“Education is not for everyone.”

Brain_on_Fire_Susannah_CahalanA few months ago I read the remarkable autobiography by Susannah Cahalan called Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness. It’s a well-written and riveting account of her foray through the best clinics and hospitals in New York after experiencing an array of severe and unusual symptoms. After a series of misdiagnoses, she is finally diagnosed with the extremely rare auto-immune affliction of encephalitis. While the book in its entirety is excellent, there is one section that has remained with me and that I often think about.

The doctor who helps Susannah the most is from Syria and has quite a remarkable story of his own to tell. They become close as he becomes committed to helping her (“He had an intense sympathy for the weak and powerless”), and in the process Susannah learns a lot about him and his past.

I can’t tell the story better, so I’m going to quote verbatim from the passage that struck me most:

“[Dr. Najjar] had done poorly in school, and his parents and teachers had considered him lazy. When he was ten, after he failed test after test in his private Catholic school, his principal had told his parents that he was beyond help: ‘Education is not for everyone. Maybe it would be best for him to learn a trade.’ Angry as he was, his father didn’t want to stop his schooling – education was far too important – so although he didn’t have high hopes, he put his son in public school instead.

During his first year at public school, one teacher took a special interest in the boy and often made a point to praise him for his work, slowly raising his confidence. By the end of that year, he came home with a glowing, straight A report card. His father was apoplectic. ‘You cheated,’ Salim said, raising his hand to punish his son. The next morning, his parents confronted the teacher. ‘My son doesn’t get these types of grades. He must be cheating.’

‘No, he’s not cheating. I can assure you of that.’

‘Then what kind of school are you running here, where a boy like Souhel can get these kinds of grades?’

The teacher paused before speaking again. ‘Did you ever think that you might actually have a smart son? I think you need to believe in him.’

Dr. Najjar would eventually graduate at the top of his class in medical school and immigrate to the United Sates, where he not only became an esteemed neurologist but also an epileptologist and neuropathologist. His own story carried with it a moral that applied to all of his patients: he was determined never to give up on any of them.”

I don’t need to point out why this passage is so uplifting (but I’m going to anyway): the important role teachers and positive role models can play, the need to have someone believe in you, the crucial role of confidence, never giving up and the premise that, education is, indeed, for everyone.

Leaps of Faith in Venice

10703716_10152232332981853_2837997001685255358_nDuring the Summer of Love, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit one of the most magical and enchanting cities in the world – Venice. Don’t hate me, but it was actually the second time in my whole life. While I spent three days there, two of them alone, I of course became reflective. It had been sixteen years since I had trotted through the labyrinthine streets and over the little ponti. Back then, I had taken a leap of faith and began working for a family near Amsterdam as as au pair. Not long after my arrival, they announced they were going on vacation and I would also have my vacation time. I didn’t have much money so I booked an extremely cheap all-inclusive trip to the coast of Italy, near Venice. It took 24 hours in a bus to get to the ritzy seaside town. It was the kind of trip I could probably only do in my youth. I slept alone in a tent, although it was too hot to sleep. I made friends with three Dutch girls who were also on the trip. They were nurses from a town near the south of Holland. During our time together, we ate a lot of pizza and I felt very European as we strode among the waves at the beach in only our bikini bottoms. Once I got so attacked by mosquitoes that my ankle swelled up to the size of a baseball and I had to be injected with something. At night, we hit the discos, along with hoards of multinational young people – we looked like a giant, drunk United Colours of Benetton ad.

At first I was unnerved by the young, ripped North African men (boys?) dancing in wrought iron cages suspended above the dance floor, and the dancing that looked like it was influenced by National Geographic mating videos. But soon I understood that thisĀ  too was grist for the maturing mill. Wait until I tell my friends back home at the end of the world about this! We got to spend only one fleeting day in Venice, but it was like a dream for me – in the sense of being in one and of achieving one. Just a few weeks earlier I had no idea that I would have the opportunity to realize this dream – a childhood fantasy. I have a photo somewhere of me standing in front of the iconic Rialto Bridge, wearing my favorite blue tank top and grey trousers that I bought for $10 dollars in Australia some months earlier when I attended my uncle’s wedding. I have an impish smile on my face and the same long, two toned blond-brown hair that I have now. I was infinitely cooler back then.

And back to the future: I chose the busiest time of year to go. I caught a train directly there and of course got motion sickness on the canal taxi ride to the hotel. Yes, there was no ghetto tent for me this time. I was living the high life and stayed in a very beautiful hotel. I figured it would probably be the last time in my whole life I would visit there and so I splurged. I walked around in a daze, camera in hand, dodging the hoards of other privileged people from all over the world. I got my bearings and walked around and around the narrow streets, just walking, looking, thinking. The food is overpriced here, I thought. The waiters are rude. It’s so commercial, with an H&M and Disney Store tarnishing the elegant buildings that have watched over the canals for hundreds of years.

I went into a quaint little paper store and bought an exquisite little blue notebook from a very well dressed man with silver hair who looked like he’d been working there for about 300 years. I went back to my airy, plush hotel and I wrote in it. I wrote down all my fears and insecurities. I wanted to see myself, to see how I was back in this context after so many years. To see my progress. As the writing spilled onto the paper, I could still see that I had the same issues as that naive eighteen year old girl standing on the bridge. We are two different people but we are the same. I was again taking a leap of faith.

I trudged around. I explored. I escaped the heat in shops and restaurants. I healed an old wound from the first time I was in Venice when I had very little money and couldn’t afford to purchase anything more than some little glass ornaments. I went to a mask store of some renown and it took me about ten minutes to buy four exquisite Venetian masks. Every time I check my bank account I’m reminded that I still have to pay for them. But the highlight, the climax, the crescendo was walking alongside the largest canal one night in the dark, waiting for a boat to arrive. On that boat would be my sweetheart who had worked all day then driven some hours to be with me. At his arrival, we embraced and I shut my eyes tight, never wanting the moment to end. It was perhaps the most fairytale moment of my entire life, and in that one moment, I could say that love, with all its messiness, is worth it.

As I write this, I have just re-read for the third time a favorite memoir of mine by Vanessa Woods that entwines three stories – her personal love story with her husband, their work together in the Congo with Bonobos, and the heartbreaking history of the region. One passage struck me, and I should write it down in that little blue notebook full of my anxieties: ‘If there are those you love, whoever or wherever they are, hold them. Find them and hold them as tightly as you can. Resist their squirming and impatience and uncomfortable laughter and just feel their hearts throbbing against yours and give thanks that for this moment, for this one precious moment, they are here. They are with you. And they know they are utterly, completely, entirely…Loved.’