MICHEL MARTIN, host:
And while President Obama is reaching out to Muslims around the world, many Muslims here in the U.S. are debating how to weave their religious commitments into the fabric of everyday American life. That's the topic of our latest essay from the award-winning series "This I Believe." Here with more is series curator Jay Allison. Hi, Jay.
JAY ALLISON: Hi, Michel. We've received student essays by the thousands. Alaa El-Saad wrote hers for her public-speaking class. By the way, we recorded her this week right after a trip to the dentist to get the color of her braces changed to lime green. Like a lot of teenagers, Alaa is protective of her right to be her own person, even when she feels the pressure to conform. Here is Alaa El-Saad with her essay for "This I Believe."
Ms. ALAA EL-SAAD: America is built on the idea of freedom, and there is no exception for Muslim women. I believe in the freedom of religion and speech but mostly, I believe it's OK to be different, and to stand up for who and what you are. So I believe in wearing the hijab.
The hijab is a religious head covering, like a scarf. I am Muslim, and keeping my head covered is a sign of maturity and respect towards my religion and to Allah's will. To be honest, I also like to wear it to be different. I don't usually like to do what everyone else is doing. I want to be an individual, not just part of the crowd. But when I first wore it, I was also afraid of the reaction that I'd get at school.
I decided on my own that sixth grade was the time I should start wearing the hijab. I was scared about what the kids would say or even do to me. I thought they might make fun of me, or even be scared of me, and pull off my headscarf. Kids at that age usually like to be all the same, and there's little or no acceptance for being different.
On the first day of school, I put all those negative thoughts behind my back and walked in with my head held high. I was holding my breath a little but inside, I was also proud to be a Muslim, proud to be wearing the hijab, proud to be different.
I was wrong about everything I thought the kids would say or even do to me. I actually met a lot of people because of wearing my head covering. Most of the kids would come and ask me questions respectfully about the hijab and why I wore it. I did hear some kid was making fun of me, but there was one girl - she wasn't even in my class, we never really talked much - and she stood up for me, and I wasn't even there.
I made a lot of new friends that year, friends that I still have until this very day, five years later. Yes, I am different, but everyone is different here in one way or another. This is the beauty of America. I believe in what America is built on: all different religions, races and beliefs - different everything.
ALLISON: Alaa El-Saad with her essay for "This I Believe." Michel, Alaa told us she hopes to be a pediatrician some day. She said she wants to help kids realize it's OK to be who they are and be different.
We hope that "Tell Me More" listeners will feel encouraged to write their essays, however different they think their beliefs might be. For This I Believe, I'm Jay Allison. Back to you, Michel.
MARTIN: Thank you, Jay. You can find information about writing for the series, and all the essays we've aired, on the "This I Believe" page of npr.org. Jay Allison is co-editor with Dan Gediman, John Gregory and Viki Merrick of the "This I Believe Volume II: More Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women."