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How I Learned I Was and Wasn’t Superman.

Growing up, Superman was my comic book hero. He was faster than a speeding bullet, and in point of fact, more powerful than a locomotive. He was able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and he could fly.

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Superman! Yes, it’s Superman – strange visitor from Alexandria Egypt who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman – who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel with his bare hands, and who, disguised as Khaled Sherif, mild mannered middle schooler, fights the never ending battle for Truth, Justice and the Egyptian Way.

That was me at 8 years old, a wild imagination thinking I was a superhero apprentice in prep school. OK, maybe not Superman, just an aspiring Suberboy still learning the ropes of the superhero business.

At a very young age in my life, I thought I was invincible. Absolutely indestructible just like Superman or Superboy, maybe except when confronted with kryptonite or Lois Lane.

Since I started wearing glasses at three years old, identifying with Clarke Kent was easy. Clarke was clumsy, so was I. Clarke was shy, so was I. But, Clarke was Superman, so it followed that I too should be pretty super in some way.

Invincibility too should come with the package I thought, but this was quickly proven to be folly. It was these events that definitively taught me that I wasn’t Superman, or even his distant cousin with some minor exceptions.

The day I realized I couldn’t leap tall buildings:

When I was about seven years old we lived in a house with a big tree in our front porch. I loved to climb that tree and one day I decided I could jump from its highest point onto our house. It was a leap tall buildings in a single bound moment that ended badly. After falling two stories square on my back, I concluded that leaping wasn’t my thing. But, maybe I had other superpowers, I thought, or maybe superhero’s don't often get their powers in one fell swoop. Maybe there was something like superhero puberty and I was just in my growing pains period.

The time I almost became a high school soccer superhero:

Having failed the leaping test, and concluding that if leaping wasn’t working, flying would be highly suspect too, so I looked for my superhero skills elsewhere. In high school, my father had sent me for a short stint to Kew Forrest School. Yes, the same high school Donald Trump went to in Forrest Hills, New York. As a kid, I started getting into sports and soccer to be exact. I wasn’t very good, so I spent most games fully decked out in our school uniform and mostly on the bench. My school soccer uniform was like my cape. I wore it well mostly because my mother ironed my shirt and shorts before every game. We were playing our high school nemesis with the score tied 1 - 1 and the time winding down. Two minutes to go and the coach screamed to me “Sherif your in”. This was my big chance I figured, my superhero moment that I’d waited for had finally come to be. As I tied the laces on my cleats, I had one sole purpose, to win this game for Kew Forrest, for the team, for the screaming parents, for the coach, for everyone. I was quickly ushered into my position which was left forward. The coach always said I had an amazing talent with corner kicks and this is why my position became left forward. When I entered the game I went straight to the back field, where I shouldn’t have been, but I had a plan. I screamed to our goalie to give me the ball and he did. Standing to the left of our goal I saw a straight line opening to the other side of the field. Yes, I wasn’t very good at this game, but I was fast, really fast. Give me the ball and I could literally fly. I sprinted down the line and quickly I was at mid field shaking off one defender after another. I sprinted towards the middle of the field and there was no one left in front of me other than their center back and goalie. I passed the ball to myself around the center back and sprinted to get the ball. Now it was just me and the goalie with my team mate Coots to my right. The goalie quickly came out and I had two ways to win the game; shoot the ball myself and score, or pass the ball to Coots who’d win the game because the goalie was out of position. Running, flying, I had a split second to decide. But, I couldn’t decide. It was pass or shoot as my coach screamed with the parents screaming even louder. I panicked, and was lost between the decision to shoot or pass, and the ball came off my foot with a wobble into the hands of the goalie. The referee then immediately whistled and the game was over. We didn’t win, the game ended in a tie. Coots walked up to me and immediately said something like “what were you thinking?” I wasn’t thinking, I panicked. As I made my way to our bench, very upset, the parents were very supportive. The coach wasn’t. He gave me a good talking to about not taking the shot with his message being you miss a hundred percent of the shots you don’t take. I was distraught for days, maybe even weeks afterwards, continuously playing those less than 3 minutes over and over again in my head. Superman doesn’t wobble, I remember thinking. Superman always goes for it and isn’t indecisive proving a second time I was no Superman, or Superboy for that matter. The coach never let me into a game after that and I sat on the bench with my uniform nicely pressed for the rest of the season.

