Do you sometimes feel the difficulties in your life will NEVER let you fulfill your travel dreams? What you are about to read will snap you out of those thoughts.
This is the true story from my former Boston Public Schools student, ShiSha, about how she went from tragically failing high school classes, to harnessing her power through working at an urban youth art program, to her current studies in… Egypt!
Take it away, ShiSha!
My given name is ShiSha De Borah King, and I am 20 years old. I grew up in Boston, MA, with a single mother, five sisters, and three brothers. Yes there are nine of us! Nine kids! We moved around a lot when I was younger, all throughout the sometimes-dangerous neighborhood of Dorchester. We were not perfect. We fought a whole lot (come on… we are a family after all!), but when the chips are down, we can always count on each other.
Growing up, my family members were my best friends. We all have our own individual talents that just attracted attention to ourselves without trying. As Kat Williams would say, we are all in touch with our star players.
I don’t know how my mom did it: she raised nine kids and spoiled each of us as if we were an only child. When we would go outside and play just among ourselves, in a matter of minutes all the kids on the street would end up playing with us. We would only let our friends come in the house afterwards for dinner.
We shared our toys with the neighborhood, but it was rare for us to share my mom’s good cooking. It was like this until I started going to high school. That is when things in my life started to become, in one word, “interesting.”
High school really started for me a month earlier than Boston Public School (BPS) students. I was accepted to North Cambridge Catholic (NCC). However, after a minor infraction a month later, I decided that I didn’t want to attend NCC anymore. I ended up going to my BPS-assigned school, Charlestown High.
It was the first school I attended where I didn’t have the reputation as one of the “King Sisters.” The reputation that replaced it was much more comical: I became the “smart, punk, goth” girl who could sing all the Motown hits but still rocked out to Dragonforce and Hatebreed at the end of the day.
The girl who didn’t take bull from anyone, but tried to have respect for everyone (and we all know how hard it is to do that in high school). I was just ShiSha. In the 10th grade, a friend of mine was running for Student Council President with a poster campaign, and I put up my own “ShiSha Rocks!” posters all over the hall. It confused a lot of people because I wasn’t running for anything. Yep, just ShiSha.
When I entered high school, it wasn’t a problem unless a teacher called on me. That was the worst thing in the world back then. I had this fear of being judged. I would start shaking and I would hide behind my paper or book I was reading from. By the 11th grade, however, I had gotten over this fear thanks to my two English teachers, Ms. Marshall and Ms. Wagner.
They were very persistent: “ShiSha, that sounds good! Why don’t you share it with the class?” or, “ShiSha, would you like to share a poem at the D Unit Assembly?” They had me sharing so much that it came to a point where I actually wanted to. I would write things just so I could read them to the class. I really got into writing short stories, and I still write them to this very day.
Towards the end of the 11th grade, I fell into a bad pattern. Things were turning for the worst, and my grades were showing it. I went from A’s and B’s to D’s and F’s.
I was feeling so many emotions I didn’t even know one person could feel. My attendance was just as horrible; I would come to school every other day. I got so tired of hearing, “ShiSha you’re a smart girl, and you should be doing so much better than this,” or, “I am here when you need someone to talk to.”
When May came I just stopped going to school, and I was really considering dropping out. During the summer break I had gotten my act together and sucked up all of my pride and told myself I was going back to school even if I had to repeat the 11th grade. Later I found out that I didn’t have to repeat a grade, but I had to pass all six of my classes in order to graduate on time. Arabic was one of those classes.
The 12th grade can only be described as a chess game that I sadly lost. First term was bumpy as expected, and I started thinking about my future. I was making all the right moves, staying ahead of my opponent. I wanted to join the volunteer program, City Year. I was never really interested in colleges and big campuses. To tell you the truth, I never really liked the big city life, but I went to all the fairs and filled out the applications, knowingly going though the motions.
At school, gossip began. A rumor had started: students were saying the reason I had left the previous year was because I had tried to kill myself. (I wore “domina” gloves to cover my hives whenever I have an alergic reaction. This added facts to their lies.) All the people who knew me know how I feel about suicide. If they saw “ShiSha King has commented suicide!” on the ten o’ clock news, they would investigate it immediately. There were many more rumors that included teen pregnancy and abortion, but I am not going to get into teen gossip; I’ve never been into it before, so why start now?
I had also joined the EuroTrip club overseen by my Arabic teacher, Mr. Berbeco, and my Euro History teacher, Ms. Piacitelli. This club was my first step into the possibility of travel. We would meet every Wednesday after school to raise money for our trip, hold bake sales, and plan our Euro Trip. I was very interested in this club because I have a not-so-secret obsession with Greek mythology, and I really wanted to go to Greece.
Second term was shaky as well but I was starting to feel my world getting smaller again. Every family has its own issues, and all mine felt like they were my responsibility to demolish. It really hit hard when I found out that my grandmother and my aunt both had gotten breast cancer.
Many people in my family have died of cancer and I was afraid of losing more loved ones to this disease. I am emotionally attached to my family, and if something is wrong with them, their issues become my issues until it is resolved. It becomes all I can think about. I can’t focus until I know they are all right.
Third term was no better. It was by far the worst. Everything that had to do with school was going wrong… but all of my actives outside of school were going well. A job I had gotten at at Artists for Humanity (AFH) was becoming my center of gravity. At the time I was in the photography studio and my favorite things to do were long exposures and black and white film.
