I am Muslim, but I was a Catholic school student for seventeen years of my life. From my first day of kindergarten to my last day of college, I have attended schools rooted in the tradition of Catholicism. When my older sister started elementary school, we only had one car my dad drove to work, so driving to nearby Islamic schools was out of the question. My parents decided to try a Catholic school a few blocks from my house, instead of sending us to a CPS school a little further away.
When I tell people I about my Catholic education, they often expect to hear horror stories about my experiences, but the schools I attended were actually pretty open-minded, at least compared to what most people might expect.
Not only were my teachers okay with making accommodations for my siblings and me, but many of them were actually thrilled to have us as students. They loved giving me opportunities to talk about Islam during religion or history classes. When it was my turn to lead the class in prayer, my teachers let me read a few Quran verses in the English translation instead. My mother was invited to my class to give presentations about Islam. I passed out sweets to my classmates for Eid. In turn, I learned about Catholicism and almost always got A’s on religion tests. There were times when other students were scolded for not doing as well as me, the Muslim, on an exam about their own religion.
I know what you’re thinking: it seems like a picture-perfect interfaith experience, exactly what a multi-religious society is supposed to look like.
But things were a little more complicated than they appeared.
Being one of the only Muslims in my school meant hearing a teacher tell my parents that she would probably have a very different opinion of Muslims if they hadn’t met my family. This meant realizing that the way millions of people would be viewed was dependent on my own actions
It also meant that I, one of the shyest students in the class, had to always be prepared to be put on the spot. My classmates could fail their religion tests, but most people expected me to always have the right answers about Islam. I expected that from myself too.
There was one time, maybe in second grade, when I was doing a little show and tell with a misbaha (Muslim prayer beads) I brought from home. I was supposed to answer any questions my classmates asked. A girl asked me what the bunch of strings at the end of the misbaha were supposed to mean. She completely caught me off guard – I had no idea what those strings meant.
I had to think fast, and come up with a plan. So, I moved my lips and pretended I was saying something, then I walked away. If my plan worked like I hoped it would, she would think I gave her an answer that she couldn’t hear. It was kind of a brilliant plan. I was always the quiet kid who had to be told to speak up because no one could hear me. I used that to my advantage. It just didn’t occur to me that it was okay for me to say “I don’t know.”
Things were just as complicated when I started high school. I had recently started wearing hijab, so that meant answering a lot of questions about how I dressed. We learned about the Taliban in a global studies class, and I was given the opportunity to talk to the class about why the do not represent Islam.
I appreciated that my teachers were so caring that they wanted to make sure that their students didn’t look at me and other Muslims negatively, but I really wished I didn’t have to stand in front of the class and talk about the Taliban. Not because the teacher pressured me: she told me it was completely up to me if I wanted to say anything, but I had to speak up because I would have felt like I was letting all Muslims if I didn’t.
By the way, not only was I one of the only Muslims in my high school (I was the only one after my sister graduated), I was also one of the few Arabs. So, that meant I was also asked a lot of questions about the Middle East. I did always have had a lot of opinions about the Middle East, particularly about U.S. involvement in the region.
I am Palestinian after all.
Unfortunately, I was equally opinionated and shy.
This unlucky combination led me to be regularly disappointed in myself. I was constantly beating myself for not speaking up enough: for not saying the right thing when the topic of Palestine, Islam, or something else that was important to me came up.
There was a program at my school where participants chose a topic to research culminating in a senior year project and presentation. The topic I chose was media bias regarding the Palestine-Israel conflict. I always wrote about something related to Palestine or Islam when I got the chance. It was kind of my way of making up for failing to speak up so many other times.
The program wasn’t too stressful at first. The first three years mostly involved independent research. I could work independently without a problem, and the presentation seemed too far away to stress about.
Then, one day the presentation finally came. I began to regret my choice of topic. Why did I always have to make things so difficult for myself? Why didn’t I just pick a safe topic like recycling or eating healthy? I felt like I was going to throw up. When I began my speech, I was terrified, but I got through it.
I only had one more speech to go before high school was over: my valedictorian speech for graduation. I hoped my research project wouldn’t be included in my introduction. It was one thing to speak on a controversial topic in front of my mostly open-minded classmates, but their families were a different story.
The person who introduced me did mention that I completed a research project about bias in the American media regarding Palestine and Israel. A murmur went through the crowd when that was announced. I don’t know if it was in my imagination, but I felt like the whole energy of the room changed at that point. All I wanted was to leave the room, but I walked up to the stage and began speaking.
I had a much easier time in college, partially because my university had a pretty large Muslim population. More importantly though, I put a lot less pressure on myself.
I realized I didn’t have to be the perfect Muslim spokesperson who always had all the right answers.
It was okay not to always say the perfect thing at the perfect time. It was okay to be my introverted quiet self. That was all okay because in the end I knew that when I need to speak up I will. I might be nervous, and I might not do a perfect job, but I would get through it, like I always have.