Human: Part III

If you separate yourself from your accomplishments, titles, and possessions, then who are you really? At work, I am Ms. Naima, the math instructor. At school, I am an unfamiliar passerby on the campus of George Mason University. And on Instagram, I am Naima, the yogi, contemporary artist, and blogger. But if we tap into our subconscious mind and explore our inner selves– strengths, vulnerabilities, aspirations, fear– then we discover the aspects that truly define us. Apart from being an employee, a classmate, a community member, or otherwise, who are you? We make myriad assumptions about other people every day, an automatic process conducted by the subconscious mind.

As I stood in front of a college class for a presentation today, I couldn’t help but wonder about the gaps that my audience may have filled in their minds regarding who I am. I shouldn’t be concerned with directly influencing others’ perception of me; doing so is just as ineffective as beating a dead horse. But observing the nature of perception (of humans and the world around us) is intriguing because our thoughts are presumably flexible, and thus, subject to external influence. It is often that I spend the nights in quiet introspection, as I lay my thoughts on the floor of my mind and pretend to be an outsider. These thoughts are organized based on category: art, religion, culture, politics, academia, and more.

I challenge myself to consider the counter-view of my beliefs so that I may gain an awareness of diverse perspectives. Some may call this practice “walking in other people’s shoes.” My history professor and I call it “mental flexibility.” During this process, I observe the contours of my face and employ the imaginative part of my mind. I imagine myself as a single individual among billions of humans. These people do not have unique countenances– no unique race, religion, background, or character. We are truly a unified human race in this scenario (which only exists in the boundaries of my skull). We do not compare each other on the basis of financial status or ridicule unique gender identities (many of which were recently introduced by the millennial generation). We are mind, body, and spirit . We are one collective whole on this planet. We are not a dollar amount, a simulation of photoshopped magazine covers, or titles upon titles of resume-perfect accomplishments.

We are thoughts expressing themselves through character and action.

We are vulnerability– embraced by the self or not.

We are human.

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Peaceful Prostration

As I lower myself in prostration, blood rushes to my temples. Inhale. I rest my forehead on the carpeted floor as I relax into the posture. Exhale. Uttering prayers in Arabic, I cannot help but to imagine other activities that have helped achieve this state of self-awareness… of complete calm. I can hear the gentle whoosh of blood gently beating in my temples as it does when we float under the surface of a swimming pool. In that moment, the eyes are closed, as we swim in a chlorine bliss, drowning out the sound of children’s joyous squeals… or volleyballs pattering against the surface. Hair floats about our bodies, just as weightless as the body. It is only so long that the lungs can hold in the oxygen that flows to the brain. Rise to the surface whenever you’re ready to return to reality. Gasping for breath, we blink several times until we can gain clear sight of our surroundings. A man lowers himself into a jacuzzi, a little boy runs the perimeter of the pool, eventually joining his friends. It is almost as though the world looks clearer than before we ducked our heads underwater… as if the surface represented a division between a painful reality and the weightlessness of a worry-free mind. But perhaps the two ideas don’t have to be separate. I can carry the calm of the underwater realm into reality, always remembering to re-fill my lungs with oxygen. Let that peace flow through your temples as you walk the earth.

I rise from prostration and eventually conclude the prayer. I turn my head to the right, and then to the left, greeting the angels on each shoulder. “Aslamualaikum wa Rahmatullah.” As I observe the prayer area, I adopt a new perspective of my surroundings. I can juggle the myriad stresses leading up to the mid-terms period because I have found balance. But I realize that my pursuit of a balanced life-style manifests itself in diverse activities that have supported my well-being for years.

When I was in high school, I found strength through the sport of running.

During my transition to an adolescent, I found peace through yoga and meditation.

And for the majority of my lifetime, prayer has been my solace during times of hardship and of ease.

I can trust that if I hold my breath underwater to drown out sound, I will always come back up. Air pressure forces the body to rise.

Inhale…

2, 3, 4.

Dip your head beneath the surface.

Exhale…

2, 3, 4.

