Storytime: The first time I was called a terrorist

We had just moved from our apartment to an actual house, and moving locations also meant moving to a new school. Although I was only entering fourth grade, my anxious self still felt a sense of nervousness, “what if I don’t fit in” or “what if no one likes me?” among many other self-depriving questions…
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/myrausmani/" target="_self">Myra Usmani</a>

Myra Usmani

January 31, 2017

We had just moved from our apartment to an actual house, and moving locations also meant moving to a new school. Although I was only entering fourth grade, my anxious self still felt a sense of nervousness, “what if I don’t fit in” or “what if no one likes me?” among many other self-depriving questions constantly resurfaced while approaching the gate of my new elementary school.

“It’ll be fine My, don’t worry” said my Mom softly and it gave me a sense of relief.

I was sure the first day of a new school would awaken nerves in any fourth grader. So I proceeded to let go of my Mom’s hand as she raced back to her car to get to work and I looked at my neon pink flashcard which had my classroom scribbled on it, “Mr.Johnson, room 4.”

As I entered the classroom, I was immediately flooded with the butterflies that were bothering me earlier today. I was overwhelmed. So many faces and joyous talking from one student to another about the summer and their fun ventures, everyone seemed like they had already been familiar with each other. So instead of talking and allowing others to hear my incredibly shaky voice, I made a mission to find my assigned seat amongst the crowded room, “Myra Usmani on table 7.”

As soon as the bell rang at exactly 8:01 a.m., everyone ran to their seats as their oversized neon backpacks bounced up and down, finally Mr. Johnson walked in. After the stereotypical introduction and icebreakers of our age and favorite ice cream flavor he says, “I see a lot of familiar faces here…. Any new students?”  And much to my dismay my hand was the only one in the air.

After a week went by I eventually made friends which quite honestly was the most of my worries and since I had conquered them, I now felt a sense of relief. But coming soon was a project that Mr. Johnson said he would announce more details about in the following days.

“Okay class listen up, we are going to do an identity project, everyone has to share where they and their parents are from, their religion, a special tradition you do or celebration, as well as any other fun fact you’d like to include” said Mr. Johnson.

Upon hearing this project I was beyond excited. I was so extremely ready for my classmates and friends to learn more about me; I thought it was a great way to make friends. I also have always been somewhat of a perfectionist; I understand that perfection is unachievable but I set my ambitions to the closest thing below that, and for me at the time, I wanted to do amazing on this “challenging” project.

I spent the whole weekend trying to narrow down my favorite traditional Pakistani foods, would it be the rice dish “biryani” which was made with decadent spices and tender chicken or “nihari,” the slow cooked stew with soft, juicy beef. What about the traditions, Eid, which is celebrated as a community to mark the end of fasting, or Ramadan, itself where one fasts from sunrise to sunset to demonstrate the true meaning of sacrifice within the five pillars of Islam.

On Oct. 20, 2011, I woke up extra early to prepare all of the pictures we printed out and neatly organized them into my bright teal binder. Right before I left the house, my mom quickly grabbed a set of her multicolored bangles for me to put on so that I can more easily explain how they are a common item we wear which often matches the color of our clothes.

As I entered the gate that I grew used to seeing everyday for weeks, I realized how far I came. I had friends, I made into the spelling bee, I got into student council, and many other achievements. Although these achievements were small, they meant the world to me as a fourth grader. It marked the huge improvements since the first day because she didn’t feel as though she could fit in, but she did, and that was amazing.

I walked my zealous-self over to the classroom and as always took my seat.

“Who wants to go first?” asked Mr. Johnson.

And immediately my hand guided itself up.

“Perfect, let’s begin, but please remember to pay attention because after each speaker we will be having a mini question and answer session,” he said.

As I read from my index cards and passed around the pictures for everyone to see, all I could think about is all the great questions I would receive after such as “How tasty is the food from one to 10 because they look delicious in the pictures.” My response would of course be 10 and I would go on to say how my parents both cook these amazing meals at home and way better than restaurants.

“Great Job Myra!” said Mr. Johnson as my classmates let out a clap.

“Now time for some questions, everyone get asking.”

I answered all the generic question with ease and finally came the last question from my classmate Luke.

