Extending the Olive Branch

by Jenin Mannaa

In my freshman year biology course, while scanning my textbook and trying to commit the different macromolecules to memory, I realized I was fat. Quite literally, my identity could be reduced to a single unsaturated fatty acid: olive oil. Comparing my fourteen years of existence to liquid fat seems self-deprecating, but the parallels were undeniable.

As an Arab Muslim-American, my culture is rooted in olive oil, and the dense liquid accumulates on the leaves of my family tree. However, olive oil has a tendency to separate from water due to their opposite polarities. With the controversy permeating my religion beginning with 9/11 and continuing with the anti-Muslim attitudes following the election in 2016, I felt myself dissociating from my heritage—much like oil to water. This polarization of my identity infiltrated every aspect of my high school experience, beginning with my decision to join the Speech team.

Going into my first season, I stuck to the humorous events, adopting different personas and voices in an effort to conceal my identity. This unexpectedly helped me succeed in my Speech career and exalted me to Junior Captain of the Dunlap Speech Team. Now in a position of authority, I concluded that I needed to discuss my identity candidly in the oncoming season.

I decided to perform the Ted Talk “The Muslim on the Airplane” by Amal Kassir, which explored the importance of asking a Muslim their name before assigning them a story. Initially, I delivered my speech angrily, and it felt like Judgment Day in every room I spoke in. After recognizing a fear reaction in the judges, I instead tried delivering my piece despondently—with a pout and a single tear dribbling down my face. This approach had my judges scratching the backs of their heads and avoiding eye contact.

I confided my concerns with Coach Hunt. Upon hearing more, she let out a laugh before disclosing to me, “Jenin, you need to talk to me.” She sat me down and held my gaze as I apprehensively uttered the first few words of my speech. As time went on, the tension in my shoulders eased, and I began to savor my words as they rolled off my tongue. At the conclusion of my speech, the tears that accumulated in Coach Hunt’s eyes made me realize the origin of my failure.

I had been all too consumed with the rankings and statistics of a Speech competition to realize my personal victories. I portrayed to all of Illinois the pride that I developed for my heritage, which is invaluable in comparison to a clunky first-place medal. Moreover, there is no formula to the perfect speech, no carefully calculated gestures or perfectly timed tears. Within my piece, I could show all elements of my personality—the humor, the passion, the sadness, the exasperation—so long as I was genuine in the portrayal of my message. It was when I began mulling over the words that I was saying that I began to feel and be what I was representing in my piece.

When I earned my way to State, proudly adorned in my olive-green blazer, I understood that there is no shame in being liquid fat. I am Muslim and American, and although those may seem incongruous, I appreciate my dual identity. Living in America has given me the opportunity to cultivate my love for advocacy, and I plan to extend the olive branch to anyone who cares to listen.

About Jenin Mannaa

Jenin Mannaa is a rising senior at Dunlap High School. Her stellar academic performance has granted her entrance to the National Honors Society at her school. Jenin has expressed her love for advocacy through her involvement on the Dunlap Speech Team as Junior and Senior Captain. Within speech, her primary goal has been expressing her identity as a Muslim American woman. Jenin attended IHSA State for Oratorical Declamation her junior year of high school. Within her speech team, she was also awarded Sophomore and Junior MVP. Jenin’s passion for the arts is evident through her involvement in Stage 323, where she was inducted in the International Thespian Society. She has also been involved in Concert Choir, Women’s Chorale, and Show Choir throughout her high school career. Moreover, her devotion to garnering support for ethnic minorities motivated Jenin to create Dunlap’s UNICEF Club, which educates students about the tribulations of underprivileged individuals in impoverished countries. Within UNICEF, she leads fundraisers, and within the first few months of the club she raised approximately $500. During her summers, Jenin has spent over 200 hours volunteering at the Unity-Point Methodist Hospital within the daycare or shadowing various doctors within Peoria.

About Sophie Liu 

Sophie Liu is a senior at Dunlap High School who has won numerous art prizes such as the Scholastic Art and Writing Gold Key Award and several honorable mentions. As someone who also values academics, business, and volunteering, she has participated in and led many activities in her community. Her volunteering contribution has awarded her the Gold President’s Volunteer Service Award. She is one of the club leaders of her school’s Interact Volunteering Club. During her summers, Liu has participated in several business camps such as Kelley Business’s Young Women’s Institute, where she has gained knowledge and experience in her passion. She also runs her own online art business where she creates commissioned art pieces and gains firsthand business experience. Liu plans to continue her love of business, volunteering, and art in college, where she will major in either Marketing or Business Analytics and minor in art.