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.

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Why Eliminating Creativity in Public Schools is Dangerous

Staring at the clock, I acknowledged that I was required to be in the classroom for the full 90-minute period. Work in silence. Don’t take breaks; you’ll lose precious minutes. My body was firmly planted like a tree trunk in my own seat. “Don’t get up without raising your hand.” “Make sure to sign your planner before leaving class.” These regulations stole opportunities for me to develop independence. Mandating that a teenager carry a hallway pass when traveling from the classroom to a bathroom implies that the student cannot be trusted to conduct themselves appropriately and responsibly. Although these regulations enable teachers to hold students accountable for their actions, they deprive us of feeling that we are responsible for our own minds and bodies.  These rules do not serve to better prepare students to exemplify independence and self-accountability in their college years and beyond.

As a current freshman at George Mason University, I am fully responsible for my schedule, the quality of my education, and most important, my overall success and well-being. However, I often remind myself that no individual nor institution requires me to be in a school or workplace. It is difficult to feel truly independent after several years of biannual lessons on school rules and reminders to follow trivial regulations.

How do we develop independence within younger students without overwhelming them with responsibilities? Assigning self-conducted projects that require creative-thinking could catalyze the development of student independence. During my junior year of high school, my Creative Writing teacher gave his students full control over their progress as writers. In his class, I was encouraged to create my blog. This site began as a way for me to share running tips but evolved into a medium of creative story-telling. During the beginning of the school year, I chose to stay in my comfort zone by writing short narratives. However, over the course of several months, I had written poems, plays, persuasive articles, and more. Creativity was a clearing in which ideas and opportunities were limitless, as there was no “right” or “wrong” way to think.

Creativity should become a key component of school curriculums, as it helps students develop responsibility for their own learning and encourages them to venture beyond their academic comfort level. Creative-thinking is crucial in implementing effective problem-solving skills in and out of the classroom. Eliminating creativity in school leaves students to believe that there is only one correct way to complete a task or assignment. But through the years that I battled an anxiety disorder, I had to brainstorm multiple solutions to escape a classroom in which my health and safety was put at risk. Despite an awareness of my growing discomfort and declining health, I remained seated in that unsafe classroom. My mind flooded with thoughts of rules and regulations. I have to stay here until the bell rings. I have to complete my assignment so I don’t get a poor grade. But if we change the narrative from “have to” to “having the freedom to,” we can build students who know how to solve various conflicts that aren’t mentioned in the Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook.

We have taught students how to walk in straight lines and speak quietly in hallways. But do we discuss more critical issues, such as using creative-thinking skills to maintain our health and safety? Can we encourage them to “think outside the box” in situations when strict rules and regulations do not address exceptional conflicts? Can we eliminate “right” and “wrong” to encourage a trial-and-error approach to solving personal challenges?

As I am now halfway through my first college semester, I am deeply thankful for my success thus far. But when I mention “success,” what comes to mind? Is it my grades, or my grade point average? Although I am content with my academic marks, my success is accredited to mediums of creative expression. Through the art of writing, dance, and yoga, I have overcome mental health issues and personal challenges. Without creativity, I would have no choice but to walk the fine line of red tape, unaware that self-discovery and growth awaits beyond its boundaries.

Stronger than Mental Illness

brain

The heart speaks louder than the shaking voices of victims who didn’t know how to handle mental illness.

But even as your heart hammers against your chest,

Don’t be afraid to speak.

Surround yourself with supportive people.

Paint the town in wise words you’ve learned from your situation.

Sing the song of your triumph after the storm has passed.

Let the liberation of self-expression run through the flesh,

The very blood stream that connects to a healthy heart.

A beat that was once an unsettled qualm,

Is now a beautiful, steady rhythm

That feeds an honest self-awareness.

I repeat

Your health is a priority.

Repeat

Your health is a priority

Even before grades and schoolwork,

Nagging tasks and unfinished papers.

You are free to prioritize yourself,

Polish the best version of your personality.

You are not your disorder,

You are a living triumph,

A beautiful song that continues to play

Even after the drumbeat of your heart has grown weary.

You will wake up to another day

When you will expand your lungs to fill them with oxygen.

