When I was sixteen I took a class called American Literature Honors. I was recommended to take it by my sophomore year English teacher. I remember thinking that even if I wasn’t recommended to it I would take it anyways because the idea of reading The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, Death of a Salesman and the like, in my mind, elevated me to the status of a true English student. At that point I had already decided that I wanted to study English literature, but I had formulated no thorough concept of that. I had not though about which universities were “better” for the liberal arts, nor had I thought of being an English teacher. All I knew was that I wanted to study literature in any capacity possible.
The entire scholastic year, I maintained a solid B+. I had an 86% by the end of the spring semester. I was sure that I had no chance of getting an A, which really made me feel downtrodden. Not because I had never gotten a B before, but because somewhere in my mind I had decided that getting that A truly meant that I was capable of synthesizing legitimate arguments as to the nature of the literary texts we’d analyzed, that I was something of a gifted student who knew how to find meaning in what some would assume was meaningless. I remember trying to comfort myself by telling myself that such capabilities aren’t quantifiable and that I am apt regardless of what a letter grade tells me.
But the last day of class something happened that I will never forget. It is a moment that fuels me to this day. I had been feeling really desperate because I didn’t think I would be able to get that 3.5 GPA: my French teacher that year had miscalculated our grades but refused to admit to it so I ended up with a B+ when I should have gotten an A. I had some other discrepancies like that with a few of my other classes that I somehow managed to fix. (I was supposed to get a C in my math class but my teacher gave me the B. I was supposed to get a B in my physics class but my teacher gave me an A… in other words I got very lucky with my teachers that year, as the story I’m about to tell will also show.) Because of this incident with my French teacher, I was in tears for the entire day. I was at a point in my high school career where grades were literally my life so I was feeling so horrible when not only could I not show her the mistake she had made, but that it would affect my GPA.
I was feeling this way when I was sitting in that last class for American Lit Honors. I remember the teacher of this class, I will call her Ms. M, read to us an ode as she struggled to stifle the tears. She was one of those people that made you feel as if you were the only thing on her mind every time she looked at you. She carried this fiery energy with her wherever she went. She would read from the assigned books with such a passion that it surprised me that she wasn’t the orginal author of the texts, for she felt the words so deeply that nothing else made sense to me. Even now as I am writing this I am realizing how lucky I was to have been taught by her.
I also knew that I was one of her favorite students because one of her TA’s was a friend of mine and this TA had come up to me one day and told me that Ms. M thought I was “interesting.” She would also wink at me in class a lot. In the beginning I thought I was seeing things but then I asked a friend of mine to keep an eye on her for me to see if she really was singling me out and it turns out she really was. Regardless, I never would have guessed that she was going to do what she did on that last day of class.
On the last day of class, like I said, I was feeling horrible, as if nothing was ever going to go my way and that I was doomed. I really felt that I had no shot at a future of my own making. At this point of the year, I knew not only that I wanted to study English literature, but that I wanted to be a writer of fiction. But after reading her ode and signing some autographs, Ms. M asked me to stay after class because she wanted to talk to me about my grade.
This is what happened, according to my sixteen year old self who blogged about it the day it happened:
This moment has fueled all my decisions concerning my writing. Every time I feel as if I have no chance at becoming a successful author, I think of this moment. But my work with MOSAIC has made me realize how difficult of a task this truly is. In a country where power is in the hands of those who look nothing like me, those who could never understand my plight as a first generation Egyptian immigrant, how can I make an impact? I want to use my words to give a voice to underrepresented communities, particularly Egyptians, but seeing all the injustices in the world through my job has made me realize that this is truly a very difficult undertaking. I keep telling myself to work hard, to dream big, but is that enough? I am beginning to realize that I don’t have the aesthetic appeal of a successful person. I am not conventionally attractive, I am not particularly loquacious, I am not very quick witted. I am not white. Can I bring my dreams to life?
Will this moment be enough to sustain me? All I can do is keep going and hope time will tell me something that I haven’t already figured out for myself.