The time I was asked to read 129 books in 120 days:

In high school, I was relatively smart. I skipped two grades either because my teachers also thought I was smart, or my Clarke Kent demeanor gave off a vibe of intelligence to my teachers. Quickly, high school was done and so was college, the years in which I never felt academically challenged. Going through my first Master’s degree was nothing more than restudying everything I already knew. But, now I was doing my doctorate and this was hard. The 900 level course work was no walk in the park, but that too quickly got done. My dissertation was also going well and that left just my comprehensive exams which were scheduled in 120 days time. No one else was at that level of preparedness and my dissertation supervisor called me in to give me instructions on what to prepare for. I remember walking into his office and without saying a word he gave me a two page document. They were book titles and as I looked down the list there were 129 books listed to be exact. The next words that followed from my supervisor’s mouth shook me to the core. He looked at me and said “this is your reading material for your comps. You’ll be asked questions on anything in this reference material”. I asked him to be more specific on which parts of these 129 books I was responsible for, and he quickly replied “all of it”. Explaining to him that the comps were scheduled in less than 120 days got me nowhere. He reminded me that I was a doctoral student in a very prestigious program and I could either accomplish this task, or walk. I spent the next week or so assembling my reading list. In my tiny studio apartment in Boston were 129 books stacked up in every which way mostly acquired from the library. This meant that I couldn’t highlight or otherwise destroy these books because they weren’t mine (for those of you reading this that are 5 years old, the Internet didn’t exist at the time I was doing my Ph.D, nor was the PC capable of anything more than basic Word and Excel). As I glanced at this pile of books and the enormity of the task at hand, one tear of utter desperation cane down from my face. I had less than 120 days to read and remember most of what was in these 129 books and if there was ever a time to be superhuman this was it. And, a superhero doesn’t cry when faced with an insurmountable task. For almost four months I hardly ever left my apartment, and barely ever slept or ate. By the time I emerged I had lost close to thirty pounds. My pants barely fit anymore, but the task was done. What I didn’t know fully from this reading material, I knew well enough and I was ready for what was coming. I felt very little stress with the confidence of a superhero as I walked into my comps. Escorted into a large room that could maybe accommodate 100 students taking an exam, all there was in this lecture hall was just yours truly given 5 exam booklets and told “good luck”. I had from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM to finish answering all the questions brought forth. I was allowed to bring with me a bottle of water and some food and snacks. Bathroom breaks were not encouraged. If you failed your comps, you either were given a Master’s degree or nothing, depending on the size of your calamity. But, I had no intention of failing nor did I have the money to wait another semester to prepare. It was now all or nothing. One exam book after the other, for every question I seemed confident about its answer. By 5:00 PM the TA watching over me said “time”. I’d finished an hour earlier, but was rechecking answers. He grabbed the exam papers from in front of me and I left the examination room feeling confident, maybe even cocky. This superhuman effort was accomplished. I was confident of this. I left reassured, walked into the shoe box I called home and collapsed. I slept for what felt like days and when I tried to get up I couldn’t. I was later diagnosed with extreme exhaustion, dehydration, and the onset of anemia. I went home for Christmas awaiting my exam results and when my mother saw me she almost cried. All she could say to my sister was “look at him, look at him, what do I do now?” She nourished me back to health and when the phone call came that I had passed, that I now had a Ph.D, my mother was relieved, my sister excited, but this superhero had finally overcome something that challenged him. So many of my friends couldn’t cut it, but I made it through. I realized years afterwards that I had an unfair superhuman advantage over other people. I never quit. Never.

The first night I spent with an African mosquito:

After graduate school, I began teaching, but was quickly recruited by the World Bank. Being hired by them was a huge honor, after all that was the aspiration of every young economist to be in a big IFI (international financial institution) where you could put what you learned in school to work. Finishing my Doctorate at only 24 years old, and quickly hired into the World Bank’s prestigious Young Professional’s program, I became cockier still. Within 30 days of joining the Bank I was sent to Ghana. My job was to venture off into a region of this amazing country called Bolga Tanga to work on the privatization of a fertilizer plant. I found myself in a guest house, one room actually, with an out house, and one light bulb. There was a bed, that looked like an old hospital bed, and a little dresser and one light bulb hanging from the ceiling. That was it. My boss had told me to make sure to get my shots before I left, yellow fever and what not, but I had spent all my time preparing for my first World Bank mission. He told me to make sure to take my malaria pills, but I forgot to pick those up too. I figured I was from Africa so what could happen? But, my first night in Bolga would prove to be the night Superman slugged it out with an African mosquito for the very first time. Superman was out of his league. I woke up after that first night with a big welt on my foot. It hurt and scratched like crazy. I saw a weird looking mosquito on the wall and I remember squashing it and the amount of blood that sprayed out of it was terrifying. I noticed that my foot was swelling, and by day two of my mission, I could barely put on my left shoe. By day three, I was going to work with a slipper on my left foot and a shoe on my right. By day 5, my left leg had major swelling up to my knee. But, I was undeterred. I was not going to leave my first mission and disappoint my new employer just because of an allergic reaction to a mosquito. While I did complete my mission, I ended up shortly thereafter in a German hospital only to be told I was suffering from “elephant leg”. My leg was drained over and over again to reduce the inflammation. The whole experience was agonizing. The first night I spent with an African mosquito was most definitively not won by me. Kryptonite what, mosquitos from Bolga Tanga were so much more lethal. Lesson learned, not even Superman can survive a night with an African mosquito unprepared. Also, if you’re ever in Bolga steer away from grass cutter soup. That’s cooked hamster in a thick broth.