Tell me,

How amazing is this freedom?

The space

Between this inhale

And the next exhale

Is the greatest liberation I know.

The mind

And the heart

Are no longer weighed down by shackles.

Rather, they have grown stronger from having carried them for so long.

So parade in this wonderful freedom.

Beautiful green and blue veins ignite euphoria,

A liveliness once unknown.

Red blood traveling through the temples,

And eventually to the mind.

Tears of joy collect along your eyelid,

Tipping over the edge slowly.

You are free.

A living triumph,

A walking warrior,

Liberation personified.

healthy

 

 

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

How Much is Too Much?

Writer’s Note: As you may have noticed, this piece is one of my most substantive works of writing. In this post, my target audience includes anyone who is interested in understanding mental health disorders as well as those who struggle with this issue. We don’t talk about topics that many perceive as “taboo,” but I realize that it’s crucial to discuss them. Thank you so much for reading!- Naima 🙂

How Much is Too Much?

Two years ago, I experienced one of the most satisfying and challenging sports seasons I have ever completed. As a cross-country athlete, I could see the hope in my coaches’ eyes to help the team reach new heights with the sport. But our goals slowly became an obsession. My coaches’ desperation to help the team become more competitive was obvious. With our unhealthy attachment to winning, we reduced the sport to nothing more than numbers. After races, all we heard was conversation about race times. We only focused on achievement, not effort. A consequence of our obsession was that half the team was injured on the day of the 2013 Conference Championship.

As I look back on the 2013 cross-country season, I will never be sure if I can describe it as a positive or negative experience. For one, the season was truly life-changing. Months after our last race, I still replayed my favorite race memories in my head countless times until they filled my happiness to its brim. I had never felt so healthy and strong in my entire 15-year-old life. On the flip-side, I think of the season as a time when my teammates and I were overworked. We completed painstaking interval workouts three-times-a-week, “recovery” runs that truly didn’t help us recover, and long-runs every Saturday. The only rest-day was Sunday, but it failed to balance work and rest. Our season was defined by overexertion and an obsession with personal records. But I don’t regret a single day of practice.

I will never regret being present for the long-runs when a rush of euphoria reminded me of how blessed I am to be a runner. I will never regret the interval workouts when my sore muscles would twinge after every turnover. I will never regret the tears, the sweat, the heat cramps, or physical exhaustion. I know what you’re thinking. Naima, that is absolutely ridiculous! Why would people want to do that to themselves? Well, consider this. In a graduation speech I wrote last week, I stated, “We learn the most not from our successes, but our downfalls.” The 2013 cross-country season was ultimately a time of learning and personal growth, so much so that I highly doubt that I would be the same person if I hadn’t been an active member on the team. I’ll admit, it was nice being a varsity athlete for my first cross-country season, and even two years after that. But there are crucial lessons I’ve learned from the sport that transcend the value of being a varsity athlete.

The sport of cross-country encouraged me to ask, How much is too much? I can easily remember the countless instances that my coach advised my teammates to keep running despite their injuries. Sounds pretty inspirational, right? Wrong. In life, we laud those who push through pain to achieve a better version of themselves. But we need to identify when pushing ourselves is hurting us.

As you can tell, I invest a great deal of energy in maintaining my physical health. But mental health is often overlooked. We struggle to understand the reality of mental health disorders because they’re not tangible. They don’t have a physical existence. When a victim of mental illness tries to explain to you what he’s experiencing, it’s easy to dismiss his thoughts as irrational. But the negative thoughts and behaviors that dominate his life have a legit psychological basis. Do not label them as “dramatic” or “crazy” because there are some factors of mental health that are beyond difficult to alleviate.

I would like to share with you my journey to overcome anxiety. Let me put things into perspective. Anxiety does not control my life. Because I overcame social anxiety years ago, it’s slightly easier for me to understand what triggers it and how I can control it. Lately, my anxiety has stemmed from irrational thoughts related to my academic success. I refuse to receive anything lower than a ‘B’ on my report card. Sometimes, if I’m struggling with an assignment, I’ll tell myself negative things, such as, “What if I leave class without getting anything done,” or “What if no one will help me?” Ultimately, it’s a fear of loneliness, poor grades, and a lack of progress.