And rise again.

Verily, after every hardship comes ease (Qur’an 94:5).

 

The Persistent Academic

May 2016

I struggled to engage the mind, as a substantial workload presented itself. Lengthy rubrics and deadlines fueled a forest fire of doubt, and anxiety woke from its restless slumber. The word “can’t” flooded my mind, duplicating itself like countless pages being ejected from a printer… falling onto the expanse of a room void of confidence. I attempted to hush the subconscious mind, which was active in protest. The conscious mind was a fool to believe that its peaceful demonstration could repress such intimidation.

February 2017

I graduated from high school and have successfully completed my first semester of college. I am taking a course similar to the one of which I spoke several months ago. But there is one significant difference between the former and the latter course. I no longer encounter the mental roadblocks that once hindered my academic performance. Anxiety is a feeble enemy, particularly to the persistent academic.

Allow me to digress. I would like to mention that I earned an ‘F’ on my final exam in the class I discussed in May (and yes, I do mean, “earned”). But when I received my report card in the summer, I was not disappointed… because my ‘F’ was more than a letter grade. It was the purest symbol of trying and failing, and trying and failing, and trying again. It was a representation of my long-term fight against anxiety, and the many lessons I learned. I learned that my mental well-being is a greater priority than grades. I learned never to ignore my intuition, even if I can’t muster the words to explain the problem. I would rather receive an unsatisfactory letter grade and have grown intellectually than to earn an ‘A’ but not have achieved personal growth. Quite frankly, the aim of acquiring information is not to achieve an ideal result but to learn from the process.

On another note, it would bother me for others to perceive my academic success as a paved route. I am so thankful to have earned a spot on my school’s Dean’s list. But it is vital to note that high-achieving students often possess effective problem-solving abilities because they have had substantial experience tackling personal and academic challenges.

The Embodiment of Free Expression

Writer’s Note: This story is one of my most powerful recent works, as it challenges the notion of what it means to be alive, as I strive to become the embodiment of free expression. Thank you so much for reading.- Naima.

    The Embodiment of Free Expression

         “You’re not really living. You’re just surviving,” she says. I notice that my breathing becomes constrained, lungs filling with discomfort. It is a skill to awaken the subconscious mind and enable it to coexist with the conscious mind, as I strive to do during meditation. But to deny my efforts to live fully is nothing short of offensive. I turn red. The mind is a philosopher whose tongue is tied. My words are lodged in my throat, eventually diminishing into the back of mind so that they may arise as an afterthought. I don’t really begin to breathe until she leaves. What can I do to rid myself of frustration? How can I prove that I am truly alive, despite that I am destitute of the roots of a healthy mind? Can I build health and happiness in spite of difficult circumstances? To rise above the weight of these desperate matters? I will use my mind as a resource so that I may learn to live fully, learn what it’s like to truly fill a canvas with freedom.

My car zooms down the length of Richmond Highway as I anticipate my workout. The elliptical awaits my presence, the yoga studio growing impatient for my arrival. And finally, I have reached my solace, my euphoria, my gate to freedom. I increase the resistance of the machine with haste. My mind’s eye observes adrenaline climbing to its peak… slowly. The minutes fly, and eventually, time becomes irrelevant. There is no greater extent to which I can be present. My mind, body, and soul is here… and alive. Techno music strikes the match on adrenaline. I speed up. Euphoria grows closer to its peak, and fatigue cannot hinder my pace. I dismount the elliptical and rush to the yoga studio.

During the gym’s final open hour, I turn down the lights, let lyrics flow into the mind. I focus on breathing. Inhale peace, exhale release. My eyes gently close, as I pedal my feet in downward dog. Listening to the sound of my breath, I notice as peace flows through my temples. Open the body as you stretch into three-legged dog. Inhale peace. Ground your heels on the mat, and tip your hips toward the ceiling. Exhale release. Movement begins to flow, as energy surges through my veins. This mode of self-expression leaves no room for shame… or judgment. I am present and aware of my body. My back arches to make space for oxygen, my body performs countless turns as I lose myself in a whirlwind of pure joy. One Republic’s “Apologize” begins to play. I place my hands in prayer and sit at the center of my mat. The eyes close. Oxygen fills my lungs, and serenity grounds itself in my heart. Tears fill my eyes, nearly tipping over the lower eyelid. “Alhamdulillah.” I whisper.

