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.

A Lifelong Pursuit of Knowledge

Time is irrelevant, as Professor Schulze perfectly summarizes George Satayana’s assertion that those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it. My mind browses memories that support Satayana’s statement: recent instances of racism on the very grounds of my university, intensifying political polarization, the abuse of executive power, and more. Professor Schulze repeats key points, and my mind completes its search, like a webpage that suddenly stops loading. My thoughts are so engaged in this lecture that it feels as though I am the only student who is physically present in the classroom. “Wow,” I whisper, in awe at the extent to which the classroom content is relevant to my personal life as well as modern politics. I am intellectually stimulated, yet appalled by my sudden eagerness to mentally invest myself in a subject that I have often labeled “uninteresting.” Perhaps my self-doubt hindered me from entering this realm of intellectual engagement. But if I overcame the fear of failing to grasp the material, I would be less reluctant to be mentally present in this classroom.

There is a pattern in my approach to acquiring complex information in the traditional classroom. I either commit substantial time and energy outside of class and dedicate myself to consulting external resources for help, or I become resigned and assert my inherent inability to successfully process and store the information in my long-term memory. “Won’t I just forget all of this stuff after the semester ends,” I often wonder. But I realize that pure memorization is not the objective of most college courses. If I successfully travel along the unpaved path of the acquisition of knowledge, then I will have met my semester-end goal. Regardless of the grade I earn in the course, I am more interested in my personal and intellectual growth than a transcript that provides a limited perspective of my work ethic.

What I find to be deeply compelling about the learning process is the conflicting notions about traits that define a successful student, as the word “success” is subjective. I have met countless students (some of which I have taught) whose main semester-goal is to “get good grades.” But if we invest our energy in the process instead of the result, then we gradually evolve into lifelong learners.

As a student, I would like to define my success not by grade point average, but rather, by my personal and intellectual growth in and out of the classrooms of George Mason University. It is this subjective measurement of achievement that makes the learning process more satisfying than earning high letter grades. I do not mean to assert that grades are unimportant and should be ignored. But we should not become so fixated on grades that we undermine the value of our own learning.

If we dedicate ourselves to the learning process, we will engage in habits of active learners, which include (but are not limited to) the following: drawing connections between classroom content and our personal and academic interests, pursuing studies that stimulate our creative and intellectual drive, active participation through classroom discussion, and more.

As I walk into English class after Professor Schulze’s lecture, I immediately begin a discussion about the assigned reading with a classmate. I lose track of time, as we laugh about humorous insight from the novel we’re studying. It is moments like these that make learning so satisfying, when acquiring knowledge feels more like a friendly discussion with peers. After class, I walk back to the parking lot with a friend, once again engaged in a meaningful, and nevertheless, enjoyable conversation. We say our goodbyes, and I eventually make it back to my car and start the engine. Mulling over the productive school day, I exhale as my muscles relax into the worn leather of the driver’s seat.

 

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.

“Dance is a way to tell a story through movement.”

Writer’s Note: This piece is a creative short-story that captures the effect of dance on all aspects of my personal growth and success, from academics to career-related work. I emphasize the importance of free expression on mental and physical well-being. I hope to convey my appreciation of creative expression, as it is one of the many doors to self-discovery and growth. Hope you enjoy!- Naima

“Dance is a Way to Tell a Story through Movement”

         Light reflects from the golden-brown wood floor of the yoga studio, as my iPhone plays “Apologize” by One Republic. Yoga poses and dance combine to awaken creativity. “Take another chance, take it far, take a shot through,” the musician sings. My toes and ankles contract to suspend my body into a starfish position in the air, as my arms and legs are shoulder-width apart. I land into a kneeling position and drive my fist into the wood floor. As my body becomes in-tune with the meaning of the song, I remember my dance instructor. “Dance is a way to tell a story through movement,” he said. I give myself the chance to adopt a new persona each time the song changes. My body turns in 360-degree circles as my arms alternate between first and second position. Movement begins to unravel like the chapter of a must-read. Leap. Land quickly on two feet and transition into seated postures. Perform a full-turn and stand up. Single-arm cartwheel. Plie. And another leap to bring truth to power. “I’m holding on your rope, got me ten feet off the ground,” the singer concludes.

My iPhone plays Alessia Cara’s “Scars to Your Beautiful,” singing, “She just wants to be beautiful. She goes unnoticed. She knows no limits. She craves attention.” I begin with my arms in eagle pose, crouched on the wood floor, slowly transforming into a tall standing position. “All that beauty goes deeper than the surface,” Alessia continues to sing. My body opens like a flower, as I strike a standing split. Patiently waiting for the chorus, I hold these straight lines of energy and beautifully pointed-toes. “There’s a hope that’s waiting for you in the dark. You should know you’re beautiful just the way you are.” Pick up the pace. Quickly alternate between first and second position as you perform countless turns. Lyrics and dizziness coalesce, and I’ve lost the beat in a whirlwind of creativity. Pick it back up again. Strike a single-arm handstand. Slide into a left-leg split. Stand up, and stretch your legs as far in front of you as possible. Take up as much space as you can. Run, and dance, and tumble, until you’ve had enough.

