You know how little kids say whatever they want, whenever they want? They aren’t self conscious. They aren’t worried that the world won’t like them if they mess up.
I spent my elementary school years in and out of school. My parents were pretty careless about pulling me out if they were traveling, and sticking me back in when we got back. They liked to do their South Asian travel during the winter, which allowed them to miss monsoon season, but wasn’t really ideal for my school year. I really don’t think it mattered much, and maybe because I was in public school in New York City, I don’t think anyone at the school cared. I had some math workbooks that my mom picked up at the grocery store, and I did those off and on. I was pretty good at math and it was kind of fun to finish the books. And I read. I read and read and read. So whenever I got back to school and suddenly had to draw a bean plant and name the parts, or had to do long division on the blackboard, it was never a problem. And I was a real talker, so if we had to discuss poetry or a book, you could hardly shut me up.
In sixth grade, everything changed. My parents decided that I needed something more rigorous and that they would be more careful about snatching me out of school to go on long trips to weird places. I still went on some pretty strange trips, but they were a little less scattered, more concentrated during the summer and school vacations. My dad teaches South Asian history at the New School, my mom runs an antique shop, and both of them thought that it would be better for me to have more challenging schoolwork. They have some friends who somehow got me an interview at this fancy school on the upper East Side—not one of the crazy elite schools, but it was still posh, compared to what I was used to. I remember the interview well—I wore these dusty brown Doc Martens and cotton harem pants that I had made myself, and I must have looked a sight! The headmistress was almost like a cartoon character, she was such a type—poofy white hair, pink sweater, pearls—and thought I was hysterical. I found out later that I was getting a big scholarship. I don’t know whether it was because we couldn’t afford it or whether they thought I needed to be rescued from the perils of public school.
The kids were pretty nice but I had a hard time getting to know them. They did soccer together after school, or dance, or music lessons. They all knew each other, and their parents knew each other. My parents were not really in the loop on school, and since everyone lived all over the place, there wasn't a neighborhood you could draw on to meet people. But everyone was well-behaved, polite, and seemed to care about school and grades a lot more than they had at my old school in Greenwich Village. I knew that I wasn’t like them, but it didn’t bother me terribly. I wasn’t like the kids at my old school, either, and it had never caused any problems for me.
But things took a weird turn at some point that first year, when we were supposed to do a research report on a foreign country. It was an oral report, but we also had to put together some sort of illustrated brochure thing to turn in. I was super excited. I mean, this was my life. I had been to so many different countries, I could speak a few different languages, and dinner at home with my parents was all about which tribal motif was embedded in what carpet from which village in Afghanistan. This was my thing and I was so excited to share. And I was excited to hear what everyone else had to say. You didn’t exactly discuss foreign countries when you went out for recess. I don’t think anyone knew much about the stuff that lived in my head. The girls talked about pop music and movie stars, and I was okay with those subjects. The boys talked about sports, which I knew nothing about, but that was okay because anyway the boys and the girls were starting to separate and do their own stuff that year. Everyone knew that my family and I had traveled a lot, but everyone was so polite about it, as if it would be rude to pry. So I was thinking that standing up in front of the class would be my chance to tell everyone about things that were so important to me.
I remember what I wore the day of the presentations. I was doing Pakistan, a country where we had spent a lot of time, so I wore a shalwar kameez, which are these baggy pajama pants and a tunic and a scarf. It’s what girls wear in Pakistan every day—it’s not some kind of dress-up thing or special occasion get-up. When I walked into the classroom, everyone stopped talking and turned to stare. These were all kids that I had been friendly with since the start of school, kids that I ate lunch with and compared notes with during math class. I didn’t think wearing a shalwar kameez was such an earth-shattering thing, but everyone looked amazed. I started to feel a little funny. I heard one guy say to someone, “Is there extra credit for wearing a costume?”
I sat at my desk, flipping through my notes, but I wasn’t thinking about my presentation. I was suddenly thinking about the last time I had worn that shalwar kameez, running around the gardens of Shalimar in Lahore, surrounded by cascading fountains and apricot trees. I had a friend in Lahore, a much younger girl named Rihana, the daughter of one of the caretakers at the house where we usually stayed. I was always put in charge of Rihana so I had to make sure she didn’t do anything stupid, like fall into a fountain or slip and break her neck on the wet marble. She talked a mile a minute in Urdu with an adorable lisp, switching into accented baby English when I complained that she was going too fast for me to catch everything she said. I had not seen her in a couple of years and I wondered what she was doing. I thought of the sunset’s glowing reflection in the pools at the park, the evening call to prayer, and the scent of jasmine at night, which is always so much stronger than in the day, and to my surprise and dismay I could feel tears in my eyes. It was like being homesick, except that I was homesick for a place that wasn’t home.
I tilted my head back so that the tears wouldn’t actually run down my cheeks. I could see the other students milling about. The girls with their flat-ironed hair and perfect manicures and Ugg boots, the boys with their Under Armour and their crew cuts. The girl who sat in front of me was digging around in a Louis Vuitton briefcase. I suddenly felt quite bizarre, sitting in a classroom on the Upper East Side in my shalwar kameez. Maybe I’m exaggerating how weird it felt, looking back on it now. When I think about it, it’s like I’m floating above the class and looking at this one weird girl with her dark green tunic and pajama pants and frizzy red hair in a scrunchy, in the middle of a sea of perfect straight hair and Abercrombie jeans. I look so strange. And I think that was the first day, ever, that I felt as strange as I probably had always looked.