The first time I heard the pilot of my flight declare an in flight emergency:

After Ghana I spent the next 15 years or so traveling all over Africa for the World Bank. I fell in love with discovering new places and my motto quickly became “I haven’t been everywhere but it’s on my list”. I was in Zimbabwe and my mission had just wound down. Boarding a British Airways outbound flight, I was relieved to be getting some sorely needed R&R. A minute or so after takeoff all of us on board heard a big thud. The plane remained stable but the person sitting right next to me and I knew something was very wrong. It took another few minutes for the pilot to announce an in flight emergency. We had hit birds on take off and lost an engine. The pilot said he was now emptying fuel to return as quickly as possible to Harare airport because he couldn’t land “heavy”. The guy sitting next to me was in an absolute panic. His face quickly turned red as the plane started to shimmy and shake in a way I had never experienced. He took out a picture of his daughter and showed it to me. He told me she was all he had. He proceeded to write her name and number on his business card and said to me if I don’t survive this please tell my daughter that the only thing I ever cared about was her. I reassured him that all would be OK, but he insisted I take his business card and I did. I realized then that the Superhero’s in this situation were the pilots and our fate was in their hands. I guess we all get our chance to be superhuman and this one belonged to the pilots and crew. And, they were all business doing everything they were trained to do. I was told later that further in the back where you could here sighs and faint whispering screams that passengers were reacting to seeing fire coming out of the left engine. Somehow the pilot managed to put it out and we landed safely. The pilot stood in front of the cockpit as we were all ushered out of the plane. I had never seen anyone as white faced as that pilot and I realized then how much of a close call this was. I shook his hand, he nodded reassuringly. Superheroes are the best of us really. It hit me upon seeing this pilot standing there in his uniform that this was his costume, his cape, and it was his super powers that had that saved us all. Even in trying to address an engine fire on a very large jet, the very voice of a superhero is meant to reassure, and on the intercom in this clearly very dangerous situation, he did just that. We spent the night at the Sheraton in Harare and the crew stayed there too. I saw the flight attendant in my cabin and asked her how serious the engine fire was. It was grave she recalled and spoke glaringly of the pilot and his actions. In her eyes he was a superhero, a superman, but I could only identify with a real man, a pilot, who in a time of crisis drew forth some extraordinary quality from within himself and triumphed. The passengers may not remember his name today, but we likely owe him our lives.

The Lois Lane that that didn’t see you as Superman or even Clarke Kent:

My mother never thought that any man or woman was worthy of her children. My brother brought a girl home to meet my mother once who she treated very warmly. When she left, my brother asked my mother what she thought of her. My mother looked at my brother and said mockingly “son, there are women you date, and women you marry”. Ouch. My brother saw this girl as Superwoman and my mother saw her as super something else. When Superman finds Lois Lane, I quickly realized, you still have to over come your mother. And, with some mothers this is no small task not even for Superman. But, what happens when Superman meets Lois Lane and she doesn’t think he’s Superman let alone Clarke Kent? What happens when Superwoman meets Superman, or Clarke Kent and he doesn’t think she’s that super? I guess this must happen a lot. You find the one, but another superhero has caught his or her fancy. It happens. The trick is accepting that he or she wasn’t destined to be your Lois Lane or Superman and to move on. Many of us will go through life regretting the one that got away and there are lots of superheroes out there for an amazing person to pick from. If you’re not destined to be that special someone’s superhero, but you really care for that person, do your best to accept them as a friend. For anyone amazing you meet in life, you should honor that encounter over the long haul even if a long term relationship wasn’t meant to be. After all, how many times in your life will you actually meet Superman or Superwoman? Trust me, it pays off in life to have a friend, or a number of friends, that have something about them that makes them super.

In the final analysis, though, being superhuman has very little to do with your relationship with one person. Being superhuman requires short or long spurts of real courage as situations arise and in knowing what faces you and knowing how to face it. I guess we are all destined to be superheroes in some way to survive when life hits us hard. So, when exactly do you reach superhero status? I figure you make the cut when you represent hope, opportunity, and strength to others. After all, the ultimate measure of a superhero is always defined by one’s varsity along with the lack of varsity of your nemesis. If you truly have a superhero inside you, when you see anything bad happening to someone, you instinctively will always try and make things right. You’ll stand up for someone when no one else will because it’s the right thing to do even if it endangers you in some way. If that behavior reflects who you are already, you may actually be a superhero most every other day and not even know it.

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