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.

Feigned Optimism

The alarm begins to sound at 7:30a.m., as the winter doldrums tempt the eyes to close. The body begs for sleep, but the mind is wiser than to let itself drift off. Suddenly, the brain recalls the myriad tasks that must be completed. Classes bright and early starting at 9:00a.m. and work until 8:00p.m. Yes. 8:00p.m. My finish-line. The end to all this bustle. The time that I can prepare to go to sleep again. I crave the feeling of clean sheets against a weary body. But where do I find the starting line?

Just peel the blanket away from you slowly. Let your mind wander a bit. Thoughts wrap themselves around the prospect of breakfast, of listening to my favorite songs on the way to school, of my plans for the weekend.

I get through my gen-eds (Math, History, English) and complete my work as a math instructor at 8:00p.m. On my way home, I remember a valuable lesson I learned from running cross-country.

Suddenly, I can’t remember why I am tired. I can’t remember that I’m struggling to get through the week. Rather, I am empowered by the fight I have left in me. It may only be the 2nd week of the spring semester, but I can already imagine the summer break… for during the break, it is not the restless nights of free writing that I will remember… or the rush to travel from school to work… or the wish to just go to sleep and shut it all out. It is the triumphs of my freshman year at George Mason University that I will remember… wrapping my mind around discrete mathematics until the concepts click. To my professors, to my students, to my employer, and most important, to myself: I wear these dark circles with pride. These “I just rolled out of bed” winter leggings, this “just get out of the house already” t-shirt. May I repeat the successes of my past. Better yet, let me surpass them. Let me find myself on the Dean’s list, let me surround myself with loved ones on the weekend, let me spend hours on homework assignments that trigger a thirst for knowledge. It is in these activities that I find balance.

So I will wake up for my 9:00a.m. review session in a few hours and demonstrate an eagerness to learn. And to all my classmates: you’ll likely remember me by “the crazy girl who said the homework was fun.” It’s a lot more exciting to fight for optimism than to give in to indifference. Try it. I dare you.

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.

 

 

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.

Overwhelming Gratitude

Exhausted from my early Communications class, I recline on my bed. I roll onto my stomach, enjoying the feeling of clean sheets against my skin. Two hours slowly pass, and I open my eyes at 6:00p.m. My mind craves stimulation. I pull on my athletic tights and Under Armour shirt and drive to the gym. As I poise myself on the elliptical, I encourage a peaceful self-awareness. Chin up, chest open, arms swinging back and forth. I breathe deeply, guiding my mind toward positive thinking. I walk my thoughts into the golden gate of past and present occurrences. Cross-country races. I can hear the voice of a female spectator cheering, “Come on, Hayfield!” Thoughts of being content at George Mason University. The encouragement of fellow Patriots echoes in my mind, as they told me, “You’re doing great for your first week!” And of course, those little moments when tears of joy collected along my eyelid. Every time I try to explain why I am so overjoyed to be at Mason, I struggle to find words. But I can summarize it into the following quote: “Verily, after every hardship, there is ease.” (Qur’an 94:5).

Every students’ high school career has its fair share of highs and lows, but I underwent some particularly difficult circumstances that sometimes hindered my ability to learn. I am thankful to have developed problem-solving skills and to apply critical thinking to everyday conflicts. Being at Mason is the sunshine that breaks through gray skies after the storm is over. The storm is over. And I knew it was when I found I could finally feel comfortable in a classroom again and to express myself freely. The storm is over. And I knew it was as I noted that I am encouraged and supported by the Patriot community. So I wake up early on Monday mornings and go on runs around campus. I let oxygen fill my lungs as I stride up and down the beautiful hills of Fairfax city. This run, this honest self-expression is not only a celebration of my time at Mason. It is a celebration of life, a statement of gratitude for becoming stronger despite adversity. Today, I hold my head higher than before, as I observe the gradual changes in heartrate as I work out. The repetitive motion of swinging my arms back and forth calms me, and I increase the resistance of the machine. I let lyrics flow into my mind, filling my head with positive thoughts. The musician sings, “You can still be what you want to. You’ve got a warm heart. You’ve got a beautiful brain.” The sun illuminated the healthy green trees, as I sat at a table in front of the Johnson Center yesterday. Poised and confident, I observed passersby who rushed to their destinations. A woman walked past me, briefly making eye contact and sharing a warm smile. After she faded into the distance, my eyes welled up with tears of joy because once again, I was reminded that I am part of a healthy community. I am free. Free to express myself, seek support if needed, and to become successful without any destructive obstacles in the way.

Increasing the incline of the elliptical, I continue to listen to my body. The voice of a soulful singer flows into my mind. “You’ve got a warm heart. You’ve got a beautiful brain.” At the end of my day, I share this blogpost and wipe away tears of joy as I write. I am so thankful to be a Patriot, for my ability to thrive on the beautiful campus, for the chance to become the best version of myself. The tears fall unapologetically. The music still echoes in my head. And the visualization of sunlight breaking through trees in front of the Johnson Center comes to mind once more. I can sit on a bench outside the Performing Arts Building, or in a lecture room in Innovation Hall, or in a classroom in East Building. No matter where I am, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. Dismounting the elliptical, my beating heart eventually fades to a resting calm.

Transcendent

Lift me off the ground

In a whirlwind of freedom and happiness that transpired from within.

I am floating

Above worry,

My arms stretch to invite peace.

My body rotates,

As I examine everything around me.

It doesn’t have to look perfect

Because I’ve built the strength to solve new challenges.

An infectious smile stretches across my face,

Tears of joy collecting along my bottom eyelid.

I am weightless and resilient.

I am here,

Floating,

Growing,

And forever changing.

I am in control

Of my own happiness and success.

So I rise above

The weight of trivial matters,

Slowly reaching the horizon.

Looking for the sun,

I now emanate my own rays of sunshine.

Opening my palms, I watch light glimmer on my skin,

Running my fingertips along the backs of my hands,

My arms,

My face.

This is all me.

My beautiful imperfections,

My honest flaws,

My originality.

I can be proud of myself even if I have yet to reach my ambitions,

To achieve a better version of myself.

I am me,

And that is enough.

Undeniably enough.