Jasmine Mays, Roxbury

From the very start, there was the curiosity Jasmine Mays had about the way things were, and the conviction she had about the way things should be. To this day, she still asks the big questions- as a home-schooling mother of four, a community advocate, and the co-owner of a business, Airbrush Matrix, with her husband.

Here, in a two-part interview, is how curiosity shaped Jasmine’s life early on, from her days as a public school student in Dorchester to her decision to convert to Islam.

PART I

“I’ve always been the kind of person in my family to question, which got me in trouble as a kid. But I think it helps me be the way that I am and really fight the power. That’s been me.

I had a history teacher (in middle school) who, we would come to class every single day, and he would not teach us anything. He would sit at this desk with his newspaper and tea and would require us to just sit down and be quiet. That was his class. And I was the rebellious type, so I would come to class and challenge that, like, “Are we going to learn today? Are we wasting our time again? I want to learn.”

He was the kind that, if you say anything or object to his methods, he would put you out. I would be put out of his class maybe three out of five days. Go to the office or stand outside of class until the bell rang and it was time for the next class.

Sometimes I question, now that I’m an adult, why didn’t we tell our parents? Where were the parents? How was he allowed to get away with this? Where’s the administration? Where is the principal?

I don’t know if we knew at that time that we had the power to fix it, so I just talked back, which I don’t think was the best thing to do, but it was what I did. The other kids just sat there and got an easy A, and some people were fine with that. Like, all I got to do is sit down and I’m good.

But that wasn’t good enough for me.

I felt like, when kids are coming to school every day, the ones that are coming, to not give them the opportunity to be successful, and then they have to go out into the world and compete, and they’re not prepared, and then they’re somehow blamed for not being prepared? I knew that that type of stuff wouldn’t fly in another school district. And that was my issue, really.

At each level of my education, there were pockets of teachers that kind of carried the weight of all the other missing elements. And for some students it was sufficient to at least get them through. And for others, they suffered.

I distinctively remember a fourth grade teacher, her name was Ms. Brown. I don’t know where she is now, I wish I could find her. She could take any kid and bring out the best in them. You know, this was a school where the kids, they were acting up all the time, and she just had so much control of her class.

She was a black woman, and I remember she had clear braces, and she would smile with them. They weren’t the kind with the rubber bands with colors. They were clear, but you could see them. She would wear her hair straight down, and she had this little accent about the way she talked, and the way she pronounced words that was very…you just knew that she meant what she said.

She never yelled, she never punished anyone. She just had this energy about her, like when you stand next to her, you just knew you got to straighten up like you were ready to learn. I felt like, in all my years in elementary school, Ms. Brown was the one to bring us up to level, and send us off.

PART II

When I was in high school, I actually converted to Islam. I’m here as a Muslim, but none of my family is Muslim, and that was part of my explorational journey.

During 9-11 and after 9-11, I was actually afraid of Muslims. I thought they were all terrorists and not someone I wanted to get to know. I remember being on a train and seeing someone with a long beard and, weirdly, I was afraid and I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know anything besides what I saw in the news.

It wasn’t until I got to high school, and I actually lost one of my parents—my stepfather passed away—and I think it sparked a little curiosity for me in terms of afterlife. And just the soul in general: what’s more than the body? And so, in questioning that, I wanted to know religion.

I grew up in a Christian family, a Christian background, but I never studied the religion. I was just a part of it because I was born into it. (But when I started studying) the different doctrines and belief systems, I started to realize the similarities within the religions, and that they’re kind of like a family.

Certain things stood out for me and really attracted me to Islam—(like) the brotherhood and sisterhood. I felt very amazed that strangers consider themselves sisters or brothers because they share the same faith. I didn’t grow up with that.

I’ve met people that are complete strangers to me that will hug me and give me the same greeting even if we all speak different languages. I’ve had Muslim neighbors just come over and knock and see if we’re okay. It didn’t matter your race: There were white Muslims, black Muslims, Somalis, everyone. So it was that kind of communal family that stood out for me.

My family thought it was a phase, at first. You know how you go through a phase, and you dye your hair, or something, or you might try and be really out there? They thought it was that. So they thought, “Oh, yeah, she’s going through her little Muslim thing, you know.”

They were wanting to understand: “What now, do you go around with a scarf on now?” (she laughs)

But in time, you get to really understand it and watch people develop. They appreciated it mostly because it changed some things in me that were not good. There were things that I did as a teenager that my mom didn’t like, but (religion) kind of puts you in check, in a sense.

Over time, I’ve transformed. I didn’t start off with the scarf and the clothing and everything, and the prayers all the time. I used to wear my turban and my jeans (she laughs). And I kinda upgraded, year after year, and that’s okay!

My family accepted my differing opinions and my conversion, which helps, because some converts do not have that. My mom will come (to the mosque) with me, and she’ll be a part of my life, just as I will be a part of hers. My family celebrates Christmas, and buys the children Christmas gifts, and we celebrate Eid, and include them in that.

So it’s just kind of an extension of ourselves that we share with both sides. And there’s love involved in that. And there’s acceptance of difference involved in that. My children really do have a well-rounded sense of what it all is- and both sides are their family.”

Jasmine was interviewed and photographed by story ambassador Gabbie Follett at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury.

Her interview was then transcribed by Kelli Cleary, an Everyday Boston supporter, and edited for length, clarity and flow by Cara, founder of EB, in partnership with Gabbie. Cara wrote the intro text.