“Where are you from?” Asked the lady behind the desk at my IS 34 school in Staten island.
“Oh!” She said, a smile I couldn’t quite decipher on her face. Perhaps she was thinking where Eee-Run was on the map.
I smile back, awkwardly, as I waited for her to process my schedule for the school year. I was starting eight grades with the limited language of a first graders, and trust me, I am being generous. In the short few months we had been living here, I knew if I smiled, people were usually going to leave me alone. So, that’s exactly what I did. I smiled. A lot. The lady eyed me up and down, her thoughts jumping out at me, swallowing me in their criticism.
I didn’t belong here.
The pixy cut I had gotten just before we left Iran in September of 1990, proved to have been a terrible decision. My unruly, frizzy hair, misbehaving and spinning out of control, added to the complexity of my character. Thick, dark brows, sitting atop the bridge of my nose, spread out like the wings of a crow, enhancing my otherness. And what I believe could only be described as the trademark of an immigrant, or at least the ones from the middle east, embarrassing body odor seeped out of my every pore. I was no pleasure to look at or be near.
“Wait her,” she said. “I am going to call one of the students to come help you take you from class to class.”
“Thank you,” I managed to say.
Smile. Say Thank you. Two things which I had learned were going to get me lots of points here.
Americans love polite children.
The voices of students could be heard as the bell rang and they piled into the wide hall ways. This school was nothing like my old one in Iran. IS 34 was a three-story structure at the end of a long road, its presence felt by all the surrounding homes. Inside, one was met with brightly lit hallways, while pictures and paintings made by the students adorned the walls, making the whole space seem more cheerful.
Cartoon characters depicting children from all over the world, holding hands around a blue and green globe, smiled brightly. A world where everyone got along. Such an American message, I thought, somewhat bitterly.
My eyes scanned the flags which hung around the room I was standing in. I immediately did what I have done ever since leaving Iran. I searched for the three familiar ones I knew. The flag of Israel hung between two countries I didn’t recognize, maybe Argentina or France, I can’t quite recall now. My heart skipped a beat. The American flag hung proudly in the middle. But missing was the red, white and green flag of Iran. It turns out, it’s not one I have been able to pick out on a lineup of colorful fabrics for years now.
The school back in Iran was a one-story building, the same height as the ones to its left and to its right, with no distinguishing factors, except for the name of the school written atop the door. One walked to a large yard, where large fabrics of white or green adorned the walls. Koranic verses in Arabic or famous words from the Supreme leader of the country were painted on them, urging women and girls to be good, modest Muslims.
The school day for girls and boys school began in staggered time slots, lest there be any inappropriate contact between the sexes. The modesty police roamed near the school every morning and each afternoon, ensuring our safety and asking us to adjust our hijab. In each classroom, the pictures of The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini hung above the blackboard. From his place on the wall, he looked down on us with his deep penetrating eyes, observing us, analyzing our actions. I was sure he was judging me, as the sole Jewish kid, to see if I were behaving.
There, in the office, I could hear the commotion from the hallway. I adjusted my bag on my shoulder and turned around. A cute boy pull on a girl’s backpack, but scrammed around her just as she turned to see who was the culprit.
With mocked annoyance, she called out his him, and laughed with her equally beautiful friend. I smiled, feeling ever more uncomfortable in my immigrant skin. I had never seen so many girls my age, dressed so well, with their hair done, teased like ma-do-na’s (come on, everyone knew who Madonna was, even the kids from The Islamic Republic) and easy ways with boys.
I cringed. It was going to be long day.
You can sit down, said the woman with the large hair remnant of the eighties. Her bright pink lipstick and gold hoops seemed out of place here, in a school of all places. I tired hard to not look down at the line of cleavage where her tanned skin was plastered with countless sun spots.
I thought of the principle in my school – my old school back in Iran. She and all the all the other women dressed in black chadors, only the oval of their faces visible. I often wondered what they wore under those long robes, something fancy or could they get away with just wearing pajamas?