The song changes. I settle into a yoga pose, knees bent, shoulders facing the mirror, arms relaxed. Tove Lo’s “Stay High” remix begins to play, as I take the opportunity to slow down. Breathe. Let blood flow through the temples. Soften the eye gaze. Stretch your arms above your head one at a time. The music continues to flow into my mind, but the dizziness has faded.

Today, I danced on every inch of this wood floor, took up as much space as possible, felt the liberation of pointing my toes just a little further. I observed my reflection in the mirror as I adopted various personas and told stories through movement. The door to free expression remains wide open. But maybe there’s more than just a door. There are the classrooms where I become the group leader. There are workplaces where I am on a constant journey of self-improvement. There are restaurant outings where I discuss the past week’s accomplishments with friends and family.

I open each chapter of my story through dance and am extending the manuscript. My movements and gestures are edited to satisfaction. With each page, I awaken my creative drive, tell my stories in a world of free expression.

Puzzle Pieces: A Creative Short Story

The puzzle pieces that lay scattered represent who I am—my passions and the very practices that help me stay true to myself. They somehow manage to return to this fragmented state, as I hold onto the parts of myself by a single thread. Through the blur of schoolwork and empty days, I sometimes remember to breathe. Meditation pulls me back to the ground, returning oxygen to my lungs. Have you ever tried to complete menial tasks underwater? I have a tendency to get sucked into believing that time is inadequate, that I’ll never have enough of it. So I cross out one day after the other on my calendar and wonder where I went. The edges of the puzzle pieces are frayed because of the myriad attempts to make them fit… to create one, cohesive picture. They lay in fragments, still, as I turn my head in a panic to glance at the clock. The minutes are running away and fear comes rushing back. What if I don’t finish all my work? What if I receive a poor grade? What if my professors will be disappointed?

puzzle-pieces

I beat myself up with negative reinforcements to complete my schoolwork only to realize that I’ve been here before… too many times. But if I relaxed and worked at my own pace, wouldn’t I be more productive? Logic kicks emotion in the face but won’t always stay for the whole fight.

Lately, I’ve been putting some of the pieces together, and I might see the picture of myself soon. I can see myself dancing in my yoga studio, as lyrics crawl through my lungs and into my heart. My mind’s eye watches as I walk on my school’s campus with a carefully planned outfit and an infectious smile. I can see myself running through Lorton Station and sometimes down the hills of Fairfax city.

I wish I could complete the puzzle in a single instant. But it’s difficult to stay true to yourself when you’re being pulled in a million directions. Wake up, do homework, go to work, sleep, and do it all over again. All over again. And if you do it all in a hurry, you won’t ever realize that you lost yourself. And all the puzzle pieces will by lying on the floor, and you won’t even bother to pick them up… until something hits you. It shakes you out of oblivion and asks what the hell you were doing with your life. That voice will ask, “You knew that the way you were living was destroying you,” and you will respond, “yes.” Embarrassed, you look down at the fragments of yourself and scramble to put them back together. All the while, you must resist falling into the vortex in which you live by your fears, not your innate desire to be true to yourself.

You don’t have to worry. The pieces will come back together but certainly not by force. Pray, and you will find yourself again. Run, and you will find yourself in the rhythm of your footsteps, your gentle in-breaths. Dance and tumble, and you will find yourself in free expression. Slow down and forget time. It’s not about how many minutes are left on the clock, but rather, the value of your time spent. So if you need to cry, prepare yourself for a storm. But remember that the sun will always be waiting for you. Your prayers are valuable, your mind is resourceful, and your heart is compassionate. Don’t lose yourself in the whirlwind of everyday responsibilities… because maybe in the debris of the storm, you are waiting to be found. You’ve been here all along… just remember to breathe. The pieces are slowly coming back together.

puzzle-pieces2

Ever-Evolving Perceptions of the Self

Self-acceptance is crucial to developing a healthy perception of who we are. But throughout my pre-adolescent years (and even today), my self-perception often clashes with the ideas that other people form of who I am. The eighth grade, as I remember it, was a year when I was content with who I was. In my mind’s eye, I walk confidently past Ms. Lawhon’s pre-algebra class. I was (and still am) the girl who would strike up a conversation with anyone, crack a joke with the classmate sitting next to her, and a student who worked tirelessly to be successful in and out of the classroom. But through new phases of my life, such as the beginning of high school and the transition to college, I tend to question and form new perceptions of who I am.

