Literacy Through a Lens

By: Mustafa Altamimi

How does one develop their own sense of identity and uniqueness? Every person has a different story that causes them to interpret the world around them in various manners. My worldview during adolescence was governed by an Arabic saying, “Never argue with the ignorant, because they will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.” This wisdom served as a cornerstone in shaping my perspective on life and interactions with others. Growing up with English as a second language provided the motivation for me to work hard to achieve my educational goals. My upbringing in an environment with language setbacks cultivated my English literacy and allowed me to acquire knowledge.

As a first-generation American citizen, I grew up understanding that my circumstances were skewed in comparison to my peers. Oftentimes, walking through the halls of the school, the sharp stares from my classmates would pierce into the side of my head as if there was a pressure that could be felt when it was happening. After spending my first three years of schooling in Jordan, my parents revealed to me at the age of seven that we would be moving. I will never forget the day when they sat me down as I was getting tucked into bed and my mother said, “We’re moving back to America.” I did not know whether to feel happy or sad, and the redness on my flustered face told my mom everything she needed to know. All I had known up to that point in life was playing soccer in the rugged, open lots of Amman with my cousins. Our large building housed six of my uncles; thus, I had seven cousins who were in or around my age group. This was my family.

My sister and I were the only siblings in our family that were born in the US. We were both born in the city of Chattanooga, TN. However, we moved to Jordan when I was only 3, so there were little to no memories attached to the lifestyle of a family living in the rural Midwest. So, returning to America was nothing new, yet a change that would be hard to make. The nine-hour, brutally cold, and uncomfortable flight left my skinny frame shivering as I walked through the gates of TSA into the Kansas City Airport. The woman asking me questions at the international gate insisted that I answer in English. Her thin, straight eyebrows began to curve in a confused fashion as I continually shook my head and answered her questions in Arabic. 

“What is your name? How old are you?” 

These questions were simply met with my frustrated gaze and shaking of my head. My instance of speaking Arabic was not a planned performance to get a rise out of my family and the long line of Samaritans that had just stepped off the same flight as me. Rather, I had made a stern decision to stick to the language that I had used for the past three years as a form of holding onto what little remained of my life in Jordan.

I attended an International British School where English was spoken inside the classroom, but every interaction outside of it was in the native language. Our lessons took place in a long, narrow room with short ceilings. Br. Karam would stand at the front of the class, his thick beard reaching down to his mid-chest, and he would begin the lesson. “Please spell ‘start,’ class. Sound it out,” he would say with his thick accent. 

In retrospect, the course was effective for those who intended to learn English and stay within Jordan; however, it fell short in comparison to that of American English courses. It was not the course material itself, but rather the environment and lack of necessity tied to speaking English outside of school. After being surrounded by my entire extended family and living day-to-day in an Arabic-speaking country, of course, I picked up the mannerisms that were not natural to life in the US. 

Due to my minor setbacks with the English language, I was placed in the ESL (English as a Second Language) Program all through elementary school. I found myself receiving extra help in the same small, cramped room every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday for six years. The dampness in the classroom air always carried the essence of grogginess. Mrs. Ross would stand at the board and sound out the vocal drills written in front of us. Her mouth would widen as she extenuated the sound of the ‘o,’ holding it for an uncomfortable amount of time. 

The Arabic language differed from English in many ways. Firstly, writing was in the opposite direction, right to left. Secondly, and more importantly, English contained many consonants that were not present in Arabic. For example, the ‘p’, ‘v’, and soft ‘j’ sounds were not used in the Arabic vernacular. So, Mrs. Ross would prompt me to reiterate the words that I had difficulties with.

“One more time, honey,” she would say in her thick, midwestern accent.

Shakily, I would slowly repeat words such as “measure” or “people” until I was able to mimic the sound appropriately and stress each syllable correctly.

It was also during this period that my “setback” turned into a love for reading. Every month, our small ESL group had a scholastic reading challenge where the student who read the most books during that month would receive a prize. In retrospect, the small trinkets or bright-colored squish toys, paired with a competitive spirit of winning were the sole reasons for participating. However, after months on end, the prizes started to matter less and less as my enjoyment of reading grew.


Turning the crisp page and watching the number of pages stack up in my fingers became enjoyable and a part of my life. The hour before bed was strictly meant for reading. The pitch-black, eerie silence of my room contained one small clip-on light that I would attach to the edge of the book I was reading. As I directed the small light across each page, my eyes lit up with the words that would unknowingly fill my vocabulary. I accidentally practiced the pronunciation of each word while reading, as I developed a habit of reading the words under my breath. Inadvertently, the writing style of each author became a game to recreate and use in various fashions, and my ability to speak coherently grew. The genres of books were endless, but my favorite grew to be the Leven Thumps Series. The series of five, rather large at the time, science fiction novels created a universe that I could not get enough of. The books were slightly old and out of fashion,  which meant the copies placed in our school library contained the smell of old, weathered pages that had interested kids like me for decades. Since it was not popular among my classmates, I felt a closer bond to the series as if I were the only one who had found such a sacred series.


As I moved into middle school and high school, my literacy level steadily rose as I challenged myself and entered the accelerated classes with students who had once outpaced me in every aspect of English. Advanced English turned into Honors English, which eventually ended with me taking AP Literature and Language in my junior and senior years of high school. It is within these classes that some of my favorite books were introduced to me. Dr. Price sat in front of our class day-in and day-out with his shiny gray hair pulled into a ponytail, and his thick, bushy, gray eyebrows. As I sat in his class, the same peeled feeling of each page began to return to my “inner kid” as the scent of aged books filled my nostrils. Novels such as Dostoyevsky’s works and Moby Dick altered my perception of literature and elevated my comprehension skills higher than what I ever thought would be possible for myself. An ESL student who was once ashamed to admit his setbacks in language was now writing twenty-three-page reports, delving into the most sought-after contemporary novels of the 18th century.

In conclusion, the development of one's unique identity and worldview is a multifaceted process intricately woven with personal experiences and cultural influences. Developing one's sense of identity and uniqueness is a journey shaped by individual experiences as every person's story influences their distinct interpretation of the world. As I reflect on my journey, I recognize the profound impact of my upbringing under different circumstances than my fellow classmates, which ultimately drove the significance of knowledge acquisition and English literacy in the long run. My family's values, my cultural background, and the inspirational role of education in my life have collectively nurtured my passion for learning. The convergence of all the factors in my life has shaped my identity, leading me on a path of intellectual growth and a lifelong commitment to literature and knowledge. Growing up in an environment that was unique to most students in U.S. schools affected my English literacy but allowed me to grow a love for reading and the acquisition of knowledge.

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