Nothing made Gabi happier than playing with other kids that he would gladly sacrifice sleep to do it if he had a brother or sister because they wouldn’t have to go home eventually as his friends do. But he made the best out of those after-school hours, along with six of Sofia’s cousins and three kids from the neighborhood by turning that building, its garden and street, into their playground. At 43, he recalls those days as the best time of his life.
There was another part of his life that he would never talk about to anyone. The part where he was told his mother was dead until one day, she was standing right in front of him when he opened the door. He jumped on her, screaming hysterically: “my mom is not dead, my mom is alive, you’re alive.” Or that his Palestinian father later remarried someone whom he instantly disliked, so everyone, except Gabi and his deeply loving yet rejected Ukrainian mother, agreed he should live with his father’s parents. Or how embarrassed he felt by association to an abnormal situation where divorces were considered an anomaly in the community at the time. Or how throughout his life since his teenage years, no matter what he did or whom he did it with, he could never extract the feeling of loneliness deeply embedded within.
Then there’s school. It’s in that compartment of his mind where one throws all the pieces of their lives they never wish to look back on until that part of one’s memory goes blank, but it has left a profound and unrectifiable impact on his life. His voice changes as he starts to talk about it. “I hated school,” he said, “I struggled, I couldn’t focus, I just wanted to play all the time, and the teachers wouldn’t let me.” He went to the same school as his cousin until the third grade. A playful and very active child would be considered a normal child, but most of the adults in his life were calling him a troublemaker, including his father.
– “Did you like any of your teachers?” Sofia asked.
– “Yes, three of them.”
– “Why them?”
– “Because they liked me.”
– “How did you do at school?”
– “Very poorly.”
– “Were there any subjects you did well at?”
– “Yes, religious studies.”
– “Because I liked the subject and the teacher.”
He didn’t stay at that school for very long as “troublemaker” was catching on. He was transferred to another, where he was dropped a grade. “It was especially difficult because I was being separated from my cousin.”
Feeling anger, isolation, and many other feelings he didn’t have a name for or knew how to use his words to express, his energy became explosive, and his need for attachment expressed itself through bullying.
– “I can’t imagine you doing that. You were always very protective of my cousins.”
– “I was intensely lonely. I thought by being tough and strong, they would be all around me and would not leave,” he said.
It wasn’t long before he was transferred again and again and again. Each time he was transferred, he was dropped a grade. At the fourth school, the principal put her foot down and insisted he be expelled. “She ended his chance at a real future, a better life. She was cruel,” his mother said. “At all the schools he’d been, no one ever tried to have a dialogue with us on how we can improve the situation. No one asked us about his background or how we could work together to help him.”
This part of his life, at his fifth school, is where he realized he was only a junior troublemaker amongst a group of the experienced. In the pursuit of manhood as reflected in his environment, honor, toughness, physical strength, taking dangerous risks, and use of violence to settle disputes were idealized characteristics that shaped his developing male identity. He needed to establish his status and respect to be viewed as an equal, but he finally no longer felt Unacceptable. On the other hand, his acquaintances thought that a 6ft 3″ tall, long-haired young version of Arnold with protective instincts and the heart of a child would be useful. At the fifth school, he graduated from an academic establishment into juvenile detention. His mother recalls chasing after him at 0300am into the city’s underworld with the anguish depicted by Ben Kingsley’s character in the emergency scene in “House of Sand and Fog” (2003) where he runs in the street repeating: “I want only my son”. That scene was, in fact, her life.
He had compiled a long list of aggravated assault charges by his early thirties. His fights sound like scenes from an action movie where one man beats up 12 leaving them motionless. “In my last fight, a guy said: look at his eyes, he’s not afraid, he’s a brave man,” Gabi narrated proudly, but he had done the time and the rounds through various prisons in the country to prove that it wasn’t fiction. Prison wardens had the same view as his teachers: “Send him elsewhere, he’s a troublemaker.” He was proud of something else: “with all my offenses, I have never been accused of something dishonorable like stealing or violence against women, and in my entire life, I have never been disloyal.”
Out of prison, he was making up to US$4,000 a month by managing security for various nightclubs. “I could have whatever I wanted, but I never really had any desire to live. I’d start a day wishing it would end fast. With all the booze, drugs, and women, nothing made me happy.”
