June 10, 2019
By KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
Rutherford County Schools
Classmates and family members alike were asked to hold their applause until the end of the Smyrna High School graduation ceremony.
No one actually expected that to happen.
Olivia Looper, a librarian at Smyrna, was assisting the first row of students as they rose from their chairs and lined up to the right side of the stage so they could receive their diploma as their names were called alphabetically.
With each name, Looper could hear someone clapping and cheering.
She tried shushing the noisemaker.
Then, she walked a few rows back and noticed Mohammad Tantawi in the eighth row. He was on his feet, enthusiastically cheering for every single one of his classmates.
“It was amazing,” said Looper, again smiling and laughing as she recalled the memory. “I was like, ‘Yeah, you got it.’”
She walked back to the front. She knew no one minded about the cheering. In fact, some of his classmates were cheering him and encouraging his cheers. Tantawi always has a way of making everyone else feel good — especially about themselves.
He was genuinely excited for the more than 400 graduates that day.
They made it.
And he made it.
On his own since he was 15-years-old, Tantawi has stayed with the families of friends. Though he’s managed to always find a pillow to lay his head on, he’s had his money stolen and been robbed of the one thing so many of his peers take for granted — the love and support of a family. He’s dealt with abandonment issues and battled addictions among a complexity of emotions, but the one place he’s felt the safest has been Smyrna High School.
His walk across the stage at Murphy Center — located on the Murfreesboro campus of Middle Tennessee State University — represented far more than the culmination of four years of studies and hard work. It wasn’t merely the end of high school, so much as it represents the beginning of the rest of his life.
Yes, he indeed madeit.
Tantawi’s cheering was not only a show of his appreciation for everyone else’s achievement, he wanted to make sure each and every one of them had somebody cheering when their names were called out. Despite the uncertainties of his own life, he wanted to be sure that everyone else knew that someone cared — even if that someone was him.
As much as he was proud of himself, he was just as proud of them.
That is who Tantawi is.
“He emits his own light,” said Looper, who added, “He has so much charisma. He has so much life in him.”
Strength and conditioning coach Gabe Villarreal added, “He is the friendliest kid. He just has this sweet disposition to him. He is always smiling and he’s always happy.”
Graduation day — a momentous occasion for all — was met with tears of joy.
That has not always been the case for Tantawi and those who know him best. They have shed lots of hard-earned tears that have not come on the heels of such joyous memories.
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Some of the best and brightest days of Mohammad “Mo” Tantawi’s life have not come without a fair amount of heartbreak, while other days have seen him teeter on the brink of death and despair during his darkest days.
But the light and the goodness that radiates from the 18-year-old recent graduate has somehow managed to guide and lead him out of that darkness.
His parents divorced when he was a year old.
Tantawi’s father sent him to live a half-a-world away, in Jordan, for nine months. His mother eventually took custody and “bounced around trying to provide for (him).” They wound up in Texas before moving to Tennessee.
He was six.
He and his mother were in Smyrna with his sister, while his father wound up three hours west in Jackson. She remarried, but her second husband – who Tantawi referred to as his “pop” – was deported back to Egypt when Tantawi was in sixth grade.
He was 11.
If a glass mirror represented the fragility of Tantawi’s life, it was shattered into more than a million pieces. And he has spent more than six years trying to pick up the fractured shards
of a broken family.
Though he loved his step-father and could not bear to see him leave his family behind, Tantawi has been driven by the last words he heard him share with his mother. He demanded they come with him to Egypt. In his words, she was not fit to be a mother, and without his presence, the step-father said her son would be nothing more than a loser.
Tantawi has been working to prove him wrong ever since.
That separation has taken an emotional toll on everyone.
For reasons that have never been clearly understood, Tantawi’s mother relocated to North Carolina with his sister. She told him, he could notcome with them.
Moving in with his father was also not an option.
Tantawi’s mother left him to care for himself and to figure things out on his own.
He was 15.
“If his relationship with his dad is complicated, his relationship with his mom is impossible,” said Looper, who first learned about Tantawi’s story from Dr. Pamela Perkins, a former English teacher at Smyrna and currently an assistant principal at Siegel High School. “He cannot push his mom away emotionally, and he can’t make sense of what he feels for his mom.”