Let me just leave myself bare on these pages. I have nothing to hide because I not only want to help those who experience anxiety but also help you understand it. Countless times throughout this school year, my anxiety has led me to crying, so much so that I may struggle to breathe. From that point forward, I’m left to accept that my anxiety has defeated me, and that I have no choice but to wait for class to end. Do I understand that there is no logical basis of my emotions? Absolutely. But this observation should not negate the fact that it’s okay to feel low. It’s okay to not feel happy 100% of the time. And I’ve only recently absorbed these words of wisdom. Here’s the goal: to find a solution. To overcome anxiety so that I do not have to return to the helpless state that I have experienced time and time again.

With all of the fears that I disclosed, I have found myriad personal suggestions to help myself. If you find that they work for you, then by all means, go for it. If not, that’s fine, but please understand that I’m not a doctor. Some of these suggestions include:

  1. Breathe
  2. Ask yourself, “Do I need to take a break? Am I pushing myself too hard?”
  3. Remember to smile and think positively.
  4. Don’t worry about time. You have already accomplished so much. You will be fine whether the clock ticks or not.
  5. Do something you enjoy (i.e. have a snack, spend time with friends, etc.)

I understand that there are various triggers of anxiety. Thousands of people nationwide have a fear of public speaking. Other people are afraid of social interactions because they fear being judged or criticized. And the list goes on. When we sense that our anxiety has been triggered, we need to respond to it immediately. You do not need to feel pressured to keep exposing yourself to the subject that is hurting you. Take a break. Be kind to yourself. Understand what triggers your anxiety so that you may find a logical way to address the issue. Regardless of what your fear is, talk to someone you trust. We also need to evaluate patterns in our thoughts that produce negative emotions. If we associate public speaking with thoughts like, “What if I stutter,” or “What if I get so nervous that I can’t talk,” then we must shift our thoughts in order to condition a better state of well-being. Instead, you can practice strong posture and picture yourself having a successful presentation. We must recognize the powerful connection between our thoughts and emotions.

My advice to you about how to respond to anxiety brings us back to my experience as a cross-country athlete. During the sports season, I often wondered, “How much is too much?” My teammates became injured because they never responded to their stresses in an appropriate way. Our fear of lacking the level of competitiveness for major races led us to neglect proper rest. We must remind ourselves that we don’t need to place undue pressure on ourselves. The last time anxiety drove me to tears, I kept telling myself, “No, I’m not going to give up. I’m not going to cry today.” But the idea is not to work against anxiety. We need to work with anxiety. We don’t need to fight our emotions to the point that they get the worst of us because that truly won’t help the situation. In the future, I will praise myself for my effort. I will tell myself that the hard work I’ve put forth is enough and that I am intelligent. And as needed, I will take breaks and remind myself that it’s okay to relax. It’s okay to not be working 100% of the time.

With my advice, I truly wish the best for every individual around the globe who struggles with mental illnesses. We certainly should not deny their existence or ability to affect our lives. I do encourage you to take care of your physical well-being but certainly not at the expense of your mental health. And if I can leave you off on one last note of advice, I want to inform you of the power of meditation. This practice is scientifically proven to help individuals cope with anxiety and other mental health issues. It encourages us to put our life into perspective and breathe deeply. For more information, please feel free to read my post titled “Meditation”. Once again, I wish you all the best. You are powerful beyond measure.

 

Meditation

All alone in my gym’s yoga studio, I wonder how much longer it’ll be until I head home. But there’s something in my heart that tells me I’m not ready to walk away from this gym, from the one place that can be my solace when everything is slowly crumbling. It feels as though I have been running away from myself all day. I let Beyoncé’s song overpower the voice of my own cloudy thoughts, but it fails to appease the storm in my head. I need a moment to slow down, turn off the quick-paced music that only helps me forget about my problems temporarily. So I tell myself to stop running and turn down the lights. I hear the gentle click of the dim lamp as I turn it on, a confirmation that I’m ready sit in the front seat of my well-being. I recline on the yoga mats beneath me, encouraging myself to take deep breaths.

