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Growing Up American

posted Jun 5, 2012, 7:23 AM by Interfaith WS

This is the third installment in our look at “Acts of Faith,” a book written by Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core.  The book is available online at . 


Chapter 2 -- Acts of Faith:  Growing Up American


Patel was born in India but came to the United States when his father decided to seek an MBA at the University of Notre Dame.  The family brought their Islamic rituals with them.  However, as both of his parents began to work, rituals were “elbowed aside by another faith, a force both glittering and suffocating: American achievement.”


“This was fine by me,” he said.  “My energy was focused on trying to fit in as a brown kid in a white world.  I would strategize in bed before going to sleep, asking myself questions such as “What can I do to make the popular white kids at school accept me, or at least not harass me?’  On the handful of important religious holidays when my parents dragged my brother and me to jamatkhana (a private house of worship), I would look at the sea of brown people dressed in kurtas and salwar-kameezes (Indian tunics), mouthing Arabic prayers with their eyes closed and their bodies swaying, comically wagging their hands while telling stories in Gujarati, and I would feel as if they were an inferior breed.  I was no longer wondering what the white kids at school would say about these people.  I had adopted their sneer.”


Like many teenage boys, Eboo rebelled.  He found it “cool” not to excel in school.  Many wondered if he could.  He wondered himself.  “My parents had lobbied hard for me to be included in Challenge classes, mean for the cream of the crop at Glen Crest Junior High.  My prior academic and behavioral record had been spotty, but my parents badgered the administration until they relented and let me into the program.  I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain….I was still only a so-so student.  Class time, in my mind, was best used to try to figure out how to jam an entire pack of Fruit Stripe gum into my mouth.  Who needed to learn how to diagram sentences or solve algebra problems?


After antagonizing his Challenge science teacher (Mr. Schrage) in the sixth grade, Eboo returned to the seventh grade and had the same teacher.  “I walked into his class on the first day of seventh grade…and heard him say, in utter seriousness, ‘Didn’t we get rid of you last year?’  I returned to the classroom after the last bell of the day.  ‘I want to be in Challenge science,’ I told him.  ‘I want to write the best research paper you have even seen.’ “


Eboo had been shocked into realizing he was hurting only himself.  He “could have told me that the decision to place me in regular science class had already been made by the department head.  He could have said that I wasn’t prepared to write the paper – even if I had an attitude change….Instead, he took a risk.  ‘Find a topic by next week,’ he said.  I left with a mission.


“Since signaling my second chance, Schrage had been a full partner in this endeavor, meeting with me every other week to check on my progress.  Standing in front of him, my dominant emotion was gratitude.  ‘We did it,’ I told him, and handed him the black binder with my paper inside.  He whistled softly, warmly, as he flipped through it, checking the table of contents, scanning the index.  ‘Kid, you are something,’ he finally said.


“He put the binder on his desk.  The other binders, the projects done by other students in the Challenge program, were piled near the back of the room.  ‘Why aren’t you putting my paper over there?’ I asked.


“’Because I’m using your paper as the example this year.  I’m going to show it to all my other classes and my colleagues in the science department as an illustration of what seventh graders can achieve.’”