Though she abandoned him, Looper said Tantawi still loves her — “when he talks about his mom, I see a little boy” — and, yet, realizes he cannot have a meaningful relationship with her because of the influence his step-father still has on her.
“Each year it’s a little bit more compounded than the previous year,” said Kim Clemons, a social studies instructor at Smyrna, of the responsibilities Tantawi’s parents saddled him with.
Tantawi has lived with families of friends and the conditions have not always been great. One family stole from him, and in other situations, his coming and going often went unnoticed. In his words, he was merely a roommate. Never more.
It was a lonely existence.
Despite those hardships away from school, Tantawi internalized the burden of feeling unwanted and was an honor student with a schedule filled with AP classes. That’s how he met and grew close with Clemons, who taught AP world history and is a faculty advisor for student government. He ran track and cross country. That’s where he developed a close relationship with coach Lemuel Holifield and Villarreal.
Tantawi organized his own group of students called SPEAK, which stood for Students Promoting Empowerment, Accountability and Kindness.
“I wanted to gather a group of people together to set the example for them,” Tantawi said. “I wanted to knock the high school social stigma out of their brain. That was really my goal.”
At an age when most of his classmates are thinking of themselves and in spite of his own problems, Tantawi is thinking of ways he can help by speaking directly to his peers in a language they understand.
He often warns listeners of the damage done by casting judgments — a personal injustice he’s felt over the past four years.
“I think it comes from seeing the adults in his life,” Looper said, “like the main adults — his dad, his mom, his stepdad — I think it came from seeing their selfishness and then innocence rebelling from that. … And so I think he actively fights against selfishness.”
Tantawi added, “People don’t see what’s in front of them. They don’t see their value. People look in the mirror, but see something completely different. That breaks my heart. … I find validation and purpose just helping others.”
Tantawi had never been a leader prior to forming SPEAK.
It was a learning experience.
It also gave him a chance to “meet some people.”
Everyone at Smyrna High School — students, faculty, administrators, staff and coaches alike — knows who he is, which is evident by the fact that every single page in his senior yearbook is filled with signatures and well-wishes.
But Tantawi is adamant when it comes to differentiating between knowing who he is versus actually knowing him.
“I was never truly friends with any of them,” Tantawi said. “I care for them and if they need anything — usually people do call me — but as far as hanging out, I never hit that state with more than two, three people even though my popularity was like the average football player. It was just hard because no one told me I was great.”
Looper said, “They love him, but simultaneously they’re bemused by him. They know he’s special, but I don’t know that they know what’s special about him because I don’t think they can identify it.”
“Their experiences cannot compare,” Clemons said, “especially those that are from a safe background cannot really understand.”
“It’s like a puzzle. They have all the pieces … but they don’t know how to put it together,” Looper said.
Tantawi found a family from the support he received from various faculty and the athletic department — Tantawi was a member of the 4x400-meter relay team that qualified for the state championship race his junior year — but Villarreal understood their collective love never truly replaced what he lost from the family members who abandoned him.
“The family dynamic was not there,” Villarreal explained. “He was like a puppy. Even if they’re abused, they come back. They just want your attention. They want your love. That’s how I saw him from the first time.
“He was starving for acceptance, for love and appreciation.”
“I’m a very feely person, so emotions hit me that normally don’t hit other people,” said Tantawi, who produced and hosted a podcast called Dreamer, in which he talked about social stigmas and expectations facing teenagers.
“I guess I’m a little bit different,” Tantawi continued. “I said on my podcast, I got popular from just being Mo. I was weird and I was so different. I never showed embarrassment even though I was embarrassed at times and not fitting in is hard. Being lonely is — when you sit in a group of people and you know you’re not on the same thought process, like, I don’t want to talk about gossip. I could care less about inside jokes. I was the best conversationalist, but when it came to high school talk that I would forget tomorrow, I couldn’t do it. I was incapable. I would actually freeze.”