His mother painfully remembers his various suicide attempts as a teenager, once cutting himself up all over. “He was constantly depressed and would keep saying: “I want to die, I want to die, I want to die.” When she took him to a psychiatrist, he gave him medication so strong it killed his energy, and so he refused to take another pill or see another. His friends helped themselves to the rest of his meds.”
– “What about now, Gabi? How do you feel?”
– “I feel amazing. I’ve memorized over 600 pages of scripture, and faith keeps me calm and at peace.”
– “Do you still believe you can’t focus?”
– “No, I know that I can.”
– “Do you keep in touch with your friends?”
– “Most of them are dead.”
– “What about your life goals? How will you live the rest of your life?”
– There was silence for a while then: “you hit the nail right on the head. I feel at peace with what I’m doing. I spend my days going over what I’ve memorized.” Then he started quoting scripture…
– “I want to hear your own voice. Use your own words, please.”
– “I’m looking forward to the other side. There I can have whatever I want. I want to be a kid again and play all the time like I used to.”
Till today his mother lives with extreme anxiety. She expects to receive that call any day, the call that would bring whatever parts of her life she strived to put together crashing down with irrevocable finality. That one call that would end her.
Sofia was born to career-oriented parents; her mother wanted her, her father didn’t share the interest or motivation. The professional side of him was driven; he studied hard and worked hard, but the human being was an emotional arid desert incapable of showing affection…Never an I love you, I miss you, never a warm hug. She thought that was normal until she saw how her friends’ fathers interacted with their daughters. She observed but didn’t understand why she was not the recipient of similar benevolent treatment from her own. She was content to see him sparingly; his sternness and coldness scared her, and his absence allowed her to imagine a father who was kind, thoughtful, and compassionate towards her. She stopped taking it personally in her thirties; some men, she thought, are incapable of showing up in anything fully until they fulfill who they aspire to be. Her mother was the exact opposite; everything was in high doses…big feelings, big ambitions, and she had the character and courage to back them up, but she was getting into a hectic life in pursuit of her big dreams where there was no room for a child.
Sofia willfully tried to shift her focus and adjust, acting like her situation was normal, but there were constant reminders…If she ever seemed sad at school because she didn’t do well at a test or something was on her mind from that morning, a teacher would pull her aside:
– “You look sad, Sofia. You’re not living with your parents, right? They are divorced. Is that the reason you’re sad?”
– “No, ma’am, I’m absolutely fine.”
– “But your eyes look so sad?”
In time she was ready with a standard response to justify the look in her eyes: “I get that a lot; that’s just how my eyes are.”
According to her grandparents, there was no reason for her to feel sad: “Look at the terrible conditions other kids from poor families have to endure. You have a roof over your head and a family that loves you. Consider yourself lucky, Sofia.”
Her grades were average at school until she reached the seventh grade, and it was a struggle from then on. Report card day had become daunting. She never failed in any of her subjects, but now she was failing math and doing poorly in others. How will she show it to her grandfather? He rarely comments, but he’s going to say something about this, she thought. She tried to delay the inevitable as much as possible until it was no longer avoidable; her school was asking for her to return it signed. As she handed it to her grandfather, her uncle walked in. “Can you please sign Sofia’s report card, son?” Her uncle looks at it and then looks back at her with raised eyebrows:
– “What kind of grades are these? You failed math? I can see you have a bright future ahead of you.” He said sarcastically.
But nothing anyone could say to her would equal her internal turmoil and self-punishment. It felt that her expensive private education was just a waste of her mother and grandfather’s hard-earned money. She didn’t understand what was wrong, what she could do more, or how to fix it. “Maybe I’m just not intelligent.” she thought. She later contested that her father had a Ph.D., played five musical instruments, and spoke four languages; her mother was an honors list student who earned her masters while holding a full-time job, and she spoke three; she had those same genes. She kept asking herself why to the point she even entertained the theory that she may not be their biological daughter. When that didn’t seem logical either, it left her with only one conclusion: “I must simply not be good at this.”
She started hating school, and a chronic stomachache developed that doctors attributed to stress. She frequently took sickness absences, the teachers were beginning to talk, and she was constantly being questioned about what was going on. She hated the attention, the questions, and the school involving her grandparents, so the only thing left to do was to show up daily and do just enough to get by.
She romanticized a feelingless existence at the other side of an exit, but her desire to survive and overcome was much more powerful.
– “Grandma, I think I need to see a psychiatrist. I am depressed, I think.”
– “Come on, Sofi, what is this nonsense! You’re a strong girl, not a weakling.”