Typically, I meditate in a roomful of gym-goers who are eager to improve their physical and mental health. But today, they are all here with me in spirit, as our hearts gently beat in unison. Relaxing every muscle, I close my eyes. I listen to my pulse, as well as Hozier’s voice as he sings “Like Real People Do.” We can be alone but still sense the accompaniment of those who support us. We can be in a room full of people, yet feel so alone. My lungs expand and contract slowly, as I breathe in to all my areas of tension. My thoughts have become quiet, but I can still hear the calm voices of my yoga instructors. Remember to be patient and persistent with yourself, Wanda’s voice echoes. From my heart to yours, Namaste, Mary says. Their uplifting words intertwine with Hozier’s lyrics as he sings, “I knew that look, dear. Eyes always seeking.”

I acknowledge the blood that gently pulses through my calf muscles, as my legs rest against the yoga mat. Counting my breaths, I find complete solace in this cool, dark room. Inhale 2, 3, 4. Exhale, 2, 3, 4. I listen to Wanda’s voice as she says, Start to bring awareness back to your body by wiggling your toes and your fingertips. I continue to breathe. And when you’re ready, roll onto your side in a fetal position, using your arms as a pillow. I roll onto my right side, tuck my hands under my head, and pull my knees into my chest. And on the count of 3, I’m going to ask you to sit up. 1… 2… 3. I use my arms to push myself into a seated position. I imagine there are yogis behind me whose eyes are closed as they wear rested facial  expressions. We gently stretch the muscles in our neck by tilting our heads to each side and holding it for a few moments. And let’s take our last in-breath and inhale the arms above the head. We do as instructed, eventually lowering our hands into our chests. From my heart to yours, Namaste. The class concludes.

The corners of my mouth form a sweet, tired smile. A smile that expresses that I’m ready to walk home and enjoy the sun. I take a moment to appreciate my peaceful surroundings, as the dim lights beautifully illuminate the clean wood floor. Meditation encourages me to adopt a positive attitude, take control over my thoughts and well-being, and just breathe. Notice what happens when you breathe. Your thoughts become quiet. I listen to Wanda’s voice one last time before I leave.

Yoga Studio2
Gold’s Gym Mind and Body Studio

Transformation

For years, I struggled to express and define myself without fear of being judged or criticized. Little did I know during my underclass high school years that my “friends” were girls who masked their insecurities beneath heavy layers of make-up. Yet, I aspired to be just like them and quickly fell victim to the “halo effect.” I didn’t know how to define or conduct myself because I lived within the confines of my own fears. As I had recently begun wearing a hijab, I was afraid of being ridiculed for who I was or how I dressed. Making a transition from dressing liberally to wearing clothes that expressed my religious devotion required me to redefine my persona. So between all the confusing times that I’d wonder why I found social interactions stressful, I eventually found healthy ways to express myself and build a positive self-image. Many of the subconscious decisions that catalyzed my self-growth are choices that I consciously make on a regular basis. I strive to surround myself with a diverse group of confident and intelligent students. I also run and work out several times a week to promote my well-being, solve personal obstacles, and celebrate my health. Reflecting on who I am today—a self-assured and independent woman, a prospective college student, passionate writer, avid athlete, and more—I am so thankful to have overcome the obstacles that shaped me into who I am.

I constantly reflect on how I felt during my Adobe Dreamweaver Certification exam that I took yesterday. The girl who sat behind that computer desk is someone I never would have imagined myself to become. Dressed in a beautiful golden-tan hijab and rich ruby-red peplum top, this student overcame doubt so many times that being confident became a habit.

I am thankful for all the praise I continue to receive, as my friends and family kindly tell me that I am beautiful, intelligent, and mature. But I find that these compliments only acknowledge the qualities I possess now, not how hard I worked to attain them. The latter subject demonstrates a form of strength that is often overlooked. I am perceived as someone who stands at the top of a hill, not someone who exerted the strength of her heart, mind, and body to reach its peak.