Dreamer Podcast can be found on Soundcloud and iTunes.
“He doesn’t avoid grief when it happens or the feeling of despair when it happens,” Looper said. “He’s able to define what his problem is, so that he can start looking for a solution.”
Unfortunately, his senior year was marked by noticeable changes in his daily routine.
Clemons and Looper said Tantawi began missing school. When he was there, he was often late and that was only after they would call him. He was tired. He wasn’t eating. His grades slipped. In the fall, he didn’t run cross country in preparation for the upcoming track season. After the first of the year, he told Holifield he would not be going out for track even though the relay team were favorites to win a state title.
Villarreal said he had seen this type of inconsistency with other teenagers in past years.
He said it was typically an indication of personal problems with drugs and alcohol or family issues.
For Tantawi, it was all of the above.
His closest friend had enlisted in the Air Force. His leaving coupled with the broken relationship Tantawi had with his own family finally proved to be too much. He combined over-the-counter drugs prescribed by doctors for anxiety and depression, with smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol.
There was a two-month period when Tantawi admitted, “I was not sober.”
“When you’re fragile and your friends are doing that,” Villarreal asked, “why not? Let’s try this. Let’s try that. Before you know it, you’re doing that every night because it does mask the pain for a time. It does. There was a time where he didn’t feel it.”
On Feb. 25, Tantawi asked for help by checking himself into rehab.
Then came the evening of March 10.
“I collapsed completely,” said Tantawi, of the emotional breakdown he endured. “I started cutting my wrists.”
“That was devastating,” said Villarreal, fighting back the tears. “I know it’s a pain that they are trying to transfer to something else.
“The pain that they’re feeling here,” he continued, laying his hand across his heart. “Let’s move it to here, so I don’t feel this in my heart now. I’m feeling it here.”
Looking back, Villarreal is thankful Tantawi called him that night.
Just 24 hours earlier, after filling the youngster’s backpack with juices and snacks for the weekend, Villarreal had said, “‘You know I love you, right?’ I always said I’m a phone call away. I always told him that.
“Sure enough, that Saturday he calls me.”
Villarreal only knows of one other occasion in which Tantawi resorted to cutting.
“We both got phone calls that same day,” said Looper, sitting with Clemons as their eyes filled with more tears and her voice grew soft and measured. “I showed up at the hospital that night. There was one night when he admitted himself. That’s the thing with him is that … as dark as life has gotten for him over the years, he always has his eye on the light.”
Looper continued, “I would never describe Mo as being too far gone or suicidal because when Mo recognizes that there’s a problem is when Mo goes to get the problem fixed.”
Through all the twisting and turning, and the uncertainty of how his story at Smyrna High School would unfold at year’s end, he madeit.
Personally, he found a life coach, Tina Solomon, who taught him how to recognize his own greatness.
“The same thing I try to tell people, I didn’t even see it,” Tantawi said. “I hated who I was. Me and big dreams just didn’t match.”
Academically, he worked hard and with the support of Clemons, Looper and others, he managed to finish with a grade point average of 3.7.
Tantawi graduated last month, but the end of one chapter brings with it the beginning of yet another. This fall he will be a freshman at The Ohio State University in Columbus, where he plans to major in journalism and theater in the continuation of the lifelong journey of a teenager-turned-young man who is not afraid to dream.
He is 18.
“What Mo has lived through is debilitating for probably 80 percent of the population,” Looper said, “and he’s that special percentage that just refuses to let it keep them down.”
Looper concluded, “He's still in the midst of the darkness and the dirtiness and still saying to kids, 'Come on. It's right there. Come on. Come on. We're getting there. I'm not even there yet, but look how close I am.' And he takes you with him.
“That's why you root for Mo, because not all kids have that kind of power.”
MAIN PHOTO / KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
Mohammad “Mo” Tantawi, 18, pictured in front of Smyrna High School, allowed himself to be vulnerable while sharing his personal story during a post-graduation interview.
INSIDE PHOTO PROVIDED
An emotional Tantawi embraces Smyrna High School Principal Dr. Sherri Southerland after receiving his high school diploma in May.