So, this post is not a critical appraisal of the education system. We’ve done that. It is a critical appraisal of myself. We’ve also done that. Many times. Seriously, it’s a problem. But we have the added twist this time of self-criticism leading to praising someone else. So rather than ending one of my blog posts feeling emotionally exhausted (as is the norm), you’re going to feel somewhat uplifted. We’ve got a happy ending here folks! It’s a gift. Let’s talk.
We begin at the beginning.
I was born on the 29th of September, 1991. 3 years, 9 months and 14 hours earlier my mother had been in the exact same place having her first child, my older brother. He’s been mentioned before. But at the time of my birth, he was running down a squeaky clean hospital hallway screaming,
“Where’s my Sooophiaaaaaa??!!”
I think my parents had planned to call me… Zuleikha or something like that. So where had this 3 year, 9 month, 14 hour old child picked “Sophia” up? We don’t know. There are family conspiracy theories and we love to discuss them with any relatives who aren’t completely sick of hearing about it. Because it became my legal given name within a week of my brother screaming it down that hallway.
I promise you my parents are not super chill hippies. My brother is just relentless.
Now, how does this relate to tigers and school work? It doesn’t. I went too far back in the story. Let’s fast forward.
10 years later…
Little Sophia, also called Fia by her husband, who she’ll meet in about 14 years, walks into school not knowing that her tiny mind would be blown that day. By an assignment. An “essay”. She had heard of these in the American Films. From the television. She had also heard of book reports and, to this day, has never been asked to complete one. But this was an “essay”!
(So this might not make much sense if you don’t know that I grew up in the UAE – a rote learning/kinda Americanised/kinda British mishmash educational culture. Mostly private schools. Opportunities for student-led projects in classes depended on the teacher. Mine decided to be fun.)
This essay could be about anything but it needed a cover page, a table of contents, headings and content. Oh, and pictures. Fia was less happy about this latter requirement. She wanted dry, hard text and then a big A+ with a circle around it written in thick red marker. Like on the television. Pictures were for babies.
As the rest of the class began chatting and tittering and giggling amongst themselves about what topic they might choose, Little Fia stood up, slid her glasses up her greasy little nose and walked over to the teacher’s desk. It was time for his mind to be blown. Heart beating, mouth dry, she spoke,
“MY ESSAY WILL BE ABOUT TIGERS!!!
Then some other things happened. You know, normally my memory is a steel trap. I remember stuff from my childhood before living in the UAE, and I was 3 when my family moved. I remember snowfall in the UK. I remember we had digestive biscuits and orange juice at nursery for snack time. I would dunk the biscuit in the orange juice because Toddler Fia was gangsta.
But I do not remember, no matter how hard I try, what happened after my Tiger Announcement. I mean, I remember saying this,
“SIR, IT’S MY FAVOURITE ANIMAL THAT’S WHY!!”
But the next memory in the slideshow of my life is the pants-wetting panic one day before the essay was due. Because I had not even started it.
Supportive Sibling Time
So after an hour of rocking back and forth at the foot of my bed in the foetal position, I stood up and came to a conclusion. This is life Little Fia. This is what happens. We can deal with this. I swaggered out of my room and crashed into my brother as he entered.
“Mum said you have some homework to finish?”
“Yup. There’s an essay I neeeed to write but I haven’t done it but I’m not gonna do it and I’m going to fail. Let’s go play games!”
I wish I could draw the expression his face made. Picture concern, disgust, annoyance and disbelief whipped together with “I can fix her broken brain” vibes and “Why do I have to fix her all the time?” vibes. Just a solid dose of older sibling energy.
I had resigned myself to failure once I realised I had put something off that was challenging and I couldn’t do it to my standard in the time left. Rather than hand in something mediocre and risk my reputation (Little Fia had nerd clout), my broken child mind thought it would be better to hand nothing in and simply fail the assignment entirely. It wasn’t for me. I wasn’t for it.
My brother worked had to fix this. But he didn’t do it by sitting me down and talking me out of my feelings like my mum or dad might’ve. It was 7pm. We were children. Bedtime was at 10pm. There wasn’t much time.
“What do you need to do?” … “What topic did you choose?” … “Do you need pictures?”
I was commanded to log on to the interwebs to find my content. My brother set about mobilising my confused parents who had never seen either of their children struggle academically. Ammi made snacks and Abu allowed my brother entry into his home office so he could gather supplies. A blue folder, a hold punch, some lined paper, a glue stick, a ballpoint pen.
I booted up our ancient, yellowy-white home computer and began my research on the internet of the year 2000. My chosen website was a mishmash of Comic Sans, over zealous formatting and clashing colours. It was an animal info site I frequented ‘cos Little Fia was cool, and I began reading about tiger gestation periods. I asked my brother what gestation meant and learned things. My task was to focus on researching and writing. I figured out my headings: Introduction, Shelter, Food, Babies? And got my little pencil out. Admittedly, Little Fia had a moment where she thought she had invented the concept of plagiarism and seriously considered just printing the page out and handing that in. But something felt wrong about that and she wasn’t sure her brother would let her. She printed the pages, but only for the photos.