“So throughout the presentation what you’ve really been trying to say is that you’re a terrorist, right?” he said in a harsh and insulting tone as his eyes glared firm and fixed on me. And yet again, the class let out a roar, but I didn’t understand why this time.

An outbreak of laughter and mostly scolding tones that directed themselves in the way of Luke. I had no idea what was going on.

Because I didn’t know what the term “terrorist” meant.

I knew he said something bad simply by the tone in which he said it, but I still believed that I was over reacting and simply misinterpreted what he said, I mean, why would ask me a rude question when I had never spoken to him once? In most of all the raging tones going around the room, I slowing removed myself from my comfortable spot in the front of the classroom and quietly escorted myself to my seat as I sat there in utter confusion.

After sitting down, I saw my teacher from the corner of my eye so I took as peak at him as he stood at the back of the classroom. His face looked paralyzed with shock, which I found surprising because he said he had been teaching for 30 years. Could he truly be that appalled by Luke’s comment?

Mr. Johnson made his way to the classroom and calmed everyone down by his mumble, “Who’s next?”

I then decided that what Luke said wasn’t bad by any means because Mr. Johnson did not address it at all whatsoever, all was well in my mind.

As the bell rang to initiate recess, I made my way meet my friend Nila who was sitting on the snack tables. She asked “How did your presentation go?”

I explained to her that it went well except for the question made by Luke, then the class went crazy for some reason. Within a breath of me explaining, she looked at my with the same wide eyes and jaw dropped face Mr. Johnson had.

“Where is Luke, is he with Mr. Johnson right now?”

“No,” I said as I pointed at him swinging on the swing set.

“So Mr. Johnson didn’t say anything?!” she yelled outraged.

“No calm down, why should he?” I uttered back.

Then Nila explained to me what a terrorist was and what it meant. As she mumbled these words to me I could feel a line of drops slowing traveling down my neck as my eyes and nose decided they wanted to become a shade of bright red.

My voice faintly came out enough for Nila to hear me, “Then isn’t a terrorist just someone who causes terror, why am i considered a terrorist?” as I began to sob again.

“First of all, you are by no means a terrorist, and that’s what I think too. A terrorist is someone who causes terror, there are just some dumb stereotypes attached to the word, but no one in the right mind truly believes those stereotypes,” she reassuringly said.

When I went home that day, my Mom’s first question was, “How did it go love?”

I explained to her that it went amazing. But I left out the part about Luke. I couldn’t tell my parents. I knew if I told them, they would be disgusted not only at Luke but at my teacher for not defending me. They would probably go to my school and talk to the principal and all my naive self could think about is losing my friends and having the teacher hate me. So I kept it to myself.

My parents did however begin to see small changes in my personality. I no longer wanted to bring my traditional foods to school anymore, instead, I opted for school lunch to eat what everyone else was eating, a grilled cheese sandwich.

I also started speaking Urdu, our native language less and less at home. At the time I thought that in order to not be view as a “terrorist” or be seen as a negative stereotype, I had to detach myself from my culture. I wanted so desperately to be, act, and even look like everyone else.

Just a couple of months ago, my mother and I were talking about a violent racial discrimination case on the news. She went on to talk about how thankful she was to have never faced that same type of ridicule considering she is a strong and proud Pakistani woman and doctor. My mother also mentioned how thankful she was that all three of her children grew up in such a nice environment and never had to face that either. I had truly removed and forgotten from my memory the whole fourth grade story until she bought this topic up.

The story didn’t ring a bell in my memory because I had long restored the embracing of my culture as soon as I entered high school because of all the clubs and people on campus who absolutely cherished their culture wholeheartedly. I also felt comfortable to embody my background confidently in my new surroundings. But I did feel the need to interrupt and let her know of my traumatizing experience.

My mother’s face instantly reflected the same mirror Mr. Johnson was looking at when he first heard the question. And to say the least, my mother was extremely stunned that another fourth grader can be so rude. However, my mother was most upset at my then teacher Mr. Johnson. She seemed furious at the thought of him not saying a word but also not coming to the defense of helpless fourth grader who couldn’t protect herself out of pure confusion.

I am not a terrorist simply because of the caramelized color of my skin or my beautiful identity as a Muslim. I am, however, hungry, so please excuse me as I eat some biryani and nihari with my family.