Gratitude floods my heart and spills over the expanse of the yoga studio. Pure joy sits in my throat, waiting for the tears to spill over the edge. Can I whisper the word “alive”? Better yet, can I bottle this feeling and hand it to those who told me I was merely surviving? Can I paint the town in the word “living”… in the word “present”? Place my name right beside them. I am alive. I am present. I am awake. The conscious and subconscious mind have found unity in this very moment, and I have only the shadows as my witnesses… the very reflections in the mirrors. I don’t need to repeat “alive” until I become that which I strive for. We are what we repeatedly do, and I—I have chosen health and exercise as an eternal realm of freedom. Free expression will imprint itself in my very being until I have become the embodiment thereof.

Tell me that I am merely existing. Tell me that I am merely surviving. But it is in the wake of these euphoric peaks, in the exhilaration that forces tears of joy to spill over the eyelids, that I become alive. Alive, and awake, and present. Here. Present.

I prepare to leave the gym, slowly putting my shoes on. Attention is diverted, as I cannot help but to replay the beautiful dances that I performed. The mind’s eye watches my graceful body, my arched back, my pointed toes… as I made space for freedom. Still, I crave to relive these moments that occurred in the very recent past. But without a doubt, I will recreate them. Undeniably, I will become them.

Ever-burning Fire

The roots of an active lifestyle often begin in childhood. When I was 11-years-old, my sister encouraged me to take part in physical activity by getting me a gym membership. Mental and physical health disorders are no rarity in either my family or the country. Over several years of cardio obsessions, love-hate relationships with the sport of running, and tumbling in my pastime, I decided to try something new. Outdoor track season had ended, and that meant I was off the sidewalks of Alexandria and dragging myself to the gym. I needed a break from cardio; even thinking about running was exhausting. So, why didn’t I stop going to the gym altogether? Sounds like a pretty simple escape, huh? Working out was a bonding activity between me and my sister, and saying, “no,” to exercise was the equivalent of giving up on holding our bond together. Even thinking about making such a choice was dangerous territory.

So I put my love-hate relationship for cardio behind me and tried a Body Flow class, which was a 1-hour workout that combines tai chi, yoga, and pilates. My instructor was a tall, energetic woman in her 50s named Wanda. I didn’t know what to expect from the class, but I liked the idea of not knowing. I needed a break from the predictability of interval training. Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” began to play, as Wanda guided us through various postures, from downward-facing dog and forward fold, to mountain pose and upward-facing dog. I’m going to be real with you. I thought all of these movements were just plain weird. I couldn’t help but be aware that my butt was in the air while I was in downward dog. Well, everyone was doing it, so there was no point in wondering if other people were staring (but who cares, right?). During the last five minutes of class, Wanda guided us through meditation. At the time, I had neither meditated nor thought about completely emptying my mind. My thoughts were always loud. I was always thinking, and if I were doing anything besides that, I was overthinking… reanalyzing, reflecting, replaying… you get the point. I rested on my back in corpse pose, my thoughts gradually becoming quiet. Wanda had turned off the lights. I felt safe and comfortable to be honest with my mind’s activity. Thoughts of attachment to people who served little purpose in my life kept coming to mind. My thoughts shifted from calm to critical… but I eventually found a balance. I let myself accept the state of my well-being… accept my body… accept my circumstances… accept who I was. But above all, I was free from judgement and criticism. It was okay not to be okay. I focused on breathing. My lungs expanded and contracted, my thoughts swimming in a sea of peaceful darkness. Tears began to spill from the edges of my eyes. I was saddened by the thoughts that occasionally interrupted my peace, yet empowered by self-acceptance. I was a step closer to personal freedom. Wanda eventually invited us to sit up. We took our final in-breath of the class, and Wanda said, “Namaste.”

