Preparing Boys for Life

Muslim-American Marine veteran speaks to Upper School students

On Oct. 21, Upper School students heard from Mansoor Shams, a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, a Muslim, and founder of MuslimMarine.org. Shams uses his identity as both Muslim and a Marine to counter hate, bigotry, and Islamophobia through education, conversation, and dialogue. 

Born in Pakistan, Shams immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was six years old. Throughout his childhood and into his post-high school military service, Shams struggled to find a sense of identity. This work was made more difficult following the 9/11 attacks on America. 

While he was enlisted, from 2000 until 2004, Shams noticed a shift among some people in how they viewed Muslims after 9/11. Shams said, “there are segments of any population who behave differently, but in the Armed Forces, I was taught the values of honor, courage, and commitment.” He highlighted that 60% of the U.S. military is non-white. Shams said it is their “greatest strength to operate as one unit with so much diversity.” 

... get rid of these automatic negative thoughts, become self-aware and self-conscious of your actions and be aware of your final destination. Be kind and be compassionate, give people the benefit of the doubt and think good of others.

Shams emphasized to the Upper School students that it only takes three seconds to make a first impression. “Welcome to my world, to your world, and to our world, where just in about three to five seconds we pretty much end up making up semi-concrete assumptions about that someone without a single conversation, without any interaction, without knowing anything about that person.” 

Standing in front of the Upper School, Shams intentionally dressed in attire worn for both Muslim holidays and as part of traditional Southeast Asian culture to encourage the boys to think, wonder, or perhaps even reset their preconceived notions. Shams said, “If you had no knowledge of me coming here today, perhaps if you saw me in the lobby earlier or if you saw me out in town, wearing this sort of clothing, you would have thoughts like “weirdo” come in your mind. Maybe even things like “immigrant” and “unAmerican.” And some of you maybe even have thoughts like “Taliban” and “Osama Bin Laden,” “terrorist” and maybe other subtle thoughts like “Muslim” and “Arab” – all usually in a negative connotation.”

Shams encouraged the Upper School students to take time for self-reflection and to examine how often they too have fallen trap to passing judgement or being suspicious of someone due to their appearance. 

“What exactly is an American? Is it white? Is it black? Or is it something in the middle? Is it blond haired and blue eyed? Is it black and brown eyed? Or is something in the middle? Is is going to church on Sunday, a Jewish Synagogue on Saturday, a Muslim Mosque on Friday? Or maybe no house of worship at all? Is it being educated? Is it being privileged? What about the high school dropout? Are they any more or less American? Is it about the money in your bank account, vs. the millions of Americans today going to bed hungry, where [their] next meal is coming from, they just don’t know. What about them? Do they fit the bill? Are they American? What about a doctor, or engineer, or lawyer, or even someone like myself, or your headmaster who served and raised our hands to protect and defend the constitution of the U.S. from all enemies, foreign and domestic. Are we any more American or any less American than those who did not put on a uniform? What exactly is an American? If you open a dictionary it says “a native or citizen of the United States.”

Shams shared that “good men are inclined to do good things” and asked each student, “What can we do better?” Shams called upon the boys to “get rid of these automatic negative thoughts, become self-aware and self-conscious of your actions and be aware of your final destination. Be kind and be compassionate, give people the benefit of the doubt and think good of others.”