I sat there in the bleachers at graduation, cheering on the Wellesley High School Class of 2019 as they celebrated their big day. Then I heard Principal Chisum call his name. Up the ramp Ben Elwy strode with the aid of his walker, his tassel swinging back and forth, his red graduation robe flowing. Around me I heard whispers of “rough time” and “Harvard”. Both verbal ripples were correct. Elwy is challenged with Schwartz-Jampel syndrome, a rare genetic neuromuscular disorder. He’s had over 35 surgeries since he was two years old. And he only recently ditched the tracheostomy tube that helped him breathe. So yes, that’s rough.
And yes, he’s going to Harvard in the fall as a member of the Class of 2023 as a linguistics major. So take that, “rough.”
Before Elwy decamps to Cambridge, the almost 18-year old well known around town for his commitment to service before self has one more Wellesley volunteer gig. He’s teaching a free Arabic and Cultural Education Program at the Wellesley Free Library (WFL).
As part of Harvard’s inaugural Service Starts with Summer Program, Elwy has worked with the WFL to create an Arabic Culture and Education program. He’s developed two separate courses for kids in 3rd — 5th grade and 6th — 8th grade using the Arabic language as a way to explore a culture they may not be familiar with. No prior experience of any kind is needed, and kids can attend as many or as few of the classes as they want. Sign up here.
“I’ve loved languages ever since I started Latin in seventh grade, and I also enjoy volunteering,” Elwy says. “This summer, I realized I could combine both of those and try to approach a community problem with languages. Wellesley has a relative lack of diversity, and especially now, when some politicians and some media outlets are portraying minority groups misleadingly, I wanted to give kids the chance to become familiar with Arabic and Arab culture and to start discussions with each other early on. One of my Arabic teachers, a native Arabic speaker, said, ‘I wish people would have the opportunity to live other people’s lives, not only the different things, but the similar things too.’ I want to help make that possible in Wellesley.”
Elwy has designed the activities to be fun, age appropriate, and broadening for kids. He says, “One activity we’re going to do is to make our own tessellations, sometimes called Islamic geometric patterns, which are repeating patterns of close-fitting shapes. On another day, we’re going to learn how to bargain like people would at a market in the Arab world, and we’re going to have a pretend store where we’ll try to buy as many items as possible with limited money.”
The Arab-speaking world is a big place, of course. Where to begin, linguistically, when 25 countries claim Arabic as an official or co-official language, and each one of those nations has its own dialect?
“I learned the Levantine dialect of Arabic, which is spoken in Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria, so that’s what I’ll be teaching,” Elwy says. “Still, I’ll try to emphasize how diverse the varieties of Arabic are, and the culture I’m going to talk about should cover the Arab world more broadly. I studied Arabic at the Arabic Summer Academy for two summers. It’s a free, three-week summer program at Charlestown High School that equals one school year of Arabic. I think it’s a great opportunity to thoroughly learn Arabic and Arab culture while having fun and meeting new people.”
Elwy’s paternal grandfather was Egyptian, so originally he wanted to learn Arabic to speak with his grandfather in Arabic and understand more of his family history. “I still remember the amazing feeling of hearing my last name pronounced in Arabic for the first time, as it originally was,” he says.
At the Arabic Summer Academy this year, Elwy’s class had the opportunity to Skype call with displaced Arabic speakers around the world and ask them questions about their lives. His class spoke with Shadi, a music teacher with a sense of humor living with two young kids in a refugee camp. When Elwy asked him what he wanted people to understand about the situation he and many other people are in, Shadi responded, “What we want from you is a smile for us.”
“That thought motivates my current work, as well as my search for ways to start similar classes for other languages and cultures after my program ends.” Elwy says.
“I’m really not sure what to expect about college,” he continued, “but I’m looking forward to being part of a global community and to combining subjects in new ways to learn in interdisciplinary fields.”
Peace be on you (or Assalamu ‘alaikum, as I’ve learned), Ben, as you take your next steps into the wider world.
In working with Ben, that world may have a bit of a learning curve ahead of it, but Ben’s a patient teacher. As his mom Rani recently said about her son at a family and friends celebration, “Ben, you taught us years ago to move out of the way and just follow your lead. We quickly realized that our job was to champion your goals in whatever ways we could. We have learned more from you than we could ever imagine.”