A decade and three years ago, on a street corner I pass daily en route to school, stood a flush-faced pig-tailed girl, with her mouth wide open, holding a tambourine far too big for her hands . She was mid chant. I know this because I was that girl, and because my mom shows that moment captured by a disposable Family Dollar camera to anyone (and everyone) she can. It was crowded, where dozens of people brought together by a common goal shouted in different languages and dialects. In moments like this, claustrophobia is ignored, overridden by the urgency of our shared struggles.
I don’t remember much from that day besides short flashbacks...little memories pieced together to create my first exposure to organizing. My older brother pulled me closer to his side, and away from a journalist’s onslaught of questions. My grandfather, or Gado as I refer to him, held up a sign, shouting in his perfectly broken English, words I’m still not sure he understood. As day transcends to night, and the news stations’ busses finally drive away, we continued to hold our ground. By this time, I had lost my voice from the hours-long chanting, and listening to my sister’s scratchy voice beside me asking my mom what time we were going home. I knew I wasn’t the only one. Then, I had thought we were participating in some sort of parade. I didn’t know the severity of my reality. What I did know was to keep shaking my tambourine, and to keep shouting “Save my school!” until my throat was raw. I did it smiling all the time.
A couple hours ago, a few blocks away from the scratched-up faux leather couch I’m sitting on now, I passed by the same corner where that flushed-face little girl stood. I didn't know then how that one protest would change the course of my life. I was four years old at that time, and fortunately those hours spent out in the brisk October air weren’t in vain; Oliver Wendell (O.W.) Holmes Elementary School, stayed open. Regardless of this blessing, there was a constant tension. Though my family stayed hopeful, we knew that we couldn’t stop the inevitable.
Three years later, my mom made the decision to pull my siblings and me out of O.W. Holmes. I had thought it was the end of the world. Nothing could've been worse than moving away from the bonds that had taken me years to build, and going through the grueling struggle of being the “new girl.” O.W. Holmes was good for me, and I tried persuading my mother of this. The teachers all liked me, I had straight A’s, and I was even awarded “Student of the Month” twice in a row! I thought that this was an unbeatable argument--unfortunately I was wrong. My mom sighed and gave me a look that told me there was nothing I could say that would change her mind. When that didn’t work, I did the only thing I could think of; I went on strike, refusing to eat, talk, or even look at my mom. Although my actions were childish and encouraged by my own immaturity, they were also fueled by my fear of having to start over. Or losing the protesting skills I had learned from her.
Behind the immaturity was a little girl, terrified of having to explain to people that she didn’t have a dad, worried about her classmates noticing her slight Yemeni accent she picked up from living in a Middle Eastern household, or bullying her for her lisp.
The staff and students at O.W. Holmes understood and welcomed my struggles. They were good for me, I told my mom.
But no matter the argument, her mind was made. She reassured me that I’d be fine, and that moving was necessary. O.W. Holmes was destined to shut down, and my mom didn’t want my siblings and me to be a part of that collateral damage.
In the 3rd grade, I was enrolled in Universal Academy, the K-12 for profit charter school I currently attend. Unlike O.W. Holmes, my identity was the majority at UA; almost everyone, with the exclusion of four students, in my 3rd grade class was Yemeni. I was surrounded by people who looked like me, and who shared similar Yemeni-in-America experiences as I did. No one questioned my mother’s single status, and would only poke small fun at my lisp. I quickly developed new bonds, ones that remain strong to this day. I also became more in tune with my culture and religion, even deciding to wear the hijab at the start of 4th grade.
However, I wasn’t naive. My new friends and love for my culture couldn’t hide the fact that they were, and still are, incredible issues at Universal. The first issue was obvious; the lack of space and resources Universal provided to its students. I spent all of elementary and the first year of middle school eating lunch while another class played basketball just a couple of feet away from where my friends and I sat, with a folded lunch table separating us. Our only musical instruments were $5 plastic recorders, and our art supplies were just as limited. During the start of my second year of middle school, Universal moved to a new building, a bigger one, and ensured that this would fix most of our major problems. Now I eat lunch with my friends while a class plays basketball a couple of feet away, but this time we’re separated by a curtain.
I quickly became frustrated with my school’s resources (or lack thereof). My school limited me and what I could accomplish. As I grew older, I turned my frustration with my school into determination and channeled it into activism. I joined nonprofit organizations like 482Forward & ACCESS (Arab Community Center for Economic & Social Services) and quickly rose to leadership positions, fighting for equitable school systems while learning how to use my platform and experiences to become an advocate for the marginalized, ignored, and underrepresented. I spend my weekends at conferences, and school breaks lobbying to close the $3 billion dollar education deficit in Michigan’s capitol. Though being stuffed in a room for sometimes more than five hours at a time is exhausting, and all the pizza I consumed at meetings over the years isn’t exactly healthy, my experience with education organizing is unparalleled and the cause of much of my own personal development. I attended my first protest at the age of four, and now organize and speak at marches, protests, and panels at seventeen.
O.W. Holmes shut down before the end of my elementary years. Dozens of new students enrolled in Universal Academy and with them brought friendships new and old. Its building was demolished before the end of middle school. My friends and I don’t have much left with us from our O.W. days but the nostalgic vignettes of our childhood and a USB port filled with old embarrassing photos captured by disposable Family Dollar cameras. Memories are quickly prompted with “remember when,” and discreet laughter in the back of our current English class.
On my way home today, I crossed the street corner between Lonyo & Ogden, hand in hand with my little brother, wearing a black hijab to replace my signature pigtails from more than a decade ago. It’s become a daily routine, one I do almost unconsciously. Sometimes, when I take my time, I swear my throat still hurts from the chants.
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