Every year a mischievous student who wants to really antagonize me will ask, “Why is a guy with a Harvard degree wasting his time at a school like this?” I know the whole “sticks and stones” routine, but these words cut a little too close to the bone. They ask a question I sometimes ponder myself during moments of weakness or frustration. I used to respond, “Why are you disrespecting yourself and your school? Don’t you think that you are worth it?” But over time, I have discovered that this question has a much simpler and more mathematical answer: 15.
There is something mystical about the age of 15. I have met countless people who made a decision at that age that has defined the trajectory of their lives. Some have become lifelong vegetarians; others have decided they would devote their lives to comedy. But the common denominator is that people tend to stick to their age-15 decisions with a dogged determination that seems to elude them when they make decisions earlier or later in life.
What is so special about this age? Fifteen-year-olds are no longer children—nearly all have gone through puberty—but they are certainly not adults. While middle school is usually cited as the awkward purgatory between childhood and young adulthood, by the time we reach fifteen we are starting to wrestle with existential thoughts about our place in the world. At 15, our brains and, even more importantly, our hearts are still malleable. We feel things deeply and passionately and are desperately seeking to figure out who we are and what we believe. After parroting the philosophies of our parents for most of our early years, it is at the age of 15 when we fledglings begin to leave the nest and figure out our own distinctive way to fly.
For me, my magic of 15 moment was learning about and ultimately embracing Islam. The story of my conversion deserves its own essay, and I have written about this topic several times before. The Reader’s Digest version is that the more I learned about Islam, the more it resonated with an internal belief in God that I had always had. It provided an order and a cohesive world view that I had long been subconsciously seeking. Moreover, accepting Islam did not entail a rejection of my Christian upbringing, but rather it represented a full embrace of the new operating system brought by Muhammad (saws) that extended and completed the message of the earlier prophets.
What is undeniable is that I had no idea that a decision made in a messy dorm room at age 15 would have a permanent and (inshAllah) everlasting effect on my life. It ultimately determined what I would study in college, who I would eventually marry, and what I would do for a living. Indeed, that one decision taken at 15 reverberates for me in nearly every second of every day.
So, let’s get back to that student whose snarky question laid bare some of my greatest insecurities. I teach high school, in particular grades 9 and 10, because I believe that this is the age when teachers can have the most profound influence on their students. I teach English because language is the sine qua non of all communication, and teaching students how to think and how to write gives them the tools to rebuild our crumbling world. I teach at a small, underfunded Islamic school because I hope to play some small part in helping my students choose Islam as their way of life. I help juniors and seniors navigate the college process because I want universities to be enriched by having talented and faithful Muslims on their campuses.
But I know that I have been selling my services for way below market value. I know that Islamic organizations are bastions of disorganized righteousness. I know that the tectonic plates of my Muslim and American identities have been chafing against each other for quite some time. I know that patience is a virtue, but too much of it can be a curse. And I am thus planning to make some changes. What will never change, however, is my belief in the Magic of 15.