Zainab Ali's Learning Story


My young immigrant parents came to the United States from Pakistan in hopes of achieving the American Dream, for the sake of opportunity. The emphasis on education ran deep though my family. My grandfather recognized that education is the only way to transcend poverty. He acted by putting numerous, underprivileged men through college and law school in Pakistan. He once wrote to me, ‘Let your motto be hard work, planned studies and recreation. Struggle to make a successful life and beautify it with knowledge, love and discipline, which is the core of the human struggle.’ That will never leave me.I never had a difficult time in school, I was always a good writer, an exceptionally fast reader, and loved learning. I was quickly placed into honors classes in high school, I excelled at virtually everything I did. Life was easy.When I was in my junior year in high school, easy took a turn as my parent’s relationship became tumultuous and they planned to divorce. Since I was never a problem child, my parents hardly paid attention to me for the next couple of years. Their lives were falling apart and they seemed to have faith in my ability to cope. The lack of attention and volatility at home sent me on a downward spiral and feeling that if no one else cared, I didn’t have to either. I proceeded to rack up truancies; I even answered ‘B’ for every question on a test. I stopped doing my homework and showing up to track practice.Lisbeth Welch-Stamos noticed. Lisbeth Welch-Stamos taught Journalism at Trabuco Hills High School. She had a witty and dry sense of humor and treated me like an adult. The Mustang Stampede school newspaper quickly became my hobby and sanctuary. I had creative front-page license to write articles such as ‘The State of Our Union’ and ‘The Troubled Economy’ and used the class to research topics that interested me and practiced my ad-selling skills to local small businesses. I had something I felt I was responsible for and someone who counted on me. That was enough to get me to school in the morning.Once my personal life was turned upside down, journalism class became my safe haven. I began sitting in Mrs. Welch-Stamos’ class during lunch. I was left unbothered and could read and eat or chat with her. She showed interest in what I had to say and how I felt. She always made sure I knew that she saw my potential. Even though she knew I wasn’t trying anymore, she didn’t judge me and our relationship was unconditional. She asked me questions about what was going on. It was that recognition that really affected me. No one aside from her had asked me what had happened or questioned why suddenly there was this massive change in behavior and achievement. I felt as though I needed some acknowledgment of what was going on. I was looking for inspiration, motivation, someone to believe in me and to tell me that I could and had to overcome my personal obstacles for the sake of my future and passions.She was that person. At one point when things got really tough and I couldn’t find it in me to try anymore, she very blatantly said, ‘You’re not hurting me if you don’t come to class, the only person you’re hurting is yourself. So show up and do the work.’While it may not be a teacher’s job to pry further into a student’s life and many do not have the time to devote that kind of one-on-one attention to troubled students, it made a world of a difference that Mrs. Welch-Stamos made it important to take the time for me. Not without its challenges, I made the changes I needed to make; I shifted my attitude and outlook on the situation.Mrs. Welch-Stamos believed in me when other teachers didn’t. She went above and beyond and did her best to get me back on track. She did it in such a way that wasn’t enabling or coddling, but in a way that gave me the self-realization that I knew better. She understood where I was and she met me there. She never told me that because I didn’t do well that year, my dreams of studying at UCLA or pursuing a meaningful career were long gone. Instead, she made that future success more accessible. She put that power in my hands. From then on, I never questioned my ability to make it. It is from that experience that I have drawn my motivation and drive for everything else I have accomplished since then. For the past three years, I have been working for LA’s BEST, an after school enrichment program for underserved elementary aged students in the City of Los Angeles. On a weekly basis, I visit schools across the city and meet students and staff of all backgrounds. At every school the story is often the same. Many of the under-performing students are very smart and capable but have many challenges that hinder their ability to focus and achieve to their full potential. When I meet these students I am comforted that they are thousands of LA’s BEST staff who are there to be their role models and guide them. While not all students will go on to graduate at the top of their high school class and will all take many different paths to success, with empowerment and their very own version of Mrs. Welch-Stamos, they too could one day make a difference in other people’s lives, if not only their own. I am committed to continuing my grandfather’s legacy as an advocate for education and to Mrs. Welch-Stamos belief that all children need to be cared about. It is support and encouragement, not textbooks, that young people need to succeed.