I exhaled. Yoga was transformative. I was powerful not because I was one of the youngest people in the class or because I had the flexibility of a dancer. I was powerful because I knew how to gain control over my mind. I could practice controlling my thoughts, which were ultimately the root of my dying motivation for cardio training. I ran for every cross-country and outdoor track season until the end of my high school career, and my subconscious mind began to actively search for activities that made me feel just as full as I had felt in my first Body Flow class. I craved euphoria. I craved the adrenaline rush of crossing the finish line. And I eventually found another high… one that taught me how to keep the door to free expression wide open and even break the walls down if I needed to. Contemporary dance enabled me to unite my mind, body, and spirit, as I learned what it meant to truly live in the present moment. I began to perceive self-expression as more than just a 1-hour class at the gym on a Sunday morning. Self-expression was a limitless world in which I could move, speak, and dance in any way that brought freedom and dignity to my being. I lit a fire on all of my passions, from cross-country and track, to yoga, dance, and even weight-lifting. The fire still burns, and eventually, I will pass the torch, as I will begin a 200-hour yoga teacher training in February. I hope to inspire my students to become walking examples of creative expression, to make healthy choices that enable them to live more fully. Regardless of the decisions that we make for ourselves, we all truly want to live more fully. The greatest difference is, is our perceptions of what it means to live in such a way. It’s vital that our passions enable us to unite the mind and spirit.

To my generous and caring sister, Areeba, who helped me build the heat that would fuel my fire, I am thankful beyond what words could ever express. At night, I stand in front of the mirror and observe my figure. My long arms, my soft skin, my gorgeous pixie cut… I whisper positive affirmations, let them ground themselves in my mind, for mental health is equally important as physical health. These positive affirmations, this healthy body, are the product of those who supported me for years. To Coach Geraty, my former cross-country coach, whose cheers I can still hear in my mind to this day. To Coach Viviani, my former track coach, whose unwavering support led me to believing in myself more firmly. To Ms. Jessica Scharl, my former English teacher, who guided me in maintaining healthy relationships and often provided academic advice.  To Mr. Nelson, my former Creative Writing teacher, who encouraged me to start a blog where I have experimented with diverse genres of writing. To Wanda, who inspired me to become a yoga instructor. And to so many more. I am overwhelmed with gratitude. My success and well-being is due in part to each and every one of you.

My ever-burning lantern will remain lit. I will find myself on the sidewalks of Northern Virginian cities, running road races with hundreds of unfamiliar faces. I will dance on the floors of my yoga studio, let lyrics climb up every one of my ribs as exhilaration crawls through my lungs. I will continue to share my stories through this wonderful blog where creativity knows no bounds. But above all, I will walk through the doors of free expression and pour gasoline over creativity. Watch it kindle in times of darkness, let it shine in times of ease.

 

 

Freedom Living

Lying on the ground, I acknowledge the rough carpet touching the small of my back. Blood pumps through my temples, my arms, my neck, as I rest calmly. I close my eyes, placing my left hand over my stomach, the other over my heart. Visualizing the dance that invited this restfulness, I relive the burst of creativity that I experienced as I improvised dances to countless songs. My mind’s eye watches as my body stretches into a standing split before gently collapsing into corpse pose.

As I was dancing, I occasionally closed my eyes. I couldn’t see my body but I could feel… feel energy rush into my lungs, fueling a fire in my veins. The music notes have become a part of me, they live through my very being so that they, too, may be present in this moment. I arch my back to open my lungs, briefly resting both hands behind my head. Oxygen is a luxury, neither scare nor too abundant. My heartrate quickens as the dance intensifies. Standing split. Bridge. Warrior two stance. Corpse pose. Stretch every muscle in the body, feel the limbs take up more space. I open my eyes. It appears that the ceiling is growing further and further away from me. Creativity has no bounds, space is limitless, and I— I have found my outlet for free expression.

