A Quest for Self-Discovery Through Shakespeare, 2Pac, and the Holy Qur’an
By Yousef Alqamoussi
Part 9 of 9
Over the years, I created dozens of Mr. A Show episodes that covered a range of topics from figurative language and etymology to poetry and symbolism to Shakespeare and writing strategies. In addition to improving student engagement, the show also resolved other problems in the classroom. I could now walk around the room during the lesson and work with struggling students, which hadn’t been possible when I was lecturing. I could assign absent students the lessons they’d missed. I could even assign videos for homework, and students were not only more likely to complete it, but were also more likely to be engaged in class the next day. Eventually, they were excited to come to class and watch videos. I continued to use The Mr. A Show throughout my five years at Woodworth, as well as two years at Fordson, and eventually at Henry Ford Early College, where I transferred for the 2019–2020 school year.
In March 2020, when Governor Whitmer declared a state of emergency and closed schools, teachers throughout Michigan scrambled to create content, schedule lessons, and learn how to teach online. Fortunately, The Mr. A Show facilitated this process for me, allowing me to schedule content and teach remotely. I created playlists and shared them with my colleagues so that they could use them as well. But there was a sadness about it all. It felt like this revolution of virtual learning had been far overdue. From as early as 2008, virtual schools like Khan Academy had demonstrated the limitless potential of online learning. So, why had it taken us so long to get on board? Why did we need a pandemic to force us into such an obvious shift? The internet had always been there, kids were always tech-savvy, and teachers were always looking for innovative ways to make learning easier and more effective. I began to wonder if our frantic adjustment to virtual learning was due to necessity or an overdue matter of course.
Overall, it felt like we were all “late to the party,” as my friend Adam would put it. He and I discussed these and other issues on our annual travels, since he was also an educator of sorts who lived and worked as a guide at Zion National Park in Utah. Things like education and a pandemic were topics we would’ve likely discussed in real time, but that March, as the world was reeling, Adam was still coming out of the woods. He was part of an annual program organized by the Cranbrook Schools of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, which took students on a ten-day camping trip to the Tennessee–North Carolina border. With no cell phone service or connection to the outside world, the group emerged from the forest on March 20 only to be gravely informed that the United States was on universal lockdown, flights were canceled indefinitely, and their only way back to Michigan was to drive. At first, they generally dismissed these hysterics, but quickly discovered the gravity of the situation once signal was restored on their phones and they read the news. Adam also found a voice mail from his employer at Zion, who urged him to call back immediately. He was informed that the park was closed until further notice and that he had been laid off for the summer. Adam returned to Dearborn to assist his parents and family members with grocery shopping and other pandemic-related needs. By the time we managed to regain a sense of normalcy, it was almost midsummer.
And so, in late June, Adam and I started to meet again. We spent much of the summertime in my backyard, socially distant, discussing our own experiences as students and learners. Since high school, Adam and I had taken different educational paths. I attended Henry Ford Community College and Wayne State University and completed a bachelor’s in English and a master’s in English as a second language. Adam took the roads less traveled by, moving from a speech/physical education major in college to studying at a fire academy, completing EMT/paramedic training, traveling the world, and moving to Utah to work as a guide. In the end, we both became teachers.
I had my gripes with the education system as a whole, and Adam would listen patiently to my rants about it. Those discussions eventually led us into a series of conversations about American education when it comes to language and words. Adam and I explored our own challenges as students, as well as all the misconceptions surrounding language and literature. Most of all, our talks made me realize that my aspirations for teaching transcended classroom instruction. My whole point in becoming a teacher was not so much to train children in “comprehension skills” as to help them discover the magic of words that had so enthralled me since childhood. I wanted to do more. I felt responsible to do more.
After all, words saved me in 2020. That fateful spring, as our nation and the world dissembled into fear and despair, I managed to keep afloat by embracing the magic of words. I read every day. T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” reminded me that collapse is a natural course of civilizational growth. Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane represented the fellow Americans who had despaired before but prevailed. Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” incanted the resilience of the American spirit, and Emily Dickinson’s downright creepy fascination with sorrow is almost comical. I also wrote to cope with the chaos and uncertainty that consumed me. As one day of the pandemic blended with the next, I chronicled my thoughts, feelings, and observations in a series of journal-poems which I called The Apocalypse Diaries. Between reading and writing, words kept me sane. Words were made for times like these.
From Shakespeare to 2Pac to the Holy Qur’an, the words I knew were there when I needed them. I wanted to share this knowledge with the world; to declare the timeless advice of my grandfather, Sadik the Word Man; and to provide the words that arm and buoy and comfort us through the trials of life.
“I want to teach more than one hundred fifty kids a day,” I told Adam. “I want to teach 150,000 kids a day.”
“Then do it,” Adam said. That’s how Adam lives his life. He just does it. “Let’s start teaching online. What have we got to lose?”
And so, that summer, Adam helped me prepare a series of programs to share my passion and joy for words. I composed poetry, took photographs, recorded and edited videos, and blended words with other multimedia. We tested these creations by posting them on social media and engaging with fellow artists and fans. We used the feedback to formulate long-term plans, and once we had prepared a skeletal framework and developed a promotional strategy, we needed to give the whole thing a name.
“What should we call it?” Adam asked.
I knew right away. “Let’s call it WORD MAN.”
“It sounds like a corny superhero.”
“It’s right,” I insisted.
PREPARE TO EXPERIENCE