Growing up, my parents would always say to me, “The education system is Canada is one of the best in the world.” Having moved to Toronto from Pakistan when I was only three years old, I remember little from my motherland, but have always had its cultural norms to adapt to in Western society. In my household, the stereotypical pressures of South Asian parents were always present. The highest level of academic achievement, long hours spent studying, and an interest in going to university were a just a few of the things my parents expected to see. My mother, who had been a teacher in Pakistan, always had high hopes of me becoming a doctor.
As for me, I had little interest in school until around the 11th grade. As a younger teenager growing up in the suburbs of Toronto, I became heavily influenced by hip hop music and culture. Everybody in my circle of friends was either rapping the lyrics of mainstream hip hop artists, playing basketball, or both. As time went on, I got into conflicts and arguments with my parents more and more frequently. At the peak of our conflicts, I completely rebelled against what they expected. Skipping classes, hanging out with the wrong crowd, making wrong life choices and burning bridges with students and teachers got me nothing but a bad reputation and two disappointed parents. I was that one classmate people did NOT want to be in a group project with. “Wali? Oh no, he won’t even show up, don’t bother asking him to be a part of our group,” they’d say. I was that kid with the baggy jeans, Kobe Bryant jersey and backwards baseball cap. I did it all because it was cool, to fit in, because the love and affection I wanted from my parents had drowned in a never-ending list of expectations. I remember hearing, “We sacrificed everything for you to have a better education, so that you could do whatever you wanted, and live a happy life.” I thought about that a lot. But things only got worse, and I genuinely felt like I was a letdown to my parents and younger siblings.
Then I got arrested in front of my mom. I was 15 years old. I’ll never forget the sound of the click of the handcuffs, or the tiny space in the back of the cruiser that made me feel like I couldn’t breathe, as I looked out of the window to see tears rolling down Mom’s cheeks. I admit, I cried that night in that cell. I thought about how fortunate I was, and how I was not nearly as thankful as I should be for all the blessings in my life. That summer, I chose to make rock bottom the foundation I would build my life upon. I made a genuine effort to be more open-minded, positive and proactive, to take charge of my life; but it was not something I could do alone.
In my Grade 11 year at Cawthra Park Secondary School in Mississauga, Ontario, I had two amazing teachers. It was my Law teacher, Ms. Kirby-McIntosh, who would spend her lunch hour talking to me in room 207 whenever I was having a bad day, mentoring me on how to better myself. It was my English teacher, Ms. Riley, who would stay and talk to me after classes about poetry and positive hip hop and tell me that I had the potential to share my story with my peers. Slowly but surely, the mentorship and guidance I received from these two teachers helped me grow and be successful, both inside and outside the classroom.
It takes just one adult to keep a kid off the streets. Be that one adult. When I enter the teaching profession, I know I will be. We can all do our part; it is about having a conversation with the students, not about them. Kids in positions similar to mine need it.
Photos: Courtesy Wali Shah
First published in Education Canada, January 2014