Note from Hamilton Post editor Rob Anthes: Every year, the Hamilton Post asks the seniors with the 10 highest grade-point averages at each of the public high schools to fill out a questionnaire. Among the questions is one that usually generates a handful of amusing anecdotes: “What is your favorite memory from your K-12 schooling?” Every year, for 10 years, I have collected 30 questionnaires from Hamilton Township seniors and, for the last nine years, another 10 from seniors at Robbinsville High School. That’s 390 students, 390 forms, 390 favorite memories.
We never have received one quite like what 2017 Nottingham High School salutatorian Ans Nawaz has penned. His original response, featured below, is far too long to run in the Top 10 Seniors format. But his perspective is far too important to discard. I hope you take time to consider what Nawaz has to say, and join me in congratulating him and all of Hamilton’s graduates on a job well done. Read on:
“Don’t forget to bring sneakers on Monday!” exclaimed my gym teachers as the sun steadily toasted the blacktop beneath me, emitting full wavelengths of light and arousing a charcoal aroma. I sat there “crisscrossed applesauced” in my checkerboard-printed shorts and tight tank top, scrutinized by the sun. I attempted to process the crucial words of the gym instructors, yet I could not comprehend.
The gym class assignment continued to puzzle me in the next class, as Ms. Harbaugh instructed us to present our writing. After some anxious pondering, I placed my final period, reluctantly raised my hand, and began to share what I had printed with self-conscious neatness. My quivering vocal cords were quickly subdued by the laughter that had arisen. Snickering, the girl next to me, Faith, made wary that I had mispronounced the teacher’s name. “Her name is Harbaugh, not Hardball!” Faith shrieked with a blissful carelessness and confidence. Faith was like that: often there to guide me, at times with piercing critiques that stripped my confidence.
When I told my mom what I had to bring for Monday, I noticed the rise of a thin, arched eyebrow. My mother did not outwardly question the assignment because the demands of immigration bureaucracy had instilled in her a resigned acquiescence toward requests.
As my family scavenged BJ’s for our usual groceries and the obligatory sneakers, I could not decide between the “king-size” sneakers and “bite-size” sneakers. My father insisted the 48-pack of sneakers would be best because I would have extra; my mother, however, with an eyebrow still in incertitude, insisted 24 were more than enough.
I still lucidly remember handing the hefty 48-pack of “king-size” Snickers to the dumbfounded gym teachers. Their reactions were quite similar to my mother’s: their thick, dark gray eyebrows, too, arched as they let out a snicker. I felt utterly foolish in how easily I had allowed myself to be misled by the vagaries of my developing mastery of English.
Language is a fickle medium of expression, after all. As Orwell suggests, it can be used to manipulate the masses; it is easily confused, misconstrued, and abused. Most significantly, it separates people along lingual lines. Joining my father in a tightly packed apartment that he shared with another immigrant from Pakistan, I was presented with the innumerable obstacles of exclusion extant in the land of monolingual opportunity.
Such a language-based barrier is not exclusive to non-native English speakers; instead, it is too often present in bureaucracies to drive people away from opportunities. I was a fortunate exception as I recognized the silent challenge of a bureaucracy that had not spoken to me. I dug deep into a place hidden from natives. I learned to consume media, to ask for clarification—once, twice, thrice—and to strum my chords even when they were not tuned. I learned to filter my hearing, to let the innumerable lingual slip-ups pass through. I embraced the misstep of my fourth-grade self and owned the spirit of the fallibility (and humor) of communication. And although occasional hiccups still occur, they are merely a reminder of the fickleness of language.
The complex terrain of the English language has shaped my identity to be that of an asymptote: English is the asymptote I will always have difficulty touching because there is this lingering terrified thought that reminds me, “I am not native and I will always know less than the native.” Even when English is the secretary of speech, the ambassador of dream, and the tyrant of my intellect, it is nonetheless subconsciously obsessed with a fear of oblivion. Along with an insatiable appetite that a Snickers can never gratify, a hunger that only the tyrant can conquer, it is in part this fear that rushes through my veins, energizing my curiosity to explore a future that is limitless.