My love for words was shared with just over a dozen high school students from around the city in a college readiness program this past year as they wrote essays about who they are, who they would like to become, and why they’d like to travel to far off places like Chicago and Maine for their education. My role was to help them understand — no challenge them — to discover the power of language, of description, and organization to elevate their writing.
Some are first generation New Yorkers with roots in West Africa, South America, and the Caribbean, while others are African-American. All are heading off to college this fall, a first for many in their families. These teenagers translate language and popular culture for their elders and are often caught between the old world of traditions brought over from small villages thousands of miles away, and our ever-changing new world of informality, technology, politics, feminism, and what is called progress.
We’ve gotten to know each other from their personal essays: who forgets to take clothing out of the washing machine after its last spin; who attends public, charter, or Catholic schools; who loves baseball and soccer, physics, art, and writing; who has a sense of humor and who requires a push to participate. Some are decisive about what their college major will be, while others are uncertain. One sighs that her parents are too strict and drive her crazy with rules and demands; one has moved again while another has no place to call home; and yet another worries that the darkness of her skin sets her apart.
My students were often reminded to get the point in their writing, a lesson I sometimes forget, and after another reminder, one student—I’ll call her Malika, which translates into queen in Arabic—looked up.
“Thank you for the reminder,” she said brightly. “Check.”
Malika does not stand out because she wears a dark colored hijab. She stands out because of her inquisitiveness, intelligence, and passion for physics. She quotes astronomer Carl Sagan, met astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and introduced me to early and contemporary Muslims and Africans in math, medicine, astronomy, and physics. She’s aware that she’s unique in a confident and outgoing manner and it was she who gave me a humorous side-eye when I spoke into the small but loud classroom microphone, startling everyone from their laptops, then scolded her classmates: “Arlene is trying to say something!”
They listened to her. So did I.
I worry about her—as I worry about all of my students—in this time of xenophobia, particularly against Muslims. Her generation, as are many of us, is plugged into headlines and news about hatred, insults, and attacks which have exploded since the presidential election. This was all in the news in an abstract way until it happened to one of us.
Before our lesson began one Saturday morning just before the end of 2016, Malika told us her story.
She was on foot in Times Square, the mecca of tourists, souvenirs, restaurant chains, and theaters where it’s impossible to find an empty space on the sidewalk. You’ll see jeans and sneakers, yarmulkes and tzizis, turbans and tank tops, saris and sashes, evening gowns and tuxedos, business suits and ties, with some there for the hell of it, some wanting to get the hell home. Somehow everyone fits in.
But two people did not think that Malika, noticeable in the hijab that frames her sharp eyes and strong chin, did. As she and a friend walked along Eighth Avenue, a white British couple—a man and a woman—stepped in front of them and blocked them from passing. The woman shouted angrily at these two teenagers, ”Go back to where you came from!” Malika repeated their words in a surprisingly accurate British accent and we all chuckled. But it wasn’t funny.
Words were exchanged and the couple became louder, Malika more defiant. She didn’t walk away but stood there on the sidewalk, ready to defend herself against whatever added insult might come next. And as she told her story, you could hear by the anger in her voice that if the couple were to walk into the classroom right now, she wouldn’t back down. And I would have been standing with her, defending her right to be here. This could be any one of us.
Back in Times Square, several Mexican workers unloading boxes from a nearby truck had overheard the commotion and stepped in to defend Malika and her friend. The British couple might have been talking to them, too.
An African-American man stepped in, told off the British couple with a retaliatory “Go back to where you came from,” and broke up the confrontation. The Brits continued on their way, as did Malika and her friend. But Malika has not forgotten the encounter.
It is Malika and her generation who are ready to step up make a difference and to make their voices heard. Some have already marched from Union Square to 57th Street and I’m sure they will be marching again. They missed out on voting in the last election because they are not yet old enough to vote. But they are ready for the next election and elections to come.
“The election woke me up,” said one student, another young Muslim woman who writes fiercely about growing up in the South Bronx with relatives who have bleached their African skin to make it lighter, something she vows she will never do.
Malika and her fellow students are ready to fight for who they are, ready to fight for the type of country they want America to be. They are ‘woke,’ as they say, and they are not afraid.