Tightrope

Walking along the tightrope, I incessantly shift my weight. Don’t look down. Don’t look down. Hundreds of people are watching; their judgement only mirrors my self-criticism. I glance down and see darkness. How far am I away from the ground? I try to force my thoughts to become quiet, but the mind chatter grows louder each time the audience gasps. Don’t hold your breath. Safety is only a few feet away. I observe the length of the tightrope, but my final destination seems so distant. My furrowed eyebrows reveal fear; feigned confidence is useless now. Stand up taller. Embrace your core muscles. I take another step, gradually growing more confident. The stable platform grows nearer. Open up your heart center. Don’t be afraid. The audience is here today not to grieve over my almost-falls or my imperfections. They hope for safety as much as I hope for it for myself. To them, I am more than human. I am a performer. Just a few more steps. You are so strong. I reach the platform safely, and the audience bursts into applause.Standing in the spotlight, I wave at countless unfamiliar faces. I dismount the apparatus and watch the next performer take his first step onto the tightrope. The audience is silent. His countenance reveals effortless confidence, his body long and lean: a true performer. The clock ticks; I’m worried that he might beat my record time for walking across the 50-meter rope. The performer’s footsteps are quick and agile, and in no time, he is only a few meters away from the platform. I watch him without blinking. The audience holds their breath. The finish-line grows nearer. As I begin to raise my hands to applaud, the performer stumbles. His body twists in the air, falling for hundreds of feet into darkness. My heart beat quickens as I rush to the mat where his body landed. But he was so confident. I thought he would make it to the other side. EMTs rush over to help him. You become everything that you condemn. “Is he alright,” audience members inquire. Fear masked behind feigned confidence.

 There is a sharp rift between the conscious and the subconscious mind. The former affirms that we are confident, safe, and comfortable in who we are. But the latter comes alive through our actions and is far more powerful. The performer wears confidence but isn’t confident. He hides fear, but he is fearful. Perhaps it is not falling that we are afraid of. Perhaps it is the power of our deepest wounds that we are afraid of.

Survival

Writer’s Note: I wrote this creative short-story as an outlet for a powerful statement regarding safety. Although there are myriad safety threats worldwide (i.e. terrorist attacks, driving under the influence, genetically-inherited health issues, etc.), safety is very much a right– not a privilege. Despite that safety should be guaranteed to all, regardless of (social, economic, cultural, or other) background, sometimes we must fight for our right to be safe. I hope you enjoy reading this story, as it is not only one of my most extensive recent works, but it also conveys a powerful theme. – Naima

Survival

Birds tweet along to the gentle patter of rain against the wooden dock, as I lay on my back, mesmerized by the sound of rain. Tropical birds travel from tree-to-tree in this beautiful forest. I observe wildlife through the length of tall, healthy trees that surround me. Blood gently pulses against my temples as I breathe deeply, resting all muscles. The warm rain lands on my skin like gentle kisses from Mother Nature. I blink several times to clear my vision. Raindrops linger in my eyelashes, on my skin, and in my hair. Not a thought of responsibility or worry traverses these woods. There is only space for calm in a quiet, controlled mind.

My heart is full. I occasionally think about all the things for which I am thankful. I am thankful to this forest for providing sustenance for me to survive in the outdoors. I am thankful for my health; I am agile and quick enough to hunt. Breathing deeply, I naturally stop thinking about time. I can stay in this forest for eternity and be safe, calm, and present.

Suddenly, thunder roars, causing flocks of birds to relocate. Lighting strikes a tree, and the skinny trunk burns to ashes. I remember my mother’s advice before I had left home several years ago. Always be aware of your surroundings. Fear trickles down my spine; I only have two choices: fight or flight. Well, Mother Nature wins this battle. I begin to run in search of a safer location. Instinct is critical to survival. My frock becomes tattered as I leap over countless twigs. Chasing safety, my heart grows tired with every passing minute. I have no choice but to consider time now.

