to better personal health.

Sincerely,

Naima Sikandar

Graduating Senior and GMU Class of 2020


Postscript: If you wish to contact me for further discussion or questions regarding this issue, you may DM me on Twitter or Instagram @Neemzandchomps.

Solace

Writer’s note: Several months ago, I wrote a blogpost titled “Storm”, which is an extended metaphor for anxiety. Last night, I wrote an extended metaphor for the peace and relief that has finally found me. This post is written in honor of the personal obstacles I’ve overcome throughout the 2015-2016 school year. I encourage you to draw parallels between these two posts, as they enforce the idea of personal growth and strength. Thank you for reading, and please click here to view “Storm”.- Naima

Solace

My body is pleasantly curled in a ball, muscles resting against the mattress beneath my small body. I am in a state of unconscious solace, a peaceful darkness that envelops my weary mind. My soft, gentle breaths allow peace to crawl in through my lungs and stay. A note to those soft inhalations: find your place within me. Look for me when anxiety manages to find me before you do. Let the muscles in my face relax enough so I can at least muster a small smile even on the roughest days. Surround me, bring my pulse to a healthy, resting rate. Let peace fill the void where uneasiness left a scar. Encourage me to remember you, for the body senses chaos when we forget to breathe.

I am as still as I can possibly be, a beautiful embodiment of letting go of trivial matters that beg to weigh on me. Today, my sleep has no awareness of time. I let the hours pass, as inhalations invite peace to run through my veins. I don’t have to worry about confrontation, vulnerability, or being in the confines of that one place where freedom of expression is repressed. But as my body curls into the arms of solace, I know that my soul has become wiser. This growth was not an easy process to catalyze, however. Can I regret the lessons I’ve learned that tore me to pieces before I could rebuild myself over, and over, and over again? Dear Life, I know you are so desperate to ingrain wisdom within my 17-year-old mind. I understand that I had to endure countless storms whose winds rattled my lungs until they couldn’t anymore. I know that I’ve earned the privilege to expect sunny days from this point forward. My heart can heal itself, rebuild my wellbeing a thousand times if it had to. And I will be stronger. And I will be stronger. And I will be stronger.

Forgive me for the mistakes I’ve made. Let me thank you for the lessons you’ve taught me, for I have often said, “We battle the demons of today so we don’t have to face them tomorrow.” I have earned a better tomorrow, an opportunity to let sunlight permeate even the darkest corners of my soul. I have grown. I have learned. And I do not regret that this self-transformation was painstaking. If my heart can deteriorate into a million broken fragments and then repair itself over time, I am grateful.

I have learned how to tame the storm, let my soul absorb the UV-rays that illuminate my skin. I have learned how to forgive myself and forgive others even if the word, “sorry,” was never uttered. I have learned never to be afraid to express myself through words or emotion. If you wish to laugh, let your happiness fill the walls of this room. If you need to cry, give in to your body’s natural desire to relieve stress. And don’t be ashamed to let the tears fall like raindrops on a tumultuous day. It may have thundered and poured, but the sun is coming out so soon. Strength will emerge; it will find a permanent place within you. Don’t ever be afraid to let your supporters weather through the good days and even the rough ones. No one is happy all the time. And that is just fine. We must express ourselves, our infinite range of emotions. And we must do so without self-restraint. Express freely. Confide in those you trust. Don’ be afraid of vulnerability.

You have successfully developed problem-solving skills even when thunder threatened to overpower the voice of reason. You are a beautiful balance between logic and emotion, confidence and humility, strength and grace. A coexistence of powerful traits that emerged after lighting broke through gray skies.

As your body rests against the soft blue blanket, just know that you don’t have to be afraid to wake up. Your breath will naturally find you, and forever, inhalations will invite peace to run through your veins. You don’t have to run anymore, you don’t have to hide or be ashamed to simply express yourself. Lay on your back with your arms outstretched and acknowledge that true liberation has found you once and for all.

Like Andreana said, “You have a character that emits a light brighter than any voice screaming at the night sky,” We will look toward the future, for the storm is now a thing of the past. But the power to emerge stronger after the darkest days will forever be with you. Strength has found you. And it is here to stay.

Sunny

Indifference

Do you know what’s it like to feel? To be anything but indifferent to happiness or injustice? Do you know what it’s like to experience life on a deeper level, rather than to just sit back and watch? Watch the atrocities that take place before your eyes? And you sit still and say nothing. Do you know what it’s like to be lifted by happiness? To feel your heart burst with joy? To feel the corners of your mouth stretch to their greatest extent to form a smile? You listen to the sound of laughter. And it doesn’t move you. You watch tears run down the faces of children. And it doesn’t move you. What is it that will strike some emotion within you? Or do you feel that it’s safer to be indifferent and cold-hearted? That way, you save yourself from attachment and vulnerability. But you don’t have to be afraid to feel, to experience life on an emotional level. You don’t have to be afraid to love, and to cry, and to fall apart before you repair your broken pieces again. Give yourself a chance. Leave your heart on the table in front of you. And feel. Feel how alive you are. A living, breathing being on this planet whose heart responds to emotion, happiness and sadness, calm and chaos, peace and frustration. Let go of the stolid persona you’ve masked yourself in.  You don’t have to be afraid to get hurt. Because those who experience sadness deeply also have the ability to sense happiness with every drop of blood in their veins. Let go. Actively respond to injustice. Reach out to those who are emotionally wounded. Parade in the happiness that others share with you. You don’t have to be afraid.

Caption: To contrast the former image, which depicts pure happiness, I included the rightmost image to convey a solemn mood. These photos were taken on the day of my senior prom (June 3, 2016).

Unequivocally Beautiful

Dark skin

Or light skin.

But still so beautiful.

Size 15.

Or size 5.

But still so beautiful.

Thick thighs

Or thigh gap.

But still so beautiful.

Well over 6 feet

Or just shy of 5 feet.

And everything in between.

And still so beautiful.

We gaze at the picturesque women in advertisements

And crave.

Crave the narrow standard of “pretty” that media promotes.

But whether or not you look like what you see in billboards and magazines,

You are

Unmistakenly

And unapologetically

Beautiful.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.