One of the greatest challenges in developing a positive self-image was my decision to wear the Hijab. I remember walking into Information Systems class on the second day of freshman year and imagining the perception of my eighth grade-self fade away. Was I truly the bubbly girl with fluffy, black hair that complimented her smile? I could no longer see that image, as my head was now covered by a pashmina scarf. Perhaps defining myself by the way I looked was a bit destructive. But I was still the same person, wasn’t I? The only difference now was that I was in a new environment with students who looked far too grown for me to label them my “peers.” I shrunk nervously in my seat. I was intimidated because my once-shining self-perception was now a mirror through which I couldn’t see myself. Over several months, I found a solution that would take years to accomplish: to develop a self-image that complimented my wish to represent my faith well. But the greatest accomplishment I achieved on this seemingly-endless journey was giving myself the power to define myself the way I chose. I could no longer hear the voices of those whose religious stereotypes contradicted my self-perception. They can say whatever they want, but I will never give up, I thought.

Sometimes, as I run my fingers through my hair, I’ll imagine what it’d be like if I didn’t wear the Hijab. My side-swept bangs and thick layers were much too beautiful to cover up, weren’t they? Think again. Bullies pushed me to think more deeply about my commitment to my beliefs and the way I represented myself. The toughest part of this journey was digging deeper within myself to realize that there was more to me than what I looked like. There was character, a bright soul, and a compassionate heart that strives to treat all people fairly.

So as I walked through countless classroom doors during freshman year, I learned how to carry myself with more dignity. All of my strength, all of my pride, all of my honor was built on the idea that I—I had the power to define myself. Today, it’s vital to maintain self-acceptance and a clear perception of who I am, as I navigate the highs and lows of my college years.

A couple of days ago, I went to the pool in my burquini (modest bathing suit). I’ll admit, it did bother me that other people stared and may have been judging me. But I remind myself that anyone’s pre-conceived notions about who I am—because of my religion or ethnicity—is not worth worrying about. However, I do find it baffling that those who stereotype any minority group forget that underneath any religious attire is a human, a person who has accomplished countless feats throughout their lifetime, an individual who has friends and family who care about them.

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

 

 

Trial-and-Error

During the months that I was learning how to drive, I craved the opportunity to sit in the front seat and steer myself in any direction I chose. The yellow paper that reads ‘180-day Temporary License’ is a reminiscence of my drive toward personal freedom. But the first time I nervously shrunk into the driver seat, I accepted that making mistakes was an inherent part of learning. As I performed myriad reckless turns, I wondered if the steering wheel was secretly working against me. I let myself err before I could correct.  Overcoming a personal health issue I have faced required a similar approach.

I spent months pondering what the root-cause of the issue could be, as I often returned home with a flat tire. Without an understanding of the problem, there was no chance of reaching a solution. So I ran a trial-and-error experiment, using my mind as both a battleground and laboratory. My resources ran short, lacking in fuel and knowledge of how to successfully steer myself through the process of self-understanding. I panicked when my tires hit a pothole. I fought to ignore the issue, the occasional disruptions in physical and personal comfort I experienced as I sat in the driver’s seat. It was a pain that demanded to be felt, an uncertainty I often met as I doubted my ability to perform careful turns. I wished I could let other drivers know that I was inexperienced—that my errors could cause damage to other vehicles. But I continued to drive, confidently tapping the accelerator as I perfected turns and lane-changes. Today, I pride myself on being a safe and responsible driver, but I’ve travelled through countless unpaved roads to reach this destination.

The drivers that whiz by me before I embark on daily outings share a commonality. Our driver’s licenses are representative of the learning process—its smooth roads and unpaved paths, its epiphanies and its downfalls. We must allow ourselves to mess up, make uncontrolled turns and hasty accelerations. We must stop hitting the brakes and begin to accelerate toward a better version of ourselves. We need to take hold of the steering wheel and leave doubt behind.

A few days ago, I told my mother, “I don’t know how to park. My driving instructor never taught me how.” But ruthless potholes, impatient drivers who honk at their own leisure, and speed limits that exceed my level of comfort have opened my mind. Learning is most effective when we actively apply ourselves to a given situation. When I told my mother, “I don’t know how,” I meant, “I just need time to figure it out.” Let me mess up, and then try again. And again. Until the clean parallel lines nicely run along the tires of my car.

Dear Reader, through the journeys I’ve travelled—in a classroom desk, behind the wheel, and in front of a keyboard where I write my stories—I have made leaps toward personal growth. You, too, can steer yourself in any direction that delivers freedom and happiness into your heart. You are no longer the passenger. You sit confidently in the driver’s seat, as your mind floods with an eagerness to learn and expand. Get up and seek any opportunity you wish to pursue. Don’t wait, don’t say, “what if.” There is no better time than now. Just let go of the brake.

 

 

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.