By Lyiba Malik, Age 17
I don’t blame him for the words he said, but I do blame him for repeating them to me, knowing that it would have a negative effect on me. I still don’t why he did it and it’ll always be a mystery to me. I didn’t understand then, the significance of those words. Where he heard those words, I don’t know. A first grader certainly can’t come up with such insults on their own.
It was just after my 7th birthday, and the snow had not yet fallen. It was storming frequently and tornado warnings and watches were issued often. Already, my move to Franklin was gloomy.
I loved my teacher, Mrs. Coats. She was obsessed with frogs and had turned her classroom into its own little forest, with frogs at every corner. I was one of the only “different” kids in my class, a fact that I was well aware of but didn’t think it mattered too much. But I moved, I was a new kid, and an easy target. And one person took advantage of that.
It started out as teasing, but that I could handle. Because of an unexpected accident that occurred six years earlier, I wore glasses, which was unusual for my age group. My glasses were taken away and I was asked to see how many fingers my classmate — let’s call him B — was holding up. I guess he thought I was completely blind without them, because he was surprised when I answered correctly. But then, it started to go further. B asked why my skin was a different color. My ethnicity is South Asian, but I didn’t understand why that merited inquiry. I simply said because my parents are Pakistani and Pakistanis have this color.
That was my first mistake. Exposing myself, my information. I made it easier for him. That was also when teasing turned into bullying.
I knew I was Muslim, as well. Telling this was my second mistake. Because I didn’t know what the world thought of Muslims. I didn’t know the details of 9/11 and who caused it and why the world seemed to think I was to blame. But he did.
For over three weeks, I heard thoughtless and nasty comments thrown my way. Eventually, more people joined B. I remember every word he said, to this day.
“Are you American?” B inquired. I didn’t know the significance of this question until way later on in my life.
“Yes.” I answered, already worn down by his relentless prying.
“You don’t look like me, so you’re not American.” I would be hearing this again throughout the course of my life.
“You’re Pakistani, and Americans chop off Pakistani’s heads.” B proclaimed. I took this as a threat; this was it for me. I went straight up to Mrs. Coats.
“B’s being mean to me.” I tattled.
“Just ignore it.” She dismissed me. I decided to do just that.
Three weeks. That’s how long it went on before I admitted everything to my mother. During those three weeks, B had recruited more people. More people told me I wasn’t American. And I started to believe it. I heard over and over again why I wasn’t American and what Americans do to Pakistanis like me. After about two weeks, I decided it was enough. It was too much to ignore and it was affecting my schoolwork.
“Mrs. Coats, B’s being mean to me.” I complained once again.
“You have to learn to ignore it.” She quickly spat out and turned.
My fondness of Mrs. Coats quickly diminished. Didn’t she understand? I can’t ignore it anymore! It became quickly apparent me to that I was not getting help from Mrs. Coats anytime soon. Almost a week later, a substitute teacher was standing in Mrs. Coats’ place.Finally, someone who could take care of this! Relief flooded me. That day is clear in my mind. We could quietly work in our journals or read. B sat across from me in our new assigned seating arrangement. I was drawing in my journal when B put his book down and hissed, “Americans poop on Pakistani’s heads!”
Ignoring the laughs emanating from the table and confident in the fact that a new adult was here, I waltzed right up to substitute and told her my problem. Her response crushed me.
“You’ll have to tell your regular teacher about it.” She directed. I delayed my walk back to the table, knowing what taunts awaited me, and sure enough, I was bombarded by another claim that I wasn’t American.
“Am I American?” I asked my mom the following day.
I sensed her suspicion when she confirmed, “Yes, you are. You were born here,” She paused before asking, “Who told you that?”
“B.” The truth was out. The torture that I had to endure was finally not only my burden. Not confiding in my mother was my third mistake. The relief I felt was indescribable. I knew for certain now someone was going to stop it. She would tell my teacher and she would put an end to it.
“What else has he said?” My mom started investigating. And so I repeated all the horrendous insults that I heard. At one point, my mom stopped me, and got out a paper and a pen and started writing. Her facial expressions changed from horror to disgust to determination throughout this little session. I didn’t understand why she was horrified at these words. They were just annoying to me, but they meant so much more to her.
When I stopped, she declared, “I’m going to the principal with this.”
“Noooo!” In first grade, going to the principal meant that someone was in for a tremendous amount of trouble. First graders rarely were called down to the principal’s office. Until now.
“Then he’ll tease me for being a tattletale!” I wailed.
“No, he won’t.” She firmly proclaimed.
Knowing this war was over and that I lost, I dreaded the next day. But the prolonged feeling of dread in my stomach was not enough for me to skip school.
Just before lunchtime, we had a small field trip to the library, where all I could think about was what was going to happen. B and his gang had been called down 5 minutes earlier and they still had not returned. I randomly picked out a book off the shelf to show Mrs. Coats that I cared when the secretary walked in towards Mrs. Coats.
She whispered, but I could still hear her. “Do you have Lyiba Malik?”
I turned around and Mrs. Coats was pointing at me.
“I need you to come with me.” The secretary ordered. I dropped the book and she escorted me over to the principal’s office.
Mr. Reinke (the principal) towered over the sniveling first graders who took up all the chairs in his office. He smiled warmly at me and gently comforted, “You can sit on my chair.”
I avoided eye contact with B as I shyly sat on the large cushioned chair. All eyes were on me. I then noticed that my mom wasn’t here.
“Now, tell me what they said to you.” I paused before spewing out all the hateful words that were once directed at me. Mr. Reinke’s expressions mimicked my mom’s.
B didn’t deny saying those words. But the rest of his crew did. They were downright scared of the principal and what their punishments will be. Though they repeatedly shook their heads desperately and urged, “No, no, no!” over and over again, Mr. Reinke believed me.
“All of you are getting detention!” He boomed, his finger pointing at everyone. “Except you,” He pointed at me, “But I am a little disappointed in you. You should have come to me sooner.” Mr. Reinke pointed out my fourth mistake: not going straight to authority for help.
Those snotty and superior spirits of B and his bunch that were present when they ridiculed me vanished.
But Mr. Reinke and my mom’s anger at hearing those words tugged at me for year after the incident. As I grew up, I finally understood. I learned and experienced discrimination much worse than what B had said to me. I’ve experienced danger and heard words that every Muslim, every South Asian, and every South Asian descendant will hear. I’ve experienced the real world. Bullying at this level cannot be stopped by ignoring it. Intervention from adults was the only thing that worked for me to stop the ignorant comments throughout elementary school. Comments such as the ones I heard come from a bigoted and ignorant environment, but these words should not be allowed to penetrate the learning environment of our schools.
Looking back, I realize that those words were just child’s play. That was just the door to what people like me would have to endure in American schools. What’s beyond the door is much worse.