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Reflecting on Assignments in English 21001

May 21, 2020 in

In English 21001 with Professor Suzanne Weyn, I was invited to work on a number of different writing assignments, each one emphasizing a particular genre. I was tasked with writing a literacy narrative, a documentary review, an op-ed piece, a sales pitch email, and a profile. For each piece, I was given the freedom to approach any subject that I found engaging provided that my writing adhered to the constraints of the genres. This made thinking critically about the subject matter both approachable and enjoyable. And although I appreciated some assignments more than others, I’m grateful that I was given the opportunity to tackle genres that I otherwise would not have in other academic or professional settings. 

For my first assignment, I was asked to write my first literacy narrative. As a communications major, I was more accustomed to writing impersonal materials that were promotional or informational for corporate communications or advertising. Here, I was encouraged to be emotional and explore my own memories, specifically those of my relationship to reading and writing. This made the work refreshing because I could take a break from trying to give life to a lifeless product, organization, or business. I enjoyed exploring and expressing my connection to the skill of writing as it has a special place in my life. I often turn to it in times of hardship since it’s the most important tool I have for organizing and making sense of my own thoughts and experiences.. This assignment was difficult to approach because it forced me to write about myself for the first time in a while, but it was the most enjoyable one for me. 

The documentary review was admittedly a little taxing on my patience. The examples that we were given of how others have approached this genre were about a shallow celebrity drama – a topic that has no use except to act as fuel for senseless gossip. I personally enjoy viewing documentaries and I will watch them more often than movies, but seeing the same one multiple times in a row was a little tough. The excitement that arises from being introduced to a new idea, historical event, or person can quickly evaporate when it has to be repeatedly revisited in such a small window of time. However, despite this mundane process of rewinding and rewatching, I admit that I was able to better absorb what I was learning. I found this to be a benefit since I was fortunate enough to have found a profoundly inspiring documentary that was a joy to write about. 

As for the Op-ed assignment, it presented me with a moral dilemma: I felt like I had to find a topic that was worth being opinionated about. I don’t believe it’s healthy or productive to share opinions for vanity – the narcissism that fuels people’s amazement with their own thinking is something I find ugly. The last thing I would want to do is misguide someone to think or act in a way that is potentially self-destructive or destructive for others just to stroke my ego. As such, it took me a while to find a topic that I felt would have a beneficial impact if shared. I explored my deeply held belief about the importance of exercising consistently conscious gratitude in order to get the most out of the unique blessings we’ve each been given. It was challenging to write about this persuasively since it was my first time addressing a potentially public audience about my personal convictions. I don’t think I had ever previously attempted to approach such a heavy topic through writing, but it was a wholesome experience. Although I enjoyed the literacy narrative the most, I now think this was the assignment that benefited me the most.  

Writing a sales email was a relatively simple assignment. As a freelancer, I’ve had to write several of these before. Also as a communications major, I’ve been trained to write specifically to produce sales and encourage readership. To complete this assignment, I just needed to do what I had already been doing outside of class. However, I do acknowledge that the skill of designing a succinct, but persuasive email to elicit reactions is not an easy thing to do and it took me a lot of practice, and I experienced a lot of rejection, before I had developed the ability to do it somewhat well. My email was selected as an example for others in the class to use as a reference, so I hope the students who don’t have the experience I have are able to benefit from it in their own academic and professional fields. 

Writing the profile was the most dull of the assignments. It was very similar to writing a press release in the sense that it was purely informational, so I incorporated my own voice to give it a little more personality. Maybe because this assignment was due closer to the end of my last academic semester, my enthusiasm for tackling the assignment may have withered. This made it hard to get into the flow I usually enjoy when working on these papers. Since I was reluctant to do a great deal of research or to interview people, I decided to focus on an event rather than a person – I took guidance from the Norton Field Guide to Writing in this respect. This gave me the opportunity to turn this profile into a more reflective piece about the current situation regarding the education system in New York – how remote learning has become the norm and the repercussions that came from such an abrupt shift into this model of learning. Otherwise, I still feel like I benefited from the practice because more formal writing assignments like these are much more common in the workplace, as opposed to creative writing. 

