Monday, September 3, 2012

Why Telling Others "Be Yourself" Never Works

Not a lot of people really know where I've come from.

I was born and raised in Philadelphia, PA. I had an amazing time as a kid. For most of my years living in Philly, I lived right across the street from my best friends and cousins. We would always want to be over each other's houses. Always wanted to ride bikes with each other even when our parents wouldn't let us.

In the back, Amara is wearing a blue shirt, next to her is Arslan. In the front row from left to right is me, Faisal , Amina, and Aisha. All the way on the left holding some kind of toy is Ahsan. 
We as cousins were "evenly distributed", six of us including me and excluding Ahsan and Khadijah who were born when we were a bit older. And we were teamed up in pairs: my sister Amara was always with Arslan (they were the oldest), my sister Amina was always with Aisha (they were the middle kids), and I was always with Faisal (we were the youngest). Amara and Arslan were sort of the leaders, they would be revered as the wise ones. Amina and Aisha were the quiet, sneaky, tattle-tales. They would always be the first ones to tell the parents if we did something we shouldn't have done. And Faisal and I were the quietest. We kind of just did our own thing.

We would each be teamed up and would have bike races, and Arslan and Amara would dare us to do the craziest things that seem so childish now. I remember once they dared me and Faisal to ride our bikes all the way out of our neighborhood to the main street, alone. A place that our parents forbade us to go. And we went - we were terrified of all the noise and the honking of the cars and we thought we were going to get run over. Of course, we got caught, and we ALL got in trouble.

Those were great days. The days nobody was worrying about who they were, what they stood for. "Fitting in" at that time meant following through on childish dares like throwing a rock into the neighborhood pool.

Stephen Decatur School - my elementary school in Philly.
I went to a public school called Stephen Decatur Elementary. All my cousins went as well, but none of us had classes together because we were all different ages. Our parents would walk us to school, we didn't take the bus. The school was about a mile away. We would get dismissed on the roof of the building, our moms would pick us up and walk us home.

Elementary school was tough. I was in first grade on September 11th, 2001. It wasn't until about a week later that I began to realize things were a bit different. Normally, only my mom or my aunt would walk us to school, but our Dad's began to drive us and pick us up from school in cars. It wasn't only us because we were Muslims, but every kid's parents began to take extra measures to make sure their kids reached school safely. Immediately after the tragic attacks, news agencies began to reveal who was responsible. Who the terrorists were. What they stood for. Why they did what they did.

And I probably still didn't realize it just then, but I did soon enough. In first grade, it wasn't that bad - people just stopped talking to me. I moved from my normal lunch table and sat with another Muslim kid who then became my best friend, and only real friend, Tarek. Other kids would stare, and we would stare at other kids. Wondering what happened.

As I grew up and moved on to middle school at a charter school in Philly, things became much clearer. I was a pretty quiet shy guy, which shocks people who know me today - but its true. Even though I was quiet and made honor roll, I always unexpectedly found myself in trouble. People began to say stuff and call me a "terrorist". I even began to joke myself, saying stuff like "Yeah, Osama is my uncle."

And the jokes at the time were actually funny. It was fun to feel accepted. And once I was accepted, it was great. Everything was fine. I didn't really need to joke anymore. I developed who I thought I was, became friends with people who I'm still friends with today. Those days of trying to fit in were gone, because I had become someone who people liked. The jokes were in the past.

Then, it was time to leave Philly and move to the suburbs. It was in the middle of 7th grade that I started back at a public school at South Brandywine Middle School. I fit in well at South actually. The first year was tough only because of the transition from charter to public, but the second year (and my last year until high school) was amazing.

It was the start of high school, back at a charter school, that I really began to figure out who I was and how to be myself. At this point, living in the suburbs was becoming normal. I missed my cousins like crazy, but I began to become more independent, and okay with it.

Until it came back. I thought it was all over, I thought it was all past me, but they came back. The Osama jokes, the terrorist jokes, the camel jokes. It was tough to accept that after all these years, the jokes would come back in high school.

But this time, I was done laughing.

I knew I was living two different lives. I was a completely different person at home and around my cousins than I was at school. I wasn't being myself.

It took a lot of guts to stand in front of the classroom that day, a new kid, only about two or three months at a completely new school with complete strangers and proclaim, "Islam is a victim of bullying".

And not only was I speaking to those who had bullied me throughout my past, but I was speaking to myself. It was really me who had bullied myself and my religion. I always had the opportunity to stop. To not continue the jokes. To not try to fit in. To just have the guts to be myself.

It took me almost nine years to feel the pain. The pain of wasting nine years and not having the courage to be myself. How did I go from the kid who was able to enjoy being himself, playing with his cousins, having the best time as a kid - to becoming someone who I wasn't supposed to be, some loser who said and did stuff just to fit in?

I needed to change. I needed to become myself. And I stood behind the podium in front of the entire student body at the end of my first year of high school, running for the position of Student Body President, and I asked: "Who is Aadil Malik?"

I answered. I am Aadil Malik. And I won the elections.

It wasn't as simple as "being bullied" that kept me back. To be completely honest, I wasn't bullied, my religion was. I bullied my religion and therefore, myself.

Today, I stand firm as someone I would have never imagined I could become. There were those people who told me continuously to not be afraid to be myself. Even my Dad would tell me to be myself, but I never listened.

Because it never would have worked that way.

It is easy to tell somebody to do something. "Be humble. Be confident. Believe in yourself. Be yourself."

Don't get me wrong, positive messages like these are necessary. But we each have emerged too far and gone through too much with our own selves to take this advice from anyone else BUT ourselves.

You can have the deepest conversation with the most important person in your life and have them give you the advice of being yourself - but at the end of the day, its up to you to decide whether you are willing to convert that inspiration into action.

Throughout my 17 years of existence, I have met many people, been through so many unique experiences of my own, and gone through so many personality changes to stand where I am and not be afraid to be myself. I wish I could have learned earlier. I wish I had the courage to stand up for myself and forge my path starting from the first time someone called me a "terrorist" or told me who to be or what to do.

But it was never too late. And I'm not wasting my time regretting that many years have passed. Instead, I remind myself how fortunate I am to be able to look towards the future and know I have the guts to be myself.

People will always tell each other what to BE, even if they are reminding each other that its okay to be themselves.


But truly, it will never work that way. You have to tell yourself.
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