The year was 2015 and the month was September. I don’t recall which day it was, but I remember what happened very well. I had finally graduated from high school after I failed and retaken the tawjihi math exam. I was thrilled that I at last had made it to university and that my GPA was just good enough (C-) to allow me to study the subject I love (English).
It was my first day at school and everything was new: new people, new city (I live in the far south of the Strip and university is in Gaza City). New system. And, of course, new teachers. I got lost a lot, even though my university is really small. I walked into my second class of the day and saw a man standing and staring at us, the new students. The truth is, I was surprised to learn he was our teacher because he was so simply dressed. I thought professors always wore suits.
I am an introvert, so I sat down and didn’t talk to anyone. I saw some of the students had a book for the class. I had nothing, since I was a week late starting university, so I overcame my reluctance to talk to strangers to ask the name of the book and write it in my notebook: “Great Paragraphs,” green color.
Then the teacher spoke. He wasn’t friendly; he seemed harsh and I didn’t like that. He started off by saying, “Those who don’t have books, get out!” Some students stood up and left. I didn’t. He asked why I didn’t leave. I told him it was my first day and that I had written down the book’s name so I could buy it. He still didn’t care, telling me to not attend his classes without a book. I hated him instantly. University is expensive and I didn’t want to waste any of it. I wasn’t the only university student in my family; I had three other siblings who were attending university simultaneously. My father’s salary is not that high, so I valued every Jordanian dinar my father paid for me and my siblings to go to university. (We are not allowed to have our own, Palestinian monetary system. Instead, we must use the Israeli shekel for daily expenses, and dinars for university.) On top of the tuition, I must pay to take a shared van from where we live in Khan Younis to Gaza City—and then back again.
Angrily, I went downstairs and found my way to the shop that sells books. Fortunately, I had some cash, so I bought the green Great Paragraphs book. I hurried to return to the hall. I didn’t want to miss any more of the lecture. I knocked on the door and went in. “Here! I bought the book! I want to attend this lecture!” I said. “You can’t deny my entrance now!”
I remember his reaction very well. He was surprised. “What’s your name?” he asked. “Raed Shakshak!” I stated. He let me in, and I could tell he was impressed.
His name is Awni Badah and he saw something in me most teachers didn’t or chose to ignore. He does not have a Ph.D. or master’s degree. Yet, he is the best teacher I have ever had. I had never been much of a reader, but he inspired in me a love of literature. He uses classics and philosophies from other cultures to coax us into a deeper understanding. And he was blunt when he felt like we weren’t rising to the challenge. One time he said, "You guys don't read at all. That's bad. It makes it so hard to talk to you about anything. You should read about as much about everything as you can." He taught us to speak our own minds, as well—assuring us that we are never wrong as long as we can justify our statements. That gave me the courage to voice my thoughts.
When I was young, I was a fan of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I called myself, and got everyone else to call me, Leonardo—after one of the characters I loved and wanted to be. I longed to have my own sensei, like Leonardo’s Master Splinter. In the real, adult world, Mr. Awni is my Master Splinter.
The good student
I was the best student Mr. Awni had at the time and he made me feel proud of myself. While he taught other students how to write a good sentence and paragraph, he taught me how to think. One time stands out in my mind. As young Muslims, we students never questioned anything related to our religion. But Mr. Awni allowed and even encouraged inquiry. For example, the Quran is not the only source of information in our religion. There's also the Sunna, which was originally a collection of wise saying from our Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him). But after Mohammed died, others added their own accounts. And while some never made sense to me, I thought questioning was not allowed. Mr. Awni dared to do so, and we discussed them at length. It became clear that some of these additions had been added with an “agenda” in mind. From that time on, I question everything that doesn’t make sense to me and demand answers. I don't believe everything I hear or read. I learned to challenge and engage in discussion. And I am so much more informed as a result.
During that same semester, I applied for a fully funded scholarship offered by the U.S. Department of State, called the Global UGRAD program. I needed two recommendation letters. Unfortunately, Mr. Awni couldn’t write one of them because he doesn’t have a PhD. But, unable to get another teacher to help me in time, I went to Mr. Awni in desperation. He didn’t hestitate, taking me immediately the office of one of the professors, Abdullah Kurraz. Mr. Awni praised me in terms that left me thrilled and speechless. Dr. Abdullah wrote that recommendation letter for me and I got the scholarship.
The bad student
And now I have to disclose what happened next, which doesn’t make me proud. I became the Worst Best Student. After that stellar semester, many things in my personal life had changed and I stopped attending classes regularly and my grades dropped. I had two classes with Mr. Awni in that second semester and I failed one. I am sure Mr. Awni was as shocked as he was when he learned how good I could be the previous semester. And that pattern has persisted. I have my reasons, but we’ve grown apart and I am so sorry for that.
I remember a lot of Mr. Awni’s “speeches” to me. But one in particular is most memorable. It is my last year, and he thinks I am wasting my academic career, and future. He made direct eye contact, and it was like time stood still. I felt his love. I doubt if any teacher has ever believed in me like that. He wants me back on track and to excel at what I do best. He wants me to be the extraordinary Raed he knows—and I know—I am. Maybe I cannot be that Raed right now, but I know that one day, I will be. I want Mr. Awni to be proud of me. And so I write this for him:
Dear Mr. Awni,
God knows how much I love and respect you. You are one of my oldest friends. You are important to me, and our memories will stay alive in my head and heart as long as I’m alive and kicking. I wish to show you the gratitude you deserve. I can’t think of a better way than writing what I’m writing right now. I hope it brings a smile on your face; I know it’s making me super emotional. I can’t lie; I have tears in my eyes.
I am not writing this just to thank you for everything you have done for the simple guy named Raed, but also to apologize for my recent behavior and performance in university. I know I should’ve done better in classes. I, too, thought my academic career would be a massive success. Everyone has untold stories. One day, though, I’ll do great things like we both believe I can. Thank you for giving me that conviction.