I nervously waited in line to take my place on the ice; 15 other girls stood behind me. Our hair perfectly slicked back in tight buns, the makeup on our faces exactly the same, and one shade of nail polish covered our nails.
Our coaches took spray paint to the blondes on the team to ensure they wouldn’t stand out. We wore the same dress 16 times over; our skates perfectly matched, covered with white tape masking differences that judges would notice. When the music started, we began. Our strokes were perfectly synchronized. Our blades turned in the same direction at precisely the same time. When we move, we moved as one.
For nearly a decade, I dedicated my life to the Skyliners synchronized figure skating team. Most likely, you’ve never heard of the sport. In short, 16 girls skate on the ice to a set routine. The team that I skated with was one of, if not the, top teams in the country. This meant long hours training both on and off the ice. It meant spending the majority of my life in an ice rink. It meant purposefully conforming, seamlessly blending in.
Everything is “team.” There is no MVP, no buzzer-beater-hero, no Hail Mary passes, because, as synchronized athletes, no one can stand out. The goal of the sport is to develop a level of competence so every single person is indistinguishable from the next. If one breaks the line by being too slow or too fast, or even allowing a few blonde strands of hair to show, one has failed the shared mission. As my team became increasingly synchronized, I became increasingly invisible.
In the summer of 2016 my brother came home from Seeds of Peace Camp and demanded that I attend the next summer. In fear of always being in my brother’s shadow, I resisted. Taking a month away from skating, which would be the longest time I have spent away from the ice since I started, was simply something I could not afford. However, I eventually decided that I would give a month of my summer to Seeds of Peace. I was terrified for many reasons. Was I even “smart” enough for something so emotionally and mentally challenging?
At Seeds of Peace, I was no longer focused on the minute details of fitting in; instead, I was engaged in dialogue focused on bias and parity. I found myself intoxicated by the freedom to be myself in a community where creativity was celebrated as a means to solve complex problems. Moments of disagreement and differing points of view were celebrated as making progress toward greater understanding. Nobody asked me to erase the original me; they asked me to share it with them. I’d stumbled upon one of the most accepting places I’ve experienced, despite the fact that campers came from extremely diverse backgrounds.
For the first time, I felt comfortable exploring my family history and proudly saying I was Palestinian without fear or judgment. I could choose to agree or disagree. I could push myself, pursuing tough dialogue that forced me to question what I know, to think more broadly about the world and my own purpose. I was welcome to be different. I was welcome to be myself. It was there at camp where I finally found my voice.
For years I was taught to blend in, or that I as an individual did not matter. Before Camp, I was never comfortable being on my own. I used to fear talking in front of my class in school. I was so scared, I used to never raise my hand even if I had a question. And although I cherish my time on the ice, it always left me feeling weak as well as silenced. However, for the first time in my life during those three weeks I spent up in Maine, I learned that I have value as an individual.
When I left Camp, that feeling of importance did not fade. I started to become more vocal in class and at my school. I started clubs. I helped my friend start a school-wide dialogue program. I even spoke in front of my entire school about my experience at Seeds of Peace, which I would have laughed at a year earlier. As I embark onto my next journey, college, as well as my young adult life, I will cherish the lessons I learned and never again question my value as an individual.