After almost an hour of running, I reach a clearing. The rainstorm ended. I find a rock to sit on and relax. Just as my muscles release their tension, I hear heavy footsteps. Opening my knapsack, I pull out my bow-and-arrow. Poised, I observe the distant woods, listening intently to the rustle of leaves. “Hello?” A man’s voice. Where is that voice coming from? I continue to hold my bow-and-arrow. “Anybody there?” I turn around and see a tall, muscled man appear from the woods. He looks at me from head-to-toe and gradually raises his arms. “Hi, I’m Jethro. I’m not going to hurt you, so you can put your weapon down, hun.” I lower my bow-and-arrow and push my hair away from my face. He slowly approaches me.

“Magnolia. Nice to meet you.” I extend my hand. He shakes my hand firmly. “So, what business do you have here in the clearing?”

“I water the plants here daily. I’m growing crops for the spring harvest. You?”

“I—wow. I was just looking for a safe place to stay. With the rainstorm, the other night, I was just trying to avoid getting struck by lightning.” I begin to collect wood to start a fire.

He laughs heartily.

“You’ve gotta build a shelter for yourself. I built mine out of wood and rock, but it’s located about a mile from here.”

I watch bright orange, red, and blue colors dance around in the fire, thankful to finally have a source of warmth.

Jethro stands up and begins to water the plants from a red canteen that reads ‘CAUTION.’

“Magnolia, do you believe in survival of the fittest,” Jethro asks.

“Not really. As long as you have the right mind and resources, you ‘oughta be fine.”

I observe Jethro’s features: piercing black eyes, rugged hair, and a beige cotton shirt that is frayed at the edges. He turns around to finish watering the plants, walking around the clearing in a perfect circle.

“The right mind and resources, you say?”

“That’s why I’ve got—.” My eyes dart around the ground for my knapsack.

“Magnolia, you sure as hell got the right resources, but you might want to polish your mind.” Jethro wears my knapsack on his back and stands poised with my bow-and-arrow. I duck behind a rock.

The arrow is ablaze.

Jethro launches the weapon into the ring that he poured over the plants, and suddenly, I am surrounded by a ring of fire that gradually intensifies.

“Maybe you can use your pretty little mind to collect more resources,” he says, running away with the red canteen that reads ‘lighter fuel.’

The short-lived, gentle rain was an illusion of true safety. But perhaps we must create a safe environment within our minds and bodies before we begin to search for it within the natural world. Countless illusions present themselves in these woods. Danger camouflages itself as a safe environment, waiting to catch its next prey. I will fight to get out of this ring of fire, but more important, I won’t just survive. I will live. I will thrive.

“The sane shift about in their seats. The ill remain seated.”

Writer’s Note: This creative short-story was inspired by the following quote: “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.” In the United States, it is intriguing to observe various power dynamics: teacher-student relationships, presidential elections, parental authority, and more. This piece makes a bold statement about power: we must use our voices and our minds to act against those who abuse their power.

“The sane shift about in their seats. The ill remain seated.”

The floor rumbles with the footsteps of dignitaries and casual attendees alike, as guests flood the room. “How are we all doing today? Can I get you all something to drink?” I go from table to table, repeating a waitress’ script until my tongue runs dry. “Be a darling and bring me a glass of water,” a woman orders, dressed in a navy blue gown. The walls echo with chatter about the upcoming presentation.

As I shift my gaze, I feel the aura of a powerful man who appears onstage. The attendees drop their silverware abruptly and rush to the auditorium seats. Anticipation fills our lungs like helium fills a balloon. It’s not long before the rubber snaps.

“Welcome, everyone!” The man’s voice echoes for several seconds. The audience roars with applause. Light and sound coalesce, and attendees clap wildly.  Every ounce of attention is directed on the presenter’s words. As I peer about the room, I gaze at my dirty apron and realize I am the only one not applauding. I readjust myself in my seat, as if to help me fit the mold of an insider—someone who pledges allegiance to powerful ideas before careful evaluation.