When I was working, no one would ask about my troubles. It became the place where I could forget all of my worries in the dark room. Also, because of my Arabic class I started getting into Arabic calligraphy. At first I focused on the styles of Al Kufi, Al Naskh, and Al Diwani, and later I would came up with my own style.
As May got closer, we voted in EuroTrip on where we wanted to go, and our journeys led us to London and Paris. The spirit and happiness I used to feel when I would go to school had gone. I had to quit my job so I could focus more on school, but school had become the place where I couldn’t think.
By this time I had this mantra in my head: I wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of me going on this trip, not my emotions, nor my problems, and while I was gone I wouldn’t think about them either. Then, at last, we left for Europe! At that moment, I became the first person in family to have a passport and travel across the Atlantic. It was the first time I did something big for me, not because I was asked to, but just for me.
When I came back to Boston, I found out that I had only passed 3 out of the 6 required classes and I would not graduate with my friends in June, but somehow I had already known that, and the news didn’t hurt at all. In the end there were so many algorithms that calculated my epic failure, but from that point on I was making my own equations. Later, I decided to finish my classes in Credit Recovery.
Now it is January, 2011, and I am in Cairo, Egypt. How did this come to be, you ask? Three lovely words: Artists for Humanity. I started working at AFH again in October of 2009, Masha Allah!
Before I went back to AFH, I was focused on the need to travel. Then it came to me: why not learn as well as travel? But so many thing were stopping me. In most schools you need at least one year of college to apply for any study abroad programs.
Then I found an awesome website called StudyAbroad.com, and there I saw a program at the American University in Cairo (AUC). But I knew I wouldn’t be able to gather up $10,000 dollars before the program’s deadline. At the time I had no job and no money, but I was determined. I started looking for scholarships, grants and finical aid from anywhere.
One day I got an email from the photography mentor at Artists for Humanity saying that there was a position open to orient new students, and she wanted to know if wanted to fill it. This opportunity gave me a year to come up with the money for Egypt. When the deadline was around the corner, I had less than half the money, so my search was on again, and found Languages in Action.
But I was still about $4,000 dollars shy. That’s where Artists for Humanity came and saved me yet again: they gave me $3,500 for my trip. I will be thanking them until the day I die. Because of Artists for Humanity, I am here in Egypt today.
My typical day here in Egypt starts at 7am. I get up, take a shower, eat breakfast at the hotel (eggs, toast, jam, and tea or coffee) or grab and tasty omelet from Fealfalk. And I am off to school by 8:00 or 8:15am. When I want to travel anywhere I take the Metro. It is faster and much cheaper than a cab. (If I wanted to take a cab from the hotel to school it would cost 20 to 25 L.E. but to take the train it is only 1 L.E.)
The trains here are very similar to the trains in London and Paris: Mind the gap, hold onto your ticket because you need it to get out of the station, and when the doors are closing, the doors are closing, so move it. The only difference is that the two middle cars are strictly for women and their children.
No men. I get on the train at Sadat Station and wait seven stops until I reach Kobir El Qubba Station. Located right outside the station is the El Qubba Palace. From here it is a 15 minute walk to school. If I feel I may be running late or I am just being lazy I can take a cab for 5 L.E. to school.
Class starts at 9am and it is split into 4 blocks: block one consists of dictation and understanding of the previous night’s homework, block two is the new lesson, then it is break for 15 minutes. Blocks three and four are going over the lesson doing different exercises, and on some days there will be a quiz on the previous lesson.
I get out school at 1pm, then it is back on the metro and I have the rest of the day to myself. I try to mix it up and not spend so much time in my hotel, but most of the time I am doing my homework until about 3:00pm, then I get a bite to eat. I have fallen in love with chicken shawarma, but I can’t get with the foil. I draw the line there.
There have been some ups and downs, but my funniest moment so far was my tourist food moment. It was my third day here after class, and I went for a walk to find something to eat. I told myself I was going to try some Egyptian food. I walked for almost a half an hour before I found a KFC.
When I got back to my room I started talking to the receptionist at the front desk and she told me that there are over 25 restaurants and fast food places in this area, just in the opposite direction of where I was walking! I have a laugh every time I get hungry.
I can admit at first I was scared out of my mind when I arrived here in Egypt. I kept thinking to myself, “What are you doing? Are you crazy?! Take your butt home!” But as the days went on, the fear slowly went away. It took me two weeks to start singing again. What am I talking about?
To everyone reading this that doesn’t know me, my mood can usually be told by music. If I am just listening to music and staying completely still, I am not in a positive place at all, but if I hum, sing, or even lip synch you got yourself a happy woman!
If anyone ever asks me if I regret anything in life, I can now gladly say, “No!” because if I hadn’t done any of my wrongs then I wouldn’t be the person I am in the place I am today. So to any students out there who aren’t on the “perfect track” to college, remember that it is your life, full of your choices. It is up to you to make the choice and put in the effort.
ShiSha, thank you SO much for sharing your amazing story. Readers, if you want more, click this link for Shisha’s video of her surroundings in Cairo (replete with rockin’ Egyptian music), her video blog reflection about Egypt, or her blog, From East to the Middle East. And please do leave comments and questions on this passionate article!
The author, Lillie Marshall, is 6-foot-tall National Board Certified Teacher of English from Boston who has been a public school educator since 2003. She launched TeachingTraveling.com in 2010 to share expert global education resources, and over 1.6 million readers have visited over the past decade. Lillie also runs AroundTheWorld L.com Travel and Life Blog, and DrawingsOf.com for educational cartoons. Do stay in touch via subscribing to her monthly newsletter, and following @WorldLillie on social media!