The photos came out green. Little Fia spiralled.
“We neeeeeed the photos teacher said we neeeded the photos we NEED THEM icantdothisicaaant!!!”
My brother allowed me to slump and sob as he and my Abu started fixing the printer. They managed to get it to print photos in a medley of green, blue and yellow. Much better than before. Definitely good enough for a grade 5 “essay”. But when I saw them I thrashed. Abu took one look at me and slowly backed away from the madness and my brother came over and fixed my broken brain.
“This is good enough. It won’t be better. We need to finish your essay. It’ll be fine. Have you written anything yet?”
I had. I proudly presented my scribbles. The headings were all there. I had done perfect double-spaced lines and triple-spacing between paragraphs. It was a neat childlike scrawl. But it was almost like I had discovered the justify function in real life. Beautiful little boxes of text.
“There’s no room for the pictures. Also you can’t just copy everything from the website.”
I returned to my spiralling. It was close to midnight. I was so cranky.
My brother handed me more lined paper. And taught me the concept of paraphrasing. He also gave me a ballpoint pen.
“A…a pen? N-not pencil?”
He nodded sagely. He might’ve said “It is time” but I could be misremembering.
We stuck the pictures on first. I had saved my favourite one for the front page. It was so cool. There was one tiger on top of another tiger’s back. It was biting the other tiger’s ear. My brother tried to explain that I couldn’t put two tigers mating as my cover picture and then had to explain to me what mating means. He linked it back to the gestation stuff so it made sense.
The pictures were on. I then re-wrote my essay around them in pencil. Then carefully traced my writing in pen. It looked so good you guys. I erased the pencil and started putting it all in the folder. I numbered the pages. I printed a fancy cover page with an appropriate tiger picture. I wrote my name on it.
<some appropriate tiger picture>
By Sophia Ulhaq
It was perfect. My perfect baby. I was so pleased.
So far my brother had found all the materials, fixed a printer, taught online research to a ten year old, explained plagiarism to a ten year old, taught paraphrasing to a ten year old, dealt with two meltdowns, cut up pictures and lost his entire evening. Plus all the uncomfortable mating and gestation talk.
But he still looked at me and said,
“Great! You did it! I’m going to bed.”
As if he hadn’t done a thing. As if he had just waited for me to finish so he could go to sleep.
I don’t even know if, in the depths of my delirium, I ever even thanked him.
Remember that episode of Bob’s Burgers where Bob needs to go undercover and infiltrate those Brony parodies to get Tina’s stolen horse doll back and then in the end Tina is packing it away instead of playing with it and he gets really frustrated due to his personal level of investment in the whole thing?
This is the energy with which my brother approached me 2 weeks later when I got my essay back. The energy of Tiger moms, immigrant parents and strict teachers all rolled into one savage question:
“Did you get full marks?”
I can’t draw the expression. Imagine big eyes, twitching eyebrows, a looming frame… There were “I love you” vibes and “Bitch, there’s a right answer to this question” vibes.
“N-no… I got 29/30.”
“We forgot the Table of Contents page.”
“I forgot the Table of Contents page.”
“Yes, you did.”
It’s fine now. We’re cool now. It was fun. I learned about tiger gestation periods.
The important thing to take away from this story is that I was a clever student who struggled. I’m a bit better at the grind now but back then I relied on my instincts and steel trap memory. My parents never really saw me struggle academically because there was a filter. The Habib Filter. My brother got me interested in reading from a young age, he got me critiquing, imagining, creating and believing in myself. He was the lifeline to the world outside my self-limiting beliefs. And all children need someone like that in their lives, even the clever ones. We all lose faith, we all struggle with the new. We need a person.
My brother is that person to so many kids now. He’s a high school teacher.
But I was the first kid he taught.
Habib, I love you.
Thank you for helping me with my Tiger Essay.
If you’re more an email person, join my mailing list. I post weekly-ish. I promise I won’t spam you.
Or read some recent posts that I am quite proud of:
- Do you ignore your tea until it gets cold?3 min quickie about when your tea goes cold. Heavy journalistic stuff. Proceed with caution.
- I took a week off work, but it didn’t change my life.5 min read about expecting too much from yourself because #alwaysbehustlin’
- My Sunday evening: doomscrolling, taking offense and yogaQuickie 2 min read about that dread you feel every Sunday evening.
- Was Valentine’s Day even relevant in the pandemic?Defending Valentine’s Day for 7 minutes straight. 7 mins of reading I mean.
- What school assignment still haunts you? Mine is the Tiger EssayGorgeous 10 min read about a formative childhood experience. With #siblinggoals