The situation continued until, in eighth grade, her class was introduced to a German teacher who would teach them English. Her new teacher didn’t smile or talk much off-topic, her classes weren’t especially engaging, but she started to take an interest in her. One day at lunch break, while Sofia was sitting with her friends but with just enough space that would allow her to stay in her head, her teacher came and sat next to her on the floor.
– “How are you doing, Sofia?”
– “I’m great, thank you for asking, miss.”
– “If you would like to talk about anything at any time, please let me know.”
She didn’t take her up on that offer, but she appreciated the gesture, which she sensed was out of kindness, not curiosity. A couple of days later was English Composition Class. Sofia loved composition because it was one of those things she thought she could do as well as the smart students. The girls were asked to write about something they hated doing, which they thought was a struggle. She wrote and wrote and handed it in. It was not customary for her English teacher to ask someone to read their piece to the class, but that day she said: “I came across this piece which I thought was good and interesting and I would like to invite the student who wrote it to read it out. It’s titled: Fighting for Survival. Sofia, would you read your piece to the class, please.”
Stunned but beaming, she read, and she could see that most of her 42 classmates were impressed. That was a turning point; she no longer just liked but loved English. Any other subject delivered in English had become a joy for her to study and try to understand. She became less perturbed by her predicament with math and her teacher, who regularly engaged in a 45-minute solo facing the board. It no longer dictated how she saw herself as a student.
In ninth grade, more subjects were being taught in English for those who wanted to transfer from the Jordanian National curriculum. All the teachers were dedicated to their missions, but two, in particular, seemed to bring their A games. Like her German teacher, they didn’t say much outside of the topic and weren’t known for their sunny dispositions, but they took great pride in their students’ attainment. The first could easily be called a Master Teacher; he developed curriculums for his two subjects with the goal that if his students just understood, studied his material, and engaged with him in class, they would get A’s. Her English literature teacher prepared and prepared, explained, and repeated, asked all kinds of thought-provoking questions, and then mock-examed them to the point that when they took the official board exams, it was just like any other day in her class. Sofia approached her once to ask the question frequently on her mind: “do you think I can get an A in English Lit?” “Well, it’s very difficult to get an A.” She was accustomed to no one believing in her other than her mother and grandmother, but she started to enjoy being underestimated by others and proving them wrong. She was especially proud of that A in English Lit when she got it.
At 43, Sofia can now say, “grades don’t matter,” and she believes it, but it’s the self-belief that comes from moving through the failure to success that has the power to change one’s life. She keeps those memories in her little treasure box with other positive reference points that she conjures up when faced with a stretching goal. She learned to trust in herself enough that when faced with a tall brick wall, she would either go around it, build a tunnel underneath or a staircase to the top and if what it takes is a bulldozer, she would assume the character of one and go through it. As for math, it turns out she loves numbers, so much so that when faced with matters too intangible for her to evaluate and predict outcomes, she tries to convert the inputs into numbers.
Sofia asked about her German teacher, who had just served for a couple of years at her school and then disappeared. She was told she died of cancer, but she didn’t leave her before planting a well-placed seed that kept growing leaves and branches extending throughout her life.
Gabi and Sofia lacked the secure base that we’re told every child needs to be motivated and to grow and develop. They lacked the trust that they were supported by adults they can rely on 100%, not only for their tangible survival needs; home, safety, food, financial resources but for their emotional and attachment needs. As they were growing up, they both internalized a version of themselves for themselves that was reliable and consistent to step up and step in and say: “I’ve got you.” Every time they would try to seek it externally, they would find further evidence that no one would be as consistent, reliable, and available to them as they would for themselves.
Sofia thinks she is indeed fortunate because she met the right influences at the right time. Her life could’ve easily taken another direction. But she constantly imagines what Gabi’s life could’ve been…an outstanding violinist like his mother, a formidable athlete, a successful gym owner, or even a great teacher. But now, we will never know.
Dr. Nathaniel Branden, The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem TO MANY CHILDREN, SCHOOL REPRESENTS A “SECOND CHANCE”—an opportunity to acquire a better sense of self and a better vision of life than was offered in their home. A teacher who projects confidence in a child’s competence and goodness can be a powerful antidote to a family in which such confidence is lacking and in which perhaps the opposite perspective is conveyed….A teacher who refuses to accept a child’s negative self-concept and relentlessly holds to a better view of the child’s potential has the power—sometimes—to save a life.