September 30, 2016: Test
He studied for hours and hours for days on end. A high mark on the final exam would secure a perfect academic record, admission into the most selective universities, a high-paying job, status, privilege and comfort. Raheem fulfilled the caricature of an over achiever. He serves on the boards of a range of local non-profit organizations, is the Editor of his high school newspaper, plays the piano, violin, guitar and drums, starts for the high school basketball team, speaks three languages and will be the valedictorian of his class – if he does well on tomorrows final exam. He slept well that night, confident that he will get the job done. He walked into the classroom anxious to get started. Ms. Abdoun handed him the test and Raheem was ready to apply all that he studied for, until he saw the single test question. At the top of the page, the prompt read: “If your life ended right now, what story would you tell of yourself?” He dropped his pen and his heart beat began to quicken. Sweat trickled down from his brow. Raheem knew how to write well, and so he knew that he could not fake a valedictorian-worthy answer. He could write of his achievements and his dedication to success, but what does it matter that he tutored seventh graders in math or won the spelling bee? He thought of what his family would say of him: hard-working. He thought of what his teachers would say of him: studious. He then thought of what he wanted them to say, what he wanted his story to be. That was the prompt after all. Shaken by the premise of the prompt, by the reality that his life could end at any moment, Raheem began to write the story he would want to be told of him. A story of a boy who gave love. Equipped with advanced literary techniques, Raheem did well enough on the exam to secure his perfect academic record and his right to be proclaimed valedictorian.
But he was a changed young man now. In his Valedictorian speech at the graduation ceremony, he spoke of humility, love and compassion. He spoke of these things not as qualities that he demonstrates, but as virtues that he seeks to espouse, as virtues that qualify success. That test changed Raheem. It channeled his ambition away from himself and towards what he wants to create for this world, for others. For what he would want to leave behind.