It was Tuesday. As usual, I sat alone tracing the letter of the day (“P”) in my kindergarten class when Ms. Zimmerman, the English as a Second Language supervisor, sauntered in. Seeing her freshly painted red toes from the corner of my eye, I kept my head down and tried to focus my pencil on the worksheet in front of me, hoping she would call on Juan Luis or Vanessa. My efforts were futile as she announced almost triumphantly, “Mariam please come with me.” After what seemed like a long, stressful walk, we arrived at her office. I took a seat on the blue plastic chair that would always leave my legs numb. “Today, we will focus on reading,” Ms. Zimmerman said as she reached for Dr. Seuss’s “The Cat in the Hat.” As she flipped through the pages of the book, I skipped through the foreign letters on the page and recited the contents from memory.
Before moving from Urbana, Ill., to Dearborn, Mich., my brothers and I were the only Arabs at my elementary school. During first grade, I would always beg my mama to stop packing the wild thyme and olive oil sandwiches she would wake up early to make for me. Instead, I would ask for a peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich (even though I hated the taste of grape jelly), because I couldn’t find the English words to explain the “green oily stuff” to my classmates when I took it out at lunch. When third grade rolled around and classmates wanted to have playdates with me, I pleaded with my baba to take down the wheat woven trays and calligraphy pieces hung up on the walls of our home and replace them with family picture frames and “normal” paintings. At school talent shows and science fairs, I would inwardly cringe at my mama’s broken English as she greeted my friends and would quickly change the subject at the mere sound of my baba’s “Ana fakhour fiki.” I would much have rathered the regular “I’m proud of you” that everyone else was receiving.
By the time I was a fifth-grader, I never fully understood the extent of what I was giving up to fit in with my classmates. One summer night, I was picking mint from my mama’s prized mini herb garden, a place that always reminded her of home. The garden was filled with aromatic greens which neighbors would compliment from across the street. As she offered them fragrant samples, my mother would instruct them with her improved, yet still imperfect, English — “Drink with tea” or “Sprinkle on chicken” — along with her pleased smile. With these comforting memories on my mind, I put away my gardening gloves and came back into the house with my mini honey-colored basket. I found my parents resting as my three brothers, each with a half-finished mango drink on the table, were throwing a ball around the sacred guest living room filled with priceless, fragile pieces. My baba’s cup of evening tea awaited the fresh mint leaves I carried in my basket while the sage we had dried and stored the night before rested at the bottom of my mama’s cup. My eyes scanned the room and finally landed on my mama’s as if asking her, “This must be huge if you’re allowing Ali, Ahmed and Amin to step foot into the precious guest room and aimlessly toss a ball around as their mango juice itches to be spilled.” Her simple nod left me in a puzzled state, but I left to wash the mint leaves. Walking back with my own mango drink, I handed my dad the mint. He took a big sip of his tea and dropped the bomb: We were moving.
After the passing of initial shock and many tear-filled conversations with my mom, I eventually came to accept our relocation. Packing the few mismatched books that were strewn all over my bedroom floor after I stormed back into my room, I eventually came to realize the beauty behind the madness of uprooting and starting new. I could barely remember a thing about my classmates or their lives, for that matter. No one will miss me and they won’t even know I left, I tried to convince myself. Boy did I speak that one into reality because on July 4, 2013, all of my family’s life possessions were packed into a U-Haul truck and we were on our way to Michigan. Not a single “friend” came to say goodbye.
Three months later, as I arrived at the steps of my new school for the first time, I wasn’t sure what to expect. My heart was racing as I walked through the front doors. On my way to my first class, the hallways were bustling with commotion. I lowered my head as I trudged through the crowd, trying to blend into the bleak, cinder-block walls. But my eyes widened when, amid the noise, I could faintly make out some Arabic greetings and jokes. Walking into my math class, I was still stunned from what I had just heard. They’re speaking Arabic in school? Why would they do that — aren’t they afraid people will make fun of them? An assigned seat chart was taped to the wall and I could see my name near the back row, sitting next to a girl whose name sounded Arabic too. After more students were seated, I realized almost all of the kids in my class were in fact Arab. Even though I was a stranger, they repeatedly asked me to join their “Friendly Neighborhood Kids” Kik Messenger group chat for meme-sharing, and they encouraged everyone to share stories in the chat. From math and language arts to history and science class, there was a plethora of Arabic words casually being used. Even some of the teachers slipped a few in as they introduced themselves and went over their syllabi.
The next day, I walked into the class to find one massive copy of “The Mark of Athena” on my desk. As I pulled out my chair, a brunette girl took the book and stacked it over “The Son of Neptune” on the neighboring desk as she apologized profusely. She introduced herself as Zeinab. When I commented on how carrying all that book weight probably meant she had some serious muscle gains, her laughter filled our entire classroom. She told me all about the “Percy Jackson & the Olympians” series and how she spent so much time over the summer in Lebanon reading instead of enjoying the scenery and food that her mother thought she was taking summer classes. By lunch time, we had figured out that our schedules were identical and she introduced me to her friends. They were all at a different point in the series, so they pleaded with Zeinab not to spoil the next book for them. Their eyes sparkled as they discussed the contents of the books with me, and I was so moved by their discussions that I skipped lunch with them to peruse the school library’s meager collection. I was able to use the library’s computer database after an excruciating wait and I quickly typed “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief,” praying that no one before me had taken it. Miraculously, there was one copy available and, once the librarian scanned the book, it was my rite of passage into the unofficial Percy Jackson fan club. After the bell sounded for the final class of the day, Zeinab and her friends walked me to the door. Passing out warm embraces and waving goodbye, I assured them that yes, I would make time for reading, even if it meant going to sleep at 2 a.m. On my drive home with my mama, I was nearly jumping in my seat, happier than ever as I proudly relayed the events of my first day to her in Arabic:
و أخيرًا أنتمي.
MiC Columnist Mariam Odeh can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.