What is this place, I thought? I longed for home. For Iran. For the uniforms and the hijabs. I missed the predictably of it all. I found myself longing for the security of modesty, of the girl who told on me when I wore nail polish, or the principle who watched on as she urged me to say the namaz with the rest of the school. Crazy, I know. But I was lost here. Like, how Americans say, fish out of water.
I had been in The United States for less than one year and most of that time, 265 days to be exact, spent being an observer. I assume most immigrants spend their first days observing, watching, learning. It seemed, everyday there was something new I needed to get adjusted to, some new smell, new costume, new way of being.
When my mother brought me to this school just a week before, we met with the principles, the assistant principle, the English teacher, and a language specialist. They would put a plan together for me, they declared triumphantly. We will get Aylin settled in and up to speed in no time, said the nice-looking man in the blue suit and matching tie.
He said Aylin, as it was spelled on my forms, not Eileen, like how it was meant to be pronounced. Like I had been used to for thirteen years. It didn’t matter. When in Rome and all. No one bother to correct him, certainly not me. The pronunciation of my name was the least of the concerns on anyone’s mind.
I watched as the students deserted the halls, just as quickly as they had piled into it.
Got it, one for end of class and one for beginning. I made a mental note.
Say Thank you.
“Ah, Kristine!” The lady with the big boobs and big hair beamed. Here was her genuine smile. She looked pretty, I thought suddenly.
I turned around to see a girl with equally big hair enter the office.
The woman and the girl spoke for few minutes, with an ease I never dared show to adults. No proper Persian girl talked to adults with such informality. This girl was confident, cool and well dressed. Basically to sum it up, everything I was not. I turned a shade of red, and felt sweat line my armpits.
Finally, the woman turned to me, as though remembering the real reason why Kristine was called to the office to begin with.
“This here is Aylin.” Eileen I wanted to say, but thought better of it. “She is new. She in your homeroom and lunch. I want you to take her round today so she learn the way to her classes.”
The girl smiled, as a certain look crossed her face. I smiled back, filled with unease.
Apparently the introductions were going to be one way here.
How I wished I was back in my Arabic class in Iran. At least there, I knew what to expect. And at least there, I looked like everyone else.
“Let’s go,” she said. I stood up to follow her.
Out in the quiet hallway, I purposefully stayed just a step behind her. I wanted to know where we going, but figured the girl in charge, this mature girl who clearly had no interest in me, would explain things to me. She didn’t.
We entered the first classroom, and everyone looked up.
“Hi Mr. something or other. This is a new student.” She handed me off to the teacher and was gone before I could turn around.
“Hi, Aylin!” It’s Eileen! Can’t you people read? I smiled.
Kristine was standing outside of the class waiting for me when the bell rang. I smiled with relief.
“We are going to homeroom,” she said.
What’s homeroom, I wanted to ask, but dared not. I didn’t want her to know we didn’t have this homeroom in Iran. I just followed her, and watched as she hugged friends she hadn’t seen all summer, and boys who slapped her five. I stood back, so as to not disturb her. Truth is, I didn’t want to embarrass her.
In homeroom, the teacher introduced me and I sat in the back of the class.
I still was not sure what this homeroom was. The students were talking and the teacher was simply looking a book in front of her. there seemed to be no organization, no lesson. How odd. Soon thought, announcements and we stood up. I moved my mouth with The Pledge, hoping to blend in, and pretend I knew the words. Obviously, the fact I barely spoke English was a sign to everyone else, and I am sure I made a mockery of myself, as I tried in vain to fit in.
Kristine showed me how to fill out my homeroom card all the while exchanging looked between the some of the girls and boys in the class. They mouthed rapid words to one another and giggled. The sweat was laying thick under my shirt.
I noticed the boy cute boy from the hall way was sitting in front of me. I admired his light brown, perfectly straight hair. So unfair, I thought, pensively touching my own. He must have sensed my gaze on his head, because he turned to look at me. Then he pushed his chair further in, as though trying to put as much distance between himself and me.
All that day I followed Kristine from class to class she dropped me off in front of one then the next. At lunch, I sat by myself and figured the best action was to just not eat. I felt the stares of the entire cafeteria on me and yet I felt invisible all at once. I wished I could hide myself. The day felt like eternity.