The presenter quickly presents his innovation, making clear that the product is a “life-changing miracle.” I watch as their mouths and eyes widen in awe. Their faces glow in dim lights, like the faces of children in the lights of firetrucks. A rhythmic beat begins to play. “What is that sound,” I wonder. The heart is a drumbeat against the walls of my chest. “A hypnosis track!” People begin to scramble, their backs curling as they turn away from the stage. The man begins to mutter abruptly. You will buy my product. You will submit. You are in my control. Now slowly, drop your head. Sleep. He continues to repeat his words. Heads begin to fall, mouths close, consciousness shifts to an altered state. The hypnosis track grows louder. I imagine running. The voice of reason crumbles under the weight of fear. Faces blacken, as audience members resist their altered stage of consciousness. The voice is silent but the mind shouts. It’s too damn late to resist. You’re already a puppet to a company that you blindly support. The sane continue to shift about in their seats. The ill have no choice but to remain seated. “You will submit. You are in my control. Sleep now,” the man quickly mumbles. The ill fall deeper and deeper into hypnosis.

Logic begins to break through the barrier of fear. All hypnosis is self-hypnosis. I muster the courage to face the stage and run. My heart jumps inside my chest, as I rush past countless hypnotized individuals. The door is within arm’s reach. I can see the light. Stop! In my peripheral vision, I can see the man extending his hand toward me. His lips curl into a grin, as I stare at the ground. Time is still.

A choice weighs over the room. A choice between a powerful man and the targeted. Thousands of people in the room pledge their allegiance not to the man but to illusive power. To false hope. They are his puppets, unable to reverse their decision to submit to him. His arm is still extended in my direction. Should I trade the voice of reason for blind submission? In a split second, the decision is made. His hand is extended, but I turn my back on him. I turn my back on illusive power… on false hope.

 

Planning for the Future

Hours fly as we converse under dim lights at a newly-opened Japanese restaurant, and our plates are nearly empty save for streaks of sauce. I don’t notice that the sun has set until I press the home button on my iPhone and see that it’s 6 o’clock. I remain planted in my chair, still, anticipating the next burst of laughter, or an astounding piece of advice that remains grounded in my mind like the dense air of a breezy autumn night. I tell Ms. Scharl, my former English teacher, about my concerns regarding the future. Informing her about my career and academic ambitions, I notice as fear and uncertainty coalesce. My greatest ambition is to live independently, but the only way to reach this destination is to successfully travel along the unpaved path of academia and career search. I am not a materialist, but rather a minimalist, and unfortunately, affording the cost of living is the prerequisite to living independently. And so the expenses will pile on, but Ms. Scharl soon shushes the voices of my uncertainties. She says, “Naima, you’re a go-getter. You’re going to get a good job.” Her words hold abundant weight, as they rest firmly at the bottom of my heart. Uncertainty withers away in veins that once pulsated arrhythmically. So her words rotate in my mind and follow me before I tuck myself into bed. The mind loves to plan for the future, often forgetting about the present and questioning, “What if?” Hushhh. Naima, you’re a go-getter. My brain ignites a chain-reaction of positive self-affirmations: I am confident. I am strong. I will succeed. Rinse and repeat.

I aspire to earn a Master’s degree in Information Technology (IT) at George Mason University so that I may become a college professor. My passion for teaching and being a leader among a group of individuals are aptitudes I would like to apply in the workplace. This profession enables me to choose a wide range of public universities nationwide, so I will have the opportunity to live in other states if I so choose. And even if I change my mind about teaching at the college level, I will have flexibility in choosing a wide range of professions worldwide, as Information Technology is a high-demand field of expertise.

I am thankful for those who continue to encourage me to fulfill my passions and to those who support me unconditionally. Thank you, Ms. Scharl, for fueling the fire in this 18-year-old. And when I am holding my diploma in a few years from now, I will thank and remember you. Your confidence in me is unmeasurable. Thank you so much for helping me take another step closer to achieving my greatest ambitions, for surely, this act of kindness cannot be repaid. But rather, it is vital for me to pay it forward. So when I look at all of my current students at Mathnasium, and even the ones in my future workplace, I recognize my responsibility to encourage my students just as you have encouraged yours. Thank you.