Overall, I feel like this class reintroduced me to the wonder of writing. As a graphic designer, the majority of my work efforts are spent on visual media, which is a shame sometimes because I truly enjoy the written word. I’m grateful that I was able to take this class in my last semester before graduating, which feels surreal to say. In a way, I feel more prepared for what my personal experience of the real world will be after having taken this class. This is not necessarily because it will help me at work, but more so because I believe having taken the time to reflect, observe and practice expressing myself, I’ve worked on myself as an individual soul. I believe that this kind of work is often more valuable than the paid kind. So to Professor Weyn and the City College of New York, thank you.

New York Education System Driven into Lockdown

May 21, 2020 in

At the beginning of the Spring 2020 academic semester, schools across New York were shut down by the Board of Education after it had become clear that the Covid-19 virus was rapidly infecting people in the area. Pressure from the teachers union threatening to sue the Mayor of New York pushed Mayor Bill De Blasio to concede to demands that the schools be shut down – despite the obvious danger to students and teachers, the mayor had been reluctant to do so. Covid-19, a strain of coronavirus, had unexpectedly spread across the globe in just a matter of months, resulting in the unprecedented shutdown of entire countries. New York eventually became an epicenter of the pandemic and within just a couple of weeks, education in the city had shifted from onsite to entirely online remote learning. 

Prior to this shutdown, teachers and students had been aware that the virus was rapidly infecting people across the globe, but there seemed to be a trend in which leadership would not act until the region had reached a level of crisis. The New York Board of Education followed suit and did nothing to prepare for the potential need to close all educational facilities. The result was a New York education system that was not equipped for the sudden transition to remote learning which resulted in a chaotic scramble to accommodate this new model of teaching. Administration, teachers, parents, and students were all put under the stress to rapidly adapt. 

Schools with resources were quickly able to adopt new technologies to accommodate. For some schools, IT staff were readily available to troubleshoot technical problems and teach educators as well as students about how to use the new systems. However, the situation was completely different for underfunded schools. Each teacher became responsible for learning how to set up their own technologies and then for compiling their own manuals to teach students how to use them. In doing so, it quickly became apparent that there was a bigger problem of many students not having access to a computer or internet access. Teachers became the primary liaisons between the school and the students, an extra responsibility on top of their duties as first responders. All information regarding classes, school schedules, and resources were disseminated from teachers to parents and students. Later into the pandemic, as many families would attempt to adjust to the change, there would be accusations about child neglect from the large number to students being absent from remote learning sessions – a situation that was found out to have come from the large number of deaths within the latino and black communities as well as the lack of access to important technologies. The New York Board of Education had to invest in buying computers and software for the students. 

For many people, this was also an introduction to the other vital roles held by the public school system. More than just for educational purposes, the schools were also operating as welfare centers that provided the only viable access to medical care, counseling, meals, and daycare for thousands of students. While the classrooms moved online, the school building remained opened and staffed to continue providing these other services, particularly important for homeless students. Many people rely on these institutions just to eat on a daily basis.  

Institutions of higher education were also forced to shift to online learning and university campuses were closed. Even graduation ceremonies across New York were being hosted online as the spring semester came to an end. Online learning will continue into the summer and campuses are likely to remain closed, with exceptions for critical administrative processes that need to be conducted in office or in person. Getting a degree through remote, online courses was already a viable option for some colleges and several new programs at existing colleges, but this global event could potentially make this a new norm. Medical professionals with expertise in virology and epidemiology are already discussing the possibility of a second wave of Covid-19 infections once we begin loosening restrictions. This makes it hard to predict what future academic years could look like. 