Walking up from lunch, a boy who had his arms around Kristine finally talked to me.
“Where are you from?”
“Eee-run,” I said.
“Where is that?”
They both looked at me, and I, stared back.
“Eee-run,”…I said, daring to raise my voice, as though the volume had been the issue. “You know Persia?”
“Ah! She means Iran,” they said to one another, forgetting my presence.
Then they said something to one another and slapped five, laughing.
“When did you come here?”
“In January,” I said, still wondering what had been so funny.
“Ah, ok,” they said in unison.
When will this day be over?
Kristine dropped me off at my second English class of the day, and walked away with the boy.
When she didn’t show up after that class, I stood, watching the students rush past me, as some looked me up and down. I felt exposed. Kristine had the only copy of my schedule and I was overcome with anxiety. I hated this place. I didn’t know anyone. It felt like the entire day I was ignored, looked at, talked about. Each teacher introduced me, but too busy with the class, I was left for fend for myself.
Here, even the hallways had guidelines. The line in the middle of the hallways divided the students who were going left or right, so much organization, yet so much chaos. I was sure I was the only Jewish girl in the school. I left a country behind where I had been the only Jewish girl in my school, a complete outcast, and now, I was in a sea of cool, white girls, with straight brown or blond hair, their skin flawless.
I felt terribly ugly.
At the sound of the second bell, overcome with hungry and tired, I began to cry. Imagine, an eighth-grader, actually crying. I began to walk away, as to not attract the attention of the teacher whose class I had just left. I figured I should make my way down to the office and ask for help. Tears in my eyes, frustrated at my own helplessness, I headed towards the stairs, or at least where I thought I would find the stairs.
Just then, Kristine turned the bend of the hallway, towards me.
“There you are. Don’t you know where you have to go?” she said, her voice tinted and strained. “I showed you the class when we were walking before.”
I felt every bit like the nuisance I was as she walked me to Mr. Robles’ regular English class.
Had she told me where to go? I guess I had missed it, or hadn’t understood.
The plan the administration came up for me to get me acclimated was to enroll me in every English class the school offered. Honors English, regular English and English as a second language.
Soon I would come to understand the term Save the Best For Last.
Did you ever have a teacher that was so tough, you cringed a little when you walked into his or her classroom?
By 8th period, that first school day, I was done for. I was ready to go home, to crawl under the blanket and go to sleep. To forget about the day all together. But Mr. Robles saved the day, perhaps even the whole school year. He was one tough man - he was as tenacious as he was forceful. From that first day he spoke to me in a mock accent, mimicking my own broken English.
He was truly a no-nonsense teacher. Late comers knew he didn’t buy their lame excuses and the notes passed between best friends were confiscated and read aloud for everyone’s amusement, while the guilty parties shrunk from embarrassment.
Uninteresting homework showcasing poor quality work were taped up to the blackboard for everyone to see, as he generously marked the mistakes with a bold red sharpie.
It’s not a coincidence that Mr. Robles’ is the only teachers name I remember all these years later.
He was a giant of a man, not in stature, but in personality. He was the teacher students hated to love, but adoration and respect is all he got. And he had mine from the minute I walked in. His tough classroom policies coupled with his roaring voice stopped the jokesters and slackers on their track. And yet, they kept coming back for more.
As the token immigrant girl in his class, he cut me no slack. He demanded of me what he demanded of every other student in the class. He once told me, (insert mock accent here):“Sediki!” He would almost bellow his words at me, as though my lack of language was due to lack of hearing. “I know you could do it. You got to read more. Do more. If I go easy on you, I’ll have to go easy on the rest of these slackers.” He ended his pep talk with a wink and a smile. He shoved book after book into my hands, even when I didn’t understand so much of what was in them. He asked me to write and read what I had written in front of the class. He saw in me, what I had yet to see in myself.
As I made my way to the bus, I reviewed my list:
Say Thank you.
And look forward to eighth period.
I can do this.