The first student to present her country was the girl with the Louis Vuitton briefcase, Alexandra. Her country was Egypt. I had been really looking forward to her presentation. I had a lot to say about Egypt—I knew Egypt really well. I even spoke some Arabic, although it wasn’t as good as my Urdu.
But as the presentation unfolded, I became increasingly dismayed. I think she must have lifted the whole thing from Wikipedia or the CIA fact book. Facts and figures galore and estimated GDP. A long, tedious discourse on the pharaohs and the pyramids. I bit my lip, trying to keep the expression off my face. How does anyone make pharaohs boring, I thought. Alexandra continued on, pushing back her smooth, blonde hair repeatedly with a practiced gesture. A sparkly bracelet slid up and down on her wrist.
After she had said the word “Muslim” and “Islam” about ten times, I raised my hand. Alexandra stopped speaking, clearly startled.
“There are Copts, too,” I began. I stopped. I hadn’t meant to stop her in her tracks, but I had feeling in my chest as if I would burst—and maybe she was getting to the Copts and wouldn’t mind some engagement with the class.
Alexandra shot a look at the teacher, who had retreated to the back of the room to listen and take notes.
“Copts,” she repeated.
“Coptic Christians?” I added helpfully.
“Oh. Right. Um, Christians in Egypt,” she nodded. She looked again at the teacher for help. The teacher remained impassive.
There was a silence. I felt eyes on me. I didn’t dare turn to see the expressions on the faces of my classmates. I knew instinctively that I had done something very wrong by speaking up.
But I couldn’t stand it. This was no introduction to Egypt, a country I had loved for as long as I could remember. Egypt was the land of pyramids, it was true. But it was also the land of so much more—Muslims and Christians, a huge entertainment industry that delighted the entire Arabic-speaking world, a Nobel-prize-winning novelist. It wasn’t this dry, boring place that she was describing, and if all you could say about the population was the name of the majority religion, you were entirely missing all the energy and conflict that made it such a dynamic, passionate culture.
“Thank you for your question, Meg,” the teacher said in a carefully neutral tone.
I felt sick. I had done something wrong, and I honestly had not meant to. Everyone was going to hate me now. At the same time, I felt angry. There was nothing wrong with my intentions. I wasn’t trying to make Alexandra look foolish, but she apparently didn’t have anything in her speech about the real Egypt.
My palms were sweating. I felt like I couldn’t move in my seat.
As other students got up one by one to give their presentations, I got to work on my own script. I had written it out in outline form on note cards, but I now took a pencil and started to draw lines through parts of my speech.
It was bad enough that I was going to have to stand there in a shalwar kameez. There was no way I was going to give the delighted description of the Lahore of my younger years that I had planned.
They would never understand the people are the heart and soul of a culture, of a country. They would never understand. I had to just try not to be laughed at, try not to upset the balance.
So my speech was shorter than planned. I started with a casual reference to my clothes and made a joke about pajamas. The class chuckled politely. Most of what I said was not actually written on my cards. I made up some facts and figures about population and chief industries, and then recited a brief history of the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan in 1947 from memory. I didn’t say a word about the labyrinthine alleyways of the market in Lahore, or the jasmine vines in Shalimar.
As I spoke, I looked around the room, but I didn’t see the faces. They were a blur. I could have imagined anything I wanted on those faces—disgust, contempt, amusement—but I don’t even remember them because I was just trying to get through the five minutes that I was standing up there in that outfit. Here’s something really strange—I could still smell jasmine. And I could feel my eyes filling up. I was sniffling and tossing my head because I didn’t want the tears to run down my face. I think maybe this would have qualified as some kind of panic attack, because I was imagining everything—the jasmine, the reaction of the kids, all of it. It wasn’t actually real. But everything, the emotions and the blurry audience, felt so REAL, and my stupid speech felt like something out of the dictionary.
There was polite applause when I sat down. My stomach still felt funny—when I get that angry, burning feeling inside, sometimes it feels weird in my stomach for days afterwards.
I actually got a B+ for that presentation. The weird feeling in my stomach came back when I saw the grade. I saw the brief comment on the front page of the brochure, something mildly critical about my artwork, before cramming the pages into my folder. I couldn’t stand to look at what exactly the teacher had said, but I am a pretty sucky artist, so I told myself that since my parents weren’t helping me to illustrate my work like the other parents did with their kids, I was obviously not going to get a top grade for that assignment. I buried the sense of disappointment and frustration, thinking that I was just glad to get out of that project without further embarrassment. No one had ever mentioned my Pakistani “costume” that day, and Alexandra remained carefully friendly, although she and the other girls remained a little too polite and a little too cordial—I knew that I wasn’t ever going to be their “type” anyway.
On my way out of the classroom on the day that we got our papers back, the teacher stopped me and waited until everyone had exited the room. He spoke kindly.
“You know a lot about foreign countries,” he said to me. I nodded.
“You’ve had an interesting life. You know much more than other kids your age.”
I nodded again.
“You know, some people study foreign cultures their whole lives.”
“I know. My parents—“ My voice suddenly choked on me and I stopped. I tried to clear my throat.
The teacher smiled and cocked his head. “You’re way ahead of most of the kids. But eventually you’ll be able to find people who share your interests. You’ll get there.” He patted my shoulder.
I really appreciated his kindness. And I understood what he was saying. That I was only weird—among my classmates. They were the normal ones, I was the weird one. I was going to be okay if I stuck to weird people like me.