Today is Everything We Own

May 21, 2020 in

When you’re on vacation, you do everything you can to savor each minute of it. Every delicious meal, beautiful sight, warm ray of sunshine, or undisturbed nap is so precious because eventually they’ll all be gone and you’ll be somewhere else. But what is the difference between that and our everyday life? This perspective that every moment is valuable, I believe, is actually our natural state and meant to be carried into our everyday lives. Yet, somehow we’ve succumbed to a culture of hustle and grind that has driven us into a strange, yet popular madness – it’s so subtle that we can’t see it. The result is problematic and it drives us into depression and anxiety that can ironically kill. We’ve forgotten that tomorrow isn’t a promise, but a hope, and that our time today is really all we have. To accept the truth that the boundary between this day and tomorrow is literally a single breath is beautiful and freeing – to stop worrying about tomorrow because it doesn’t belong to us.  

 We don’t like to think about it, but we’re temporary creatures. It’s a defining trait of our existence that one day we simply won’t be here. Yet, most people seem to do everything they can to avoid thinking about the inevitable, reluctant to accept that there might be a powerful meaning in embracing this truth. We don’t realize that accepting our potential end does not need to be done in morbid despair, but that to do so is actually a liberation. Freed from a race to the superficial goals of buying and buying and buying more things, the acceptance of our limited time readjusts our priorities. It helps us to see what is really important. If tomorrow might never come, what would matter today? That reflection is life changing.    

This is not just an abstract exercise. The real life effect of focusing on today as a gift and not a given is gratitude. Gratitude will make you wealthy. Seeing our day from this perspective, we stop looking at it as mundane life and begin to see it more as a vacation. Eventually this day will be gone and we’ll be somewhere else, possibly not on this Earth. So why not savor every sip of coffee as if it were our last? Hold someone we love a little longer in our next embrace as if that moment could be goodbye. Maybe even let go of old grievances as if by tomorrow they wouldn’t be there. This outlook that we’re just travelers who are here for a moment and then gone forces us to examine our concerns, and so much simply ceases to matter anymore. But then, the few things that do still matter are so dear because they simply won’t last, and so they need to be savored while they do. 

Every person is reminded throughout their life of their beautiful fragility and it’s a mercy that we don’t always see it. Our temporal nature is very real. Many of us have been nearly hit by cars, choked on food, nearly tripped down a staircase, or gone through many other things that could have easily ended us. We don’t need to wait for death to finally come before we’re able understand its importance. Just as birth is the gift of all possibility, death is the conclusion – they create a balance between ambition and caution, respectively. Ironically, putting it off would be a missed opportunity to live a full life. It’s the worst kind of procrastination. How many decisions would we make differently if we only acknowledge that tomorrow is literally not in our hands – how much more humble would we be? Perhaps our time and effort would be invested more carefully and more lovingly into what we pursue. 

Today is everything we own, let’s recognize it. Let’s watch the intensity of what annoys drop, and the coinciding appreciation for the riches already in our lives rise way up. Let’s be travelers who make every effort to be present so that we can fill our days with an admiration and gratitude for even the smallest favors we’ve been given in this life. And if we’re honored to experience tomorrow, then let’s be grateful for the gifts it brings.

El Pepe, The Richest Poor Man to Lead a Nation

May 21, 2020 in

If nobody told you that José Alberto “Pepe” Mujica was Uruguay’s head of state, you would have probably guessed he was a farmer. Old, poor, grey, and round, he has no interest in maintaining a presidential image, choosing instead to focus on presidential character. Profoundly humble, deeply in love with his people, and unenchanted by money, Pepe lives solely for his country. After just a short while of listening to his experiences and ideas, we realize that he isn’t a leader who commands power, but one who inspires thought. 

Mujica, lovingly referred to as Pepe, is the former president of Uruguay who won the presidential election in 2009 and held the office from 2010 – 2015. In El Pepe, a Supreme Life, we listen to an interview with the former president during his last day in office as he takes us through the streets, the culture, the politics, and the historical account of his country through the story of his life. But this story isn’t filled with elections and fundraisers and high profile names. Pepe’s life is more akin to a novel. As he takes you through the events that unfolded, you find passion, romance, bank robberies, gunfights, prison, and poetry. 