I neither blame nor criticize those who express uplifting words about who I am. I just want people to understand that this transformation didn’t happen overnight. I fought self-esteem issues and other personal obstacles to reach this point in my life. I mention these adversities not because I want you to feel sympathetic toward me. Rather, I mention the idea of overcoming obstacles because it is a form of strength that we don’t acknowledge. As with other beautiful, intelligent, and successful young women, I don’t want people to wonder, How does she make it look so easy to be confident, strong, independent, etc.?

My friends, teachers, and other members of my community would find it shocking if I were to disclose some of the adversities that I have undergone. This astonishment is the result of the surface-level perception people form of who I am; standing at the top of the hill, not fighting to get there. The obstacles we overcome throughout our lifetimes play such a crucial role in shaping us into who we are and building the type of character that people admire.

A thank-you to everyone who encourages me to become a better “me.” But please understand that any successful person you admire did not gain success with the simple flicker of a light. When you compliment someone, you should not only praise her for who she is but also the journey she travelled to become a better version of herself.

ADDENDUM

During one of my classes, a friend asked if I wanted to play computer games. I immediately accepted his offer and sat at the desk next to him. As I became mentally immersed in a game called Agar.io, I let the sound of my laughs carry throughout the walls of the quiet classroom. The students around me knew I was playing games on my computer because I had finished all of my classwork. But what they didn’t know is what those gentle, light-hearted laughs symbolize. Freedom from years of struggling to express myself. Freedom from irrational fears deeply rooted in social anxiety. And freedom from uncomfortable uncertainties. Not knowing how or when I would find a way to define myself; find friends who celebrated and accepted me for who I was, not someone who strived to achieve something unattainable. So let me share these laughs, this joy, with the boy who invited me to play computer games with him… because he let me be reminded of how alive it felt to be wrapped in so many certainties. Knowing that I have the strength to shatter countless personal barriers, express a limitless happiness as we enjoyed a simple activity.


 

Storm

“Anxiety is the indescribable fear of nothing.”- Humans of New York  

Storm

Time is running out, and I keep looking at the clock. Every minute is a reminder of how much work I have to do. I try to take a deep breath and focus, but there are too many things to think about. Should I start with part one of the assignment or part two? Another minute just went by, and I haven’t gotten anything done. The classroom is completely quiet, yet there is a storm brewing inside me. Thunder roars and causes my lungs to shake as my heart beats at a rate that does not align with rationality. I grab the mouse and idly click on programs on my screen. Adobe Dreamweaver taunts me saying that progress is a dream that only the students around me can reach. I close my eyes as my thoughts swim in a sea of darkness. Lightning strikes, but I try to block out the sound by listening to the hum of tides that slowly grows violent. My hands press over my eyes harder, but it doesn’t stop the thunder from roaring. The storm caries a voice in its rapid wind. No one will help you. You are all alone. Before I know it, rain leaks out from my eyes as thunder rattles my lungs. Why am I crying? No one has spoken to me for the past hour or tried to hurt me. This doesn’t make any sense. Slowly, I stand, trying to seek refuge from the rapid storm. I almost stumble. The rain has made it difficult for me to see clearly. I go to the bathroom and let the storm loose. Closing my eyes, I try to find comfort in darkness, make no effort to protect myself from the wind that nearly pushes me off my feet. Slowly, I breathe, but inhalations only invite anxiety to run through my veins. There is no logic behind these emotions, no one to protect me from the storm. I am all alone.

I soon return to class, tired and disoriented. I shut off my computer screen as well as my thoughts. The skies are starting to clear up, but they’re still gray. I plug in my earphones and listen to music instead of the voices in my head that doubt me. Between lyrics, I hear their taunts. Daya sings the words to her song “Hide Away”, while the voice reminds me that the storm is no excuse to sulk and waste time. But I start to give myself more power in shutting out the voice. Mulling over all the tasks I have already completed, I tell myself that today, I will leave class with a smile. The storm is over. I open my eyes, letting the classroom lights clear up the gray skies. It appears as though the students around me never knew that the storm took place. This is probably because they never checked the weather. And I sit exhausted in the confines of this classroom, feeling hopeful that next class, productivity will be my reality… and the sun will be out. I’ll no longer worry about time, or loneliness, or how small I feel behind my desk.