As a kid growing up, I always tried to fit into one group of kids or another. Growing up, I think most of us did. No one ever want’s to be the “odd one out.”
“What’s a Nerd?”
Wax on, right hand. Wax off, left hand. Wax on, wax off. Breathe in through nose, out the mouth. Wax on, wax off. Don’t forget to breathe, very important.
– Mr. Miyagi (The Karate Kid)
When I was in third grade, one of the issues I had to deal with was bullies. I’d come home complain to my dad while crying, “Kids beat me up and called me a nerd. You need to complain to the principle!”
My dad, instead of talking to the school administrators, he enrolled me into the local martial arts school: Master Bai Taekwondo.
As a kid I was never really into sports, but martial arts was so much fun. It wasn’t long until people stopped bullying me. But, after a couple years my family moved again to another town.
Middle school was a time for me where I realized I’d be with my peers for a little bit longer than I had grown accustomed to.
Hackensack, NJ was predominantly urban and I felt the pressures to fit into the social norms. Because I was in a different school almost every year before this point, I was in a way a bit sheltered when compared to other children.
I didn’t even know the basic curse words until the sixth grade. I got teased a lot for that. One time someone called me gay. I looked it up in the dictionary and it was defined as someone who is “merry” or “cheerful.”
So, I was like, “What’s wrong with being happy?”
The teasing intensified. For the most part, I’d ignore it. However, when teasing became physical, I had reached my limit.
Incredible #$%@-ing Hulk
The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It is a very mean and nasty place It will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it.
You, me or nobody is going to hit as hard as life.
But it ain’t about how hard you hit, it is about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much can you take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!
– Rocky Balboa (Rocky Balboa)
One time during lunch recess we were playing wall-ball. If you don’t know what that is, it’s a game where players have several squash and tennis balls. One ball is used to hit against the wall and kids who are playing attempt to catch it. If for any reason they miss, other players with an extra ball peg you until you tag the wall or leave the game.
One game when attempting to catch the ball I was pushed against the fence by four other students. Immediately I was continuously pelted by squash and tennis balls all over my body. I remember feeling sharp pains all over.
With tears flowing from my eyes, all I could hear was, “Bottom line nigga!” “Suck it!” “Hit the Hindu,” over and over again. Apparently, according to these playground kids anyone of Indian origin was Hindu, regardless of faith they held.
In hindsight, maybe these guys really wanted me out of the game.
However, at that point I couldn’t think. Filled with pain and anger, my eyes locked onto one of the guys. I remember yelling, “I’ll send you below the bottom line. I’ll send you to Hell!”
All the guys let me go and the guy who I locked onto ran out of the school yard. I hadn’t realized that everyone stopped playing the game. I thought it was still going on and so I grabbed the blue squash ball tagged the wall and continued the game. I remember one of the guys saying, “Damn. Nigga’s got guts.”
No one tried hitting me again for the rest of the game. Later, one of my classmates, who was among those who pushed me against the fence told me, “You were like the Incredible #$%@-ing Hulk! You knocked the wind out of one of the guys and made another bleed from the mouth. I saw your teeth, they were like of a tiger. $#*!, I wasn’t gonna get in your way so I let you go. The other guy ran out. That was #$%@-ing awesome!”
It wasn’t long before I adopted some of the thuggish outlooks and attitudes and started to blend in with the rest. As destiny would have it, my family would move again, but for the last time because dad bought a house in Paramus, NJ.
Bored and Having Fun at School
What do you want for yourself?
– Katsumoto (The Last Samurai)
This new town was very different from Hackensack. Out of the entire student body, there were only two black kids. And, all the “urban” kids were actually Arabs who moved in from Jersey City. The smart folks were all Koreans.
It took me about a year to learn, having the “hardcore” thuggish attitude didn’t help. At first impression, people thought it was cool, but then they soon got annoyed. I also noticed no one teased me for being Indian. No one cared, and never made any remarks about it.
When I first enrolled into the Paramus public school system, I was put in all the “dumb” classes. I was a smart kid. I was doing Algebra in sixth grade and Geometry in seventh. In Paramus, they put me in pre-Algebra.
When I asked why, they administrators told me, “Hackensack is not as good a school system and their academic standards don’t match ours.”
You can imagine how bored I was in my classes. I complained to my teacher, and he told me that I’d have to take a placement test. At the time I saw it as a decision between being bored and not having to work, or test out and have a lot of homework. I chose to be bored and have fun at school.
First two years of high school were a breeze. I played football, so that was immediate notoriety as a cool kid. We were a division one school, but were second from the bottom. Freshman year, we won only one game.
I decided not to take any honors classes or test out of basic math classes. At the time I thought, “It’s not like I won’t get into college.”
Growing up as a son of an IT professional, I had the advantage of knowing how computers and networks worked. I was the guy with websites that made some cash with advertising while most didn’t have access to the internet at home.
I also became known as the go-to guy for all things digital. Whether it was music, movies, or videos games, I knew where and how to get them.
In some classes I’d fooled around with my school’s network computers so we wouldn’t have to do much work. My peers loved me for that and teachers would never find out it was me because I’d always get my work done and cover my tracks.
Junior year was the year I began to sort of discover myself. I found myself actually reading books again. I ended up reading the entire “Lord of the Rings” saga, plus “The Hobbit,” “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” Michael Chriton’s “Timeline,” and a bunch of plays by Shakespeare, all for fun because the teacher told us we can read whatever we wanted.
This actually got me back into wanting to participate in academics more. I had even enrolled in several honors and AP classes. I felt like life was good.
Then, 9/11 happened.
Having Courage Means Moving Forward Despite the Fear
I felt like all eyes were on me. Again I felt like I didn’t fit in. It wasn’t because I was a nerd, an Indian, a thug, or a tech savvy geek, but because I was Muslim.
I had neglected my religious education for the past six years or so, and then all of a sudden people were bombarding me with questions.
I saw I had either two choices. Either try to hide the obvious fact or I embrace it fully. I had been attending the youth group at the local mosque and someone told me that courage isn’t the absence of fear.
It’s the will to move forward despite fear.
For the remaining two years of high school I found myself teaching and conversing more than actually learning in my classes.
Embracing my identity to me meant I had to make an effort to drop those elements that didn’t represent Islam. I decided to drop whatever remaining inkling of thuggish culture I still carried and actually apply myself and become more focused. I decided I’d major in Economics and bump up my training to finally get my Black Belt in Karate.
In the process I picked up a new hobby. In addition to playing around with graphic design and websites, I made two short films for my English class senior year.
This led me to develop an interest for video and film-making, which continues to this day.
To Be Outstanding, Your Must Stand Out
If my experience has taught me anything, it’s that trying to fit in is not worth the time and energy. The world around us shifts too fast to conform to what we feel others want us to be.
Instead, be bold. Standing out. Understand your strengths, see how that is an asset to your community, and exercise it.
Be flexible to adapt to your changing circumstances, but hold firmly to the core of who you are.
Improving upon the words of writer and poet Oscar Wilde: Be THE GREATEST, STRONGEST, ENDURING, MOST JUST, ENERGETIC version of yourself. Everyone else is taken.