Riverside Pride

Tyler Clary is an American swimmer and Olympic gold medalist. He placed first in the men's 200m backstroke. Tyler is from Riverside, California, my hometown and place of residence for nearly two decades. A wave of pride swept over me as I watched him swim to victory. The 23-year-old may have attended my rival high school (go Arlington Lions!), but seeing him on TV somehow created a surreal connection, uniting us in a way no formal introduction ever could. I felt sentiments of homesickness rise up in me, evoking my childhood in Riverside and the fond memories of growing up in suburban Southern California.

I was raised to think that poor weather meant cloudy skies--Southern California has a beautiful, sunny climate year-round. Summers may be hot and dry, but the other three seasons are temperate, fresh, and cool. People wear short sleeves and flip flops all year long, and if the weather grows ominous, then a cardigan--and perhaps a scarf, for flair--will do just fine.

The weather--and I learned this when I moved to the East Coast to attend university--is inextricably linked to people's outlook and manners. Southern Californians are laidback, cheerful, and perpetually smiling. At school, the guiding principles were "nothing less than your personal best," "the sky's the limit," "knowledge is power," and "impossible is nothing." We were truly ingrained with the belief that if we invested the proper time and effort, thought highly of ourselves, and kept our noses to the grindstone, we'd make it big. Achievement was rewarded with goodies as basic as candy bars and free lunch meals and as elaborate as recognition at assemblies and free access to local amusement parks. Teachers valued the importance of classroom competition, and they were quick to reward excellent performance in a fair and encouraging manner.

Beyond this, we were urged to use pencils capped with erasers--no need to punish mistake or failure, simply erase and correct. In Lebanon, the Middle East, and even Europe, however, the calligraphy pen is mandatory, and waiting for the white-out to dry can seriously slow one's progress.

That is the underlying beauty of American education: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again!" Kids are encouraged to experiment, stretch their limits, and think the world of themselves, because the world takes them at their own estimates. Never listen to the naysayers or skeptics, they seek only to bring you down. Nothing is sweeter than the fruit of your labor. How many Disney movies revolve around these uplifting adages? The other night I went to see "Madagascar 3." I walked out humming to the tune of Katy Perry's "Firework" and feeling like a million dollars.

My move to Lebanon has been a lesson in the contrary. I've met with a multitude of students through my campaign to enlighten them on American universities. These kids are sharp, but their toolbox is different. They lack a robust sense of self. It seems a suite of exams have already exacted their paths into college, the majors they will pursue, and the jobs they'll be suited for. Their success is not driven by self-motivation or self-initiative, but by a short-term urgency to pass. Inventing? Experimenting? Questioning? Refuting? They prefer tried and true, systematic, conformist, and failproof. Few believe they can make it to schools like Harvard and MIT--in fact, they embraced me as though I were a celebrity. They measure success by capital, not by self-fulfillment. The ends justify the means, so if they can cheat and get ahead, they're all the better for it. And they'd never be caught dead with a pencil.

As I watched Tyler Clary glide effortlessly across the water, pushing past his peers, and gaining in on the finish, I was carried away to my American youth in suburban Riverside. Pride and gratitude overcame me, because today I am a product of that hard work, tenacity, and drive inculcated in me from a young age. Thank you, Tyler, for reminding me of my childhood in Riverside and for embodying the meaning of those ideals. For that alone, you deserve the gold.

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