Operating as a guerilla fighter and leader within a resistance movement against a former dictatorship, he was captured and held in solitary confinement for 12 years along with his comrades in the resistance. More remarkable than this tribulation is Pepe’s reflection on what happened. He says about his time in prison, “I think that man learns much more from pain and suffering than from victories and easy things.” Speaking about his modest lifestyle and view on humanity, he says, “… it was born in that time of solitude in prison. I would not be who I am today. I would be more futile, more frivolous, shallower, more success-driven, more short-sighted, more aggressive, probably more seduced by success… More of all of that which I am not today – I would be if I hadn’t lived those ten plus years of deep solitude.” 

Perhaps more than his story, this documentary is directed to aidings us in understanding the thinking of a man who is known as the “world’s humblest head of state.” We aren’t simply revisiting a historical account, but rather diving into the life lessons learned by a man who was in the heart of the turmoil during the reign of dictatorships in Uruguay. It’s not the story of a head of state, but rather the story of a man who happened to become the head of state. This documentary is easily as much about humanity and philosophy as it is about history. 

I was first introduced to Pepe in a film called A Twelve Year Night. It featured three resistance fighters who were captured and then held as political prisoners, each in isolation for 12 years. Literate, well educated, and capable of critical thinking, these resistance fighters were different from typical criminals. They’re crimes weren’t motivated by greed or a desire for destruction, but rather by idealism. They believed in a socialist Uruguay because of humanity’s gregarious nature. I found it ironic that solitary confinement would be the punishment for a socialist – one whose philosophy is by definition one that places the community above the individual. The film was a cinematic recreation of their experiences in prison: a story about how three individuals survived the inhumane conditions of solitary confinement, a punishment designed to break the spirit.

By the end of the film, we see them released back to their loved ones and in the credits, we’re given a little preview of who each of our protagonists were. One of them was Jose Mujica. I would later see him in articles about his willingness to wait in line at the hospital, how he didn’t always wear suits or even shoes when he went out, and his commitment to donating 90 percent of his presidential salary to the public projects for the destitute. Mujica expressed a certain love and commitment to the poor by working to give them an opportunity to live humanely despite their inability to afford seemingly basic things such as windows or plumbing. 

From time to time, his wife and companions, who were also imprisoned in solitary confinement for years, speak about their share of the turmoil. None of these people are less than beautiful in their articulation of events and the effect it had on their thinking. We quickly identify that these people aren’t motivated by power, they barely have any. Their precious beliefs in a socialist Uruguay seem to rise from a desire to see the people repel capitalism, and the evils they believe come with it. Sitting next to his wife, Pepe discusses the difference between material, economic improvement and moral improvement – that the two are not the same. He even discusses the US banking system and explains, “It is the highest rank of human delinquency, which does not involve blood, on principle than can be aspired to. It’s the glory of capitalism to work and make money with other people’s money. Not even other people’s work, with their money.” He makes a disgusted face as he explains this, “It’s capitalism in its purest form.”

The documentary is styled to be a visual memoir portrayed through the lens of Pepe. Sitting in the garden of his house, Pepe tells us of his life and as he speaks, we leave the garden scene and find ourselves watching clips of historical footage. Taking us back to the people and events that were happening, the footage is sometimes in black and white, sometimes in color, and  in pictures and moving images. As the topics of the story shifts from historical events to modern issues in Uruguay, we hear the former president shift to talking about his desire to prepare the people for the future. Suddenly, we’re watching everything with a modern-day camera. We see him tending to his land, teaching the poor how to plant flowers, arguing with the public, and telling jokes. Latin music sets the tone of excitement, passion, and even romance – we get to watch him take his equally politically active, and possibly dangerous, wife on a date on the night of his last day in office. 

It’s remarkable to watch a man lead a nation from the streets amongst the everyday people and not from an office behind tall, intimidating fences. He says, “In order to lead the masses, you must live like the masses.” We describe the leaders of nations with many kinds of words, but never have I been compelled to describe one as being beautiful. It isn’t an obvious beauty, but José Alberto “Pepe” Mujica is exactly that: a beautiful man.

A Couple of Verses From My Life 

May 21, 2020 in

When I was a teenager, I used to have nightmares that I didn’t enjoy sharing. Not sharing, however, was also painful. I had already written some poetry in the classroom and during my free time and I had found a sense of relief that came with diving into the heart of a deeply felt moment. I was also able to say anything I wanted without needing to say everything. So I turned my nightmares into poems since they weren’t good for much else. 

I was first introduced to poetry when I was 13 years old in an English class and still living in Cairo, Egypt. The assignment was to write a poem about a piece of music and I chose a rock song, one that I will not disclose out of embarrassment. I had examined poetry before in other english classes, but this was the first time I had contemplated what I was writing. In doing so, I had found a form of literature that was actually a joy to read and partake in. 

Let’s set the scene. There is winter snow in Cairo’s dusty and overpacked streets. I’m in a taxi and there is a person with an unclear face and a handgun shooting at the congested, immobile traffic. Afraid and helpless to escape, I drop my head below the taxi’s dashboard and rest it between my thighs with my hands on my head. The gunman abruptly begins approaching the taxi I am hiding in. He’s already shot at the vehicles ahead of us. I’m sitting shotgun and although I never look up at him, I know that he is right beside me and his weapon is raised to the window on my right. I know because I can feel the desire to destroy life emanating from the other side of the glass. It shatters and I wake up. The main theme of a series of nightmares I had been having that year was mortality – my own and that of others.  

I was living in Cairo at the time, going to American international schools to get my highschool diploma so that I could return to the US when I was old enough for college. It was a trying experience for me that filled my life with tremendous stress. It came from the struggle to fit in as an expat from America. Despite being half Egyptian, I had never learned arabic or anything about the culture. I was raised in a house on Staten Island in New York until one day we moved just one short month after my tenth birthday. My entire family was also stressed, which of course also compounded my stress. In poetry, I found an outlet. I could be heartfelt and honest in my writing, yet always make it cryptic enough that people wouldn’t figure out that I was writing about myself and my feelings. Sharing stress with stressed out individuals who can barely cope themselves is hardly a safe or smart way to find comfort. So to my friends and family, my work came across as just little stories told in rhythm and rhyme. 

Eventually, the nightmares faded and became less frequent, but I continued to write. Poetry had somehow evolved for me. Instead of just writing for therapy, I had begun exploring ideas and encounters that I found wonderful. I started looking carefully at my environment and when I found something particularly moving, I would pay close attention to the details of the experience. I wrote about what the pace of living in a big city was like and how that pace shifted from daytime to nighttime. I wrote about what it looked like when people got lost in dance and music. When I got into high school, I wrote about the pretty girls. 

I remember one girl in my senior year who would intentionally frazzle her brown, wavy hair. It almost looked like she had woken up and gone to school without brushing it. It wasn’t off putting, though. To me, it was excitingly different from the other girls. I described the feeling of seeing it in a haiku as being akin to the exhilaration of riding the curves and unexpected turns on a roller coaster. I lost that haiku, but I still remember her hair. 

Fast forward to today, my nightmares are pretty much gone. I’m back in New York and about to graduate from college in May, God-willing. Unfortunately, the time and freedom to write poetry also faded. Adult life had sadly taken that away and put responsibility and a profession in its place. It has been a year since I’ve written a verse, but I miss it. And like an old, but comfortable friend that you don’t see often, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to pick up right where we left off when I have my reunion with the medium. I had just started to try out spoken word poetry and I was allowing myself to be vulnerable as I shared it. I liked the idea of crafting words about feelings that were meant to jump off the page. I think that once I’m done with my Bachelors, I’ll make time for it, again.