As a child I never knew what it truly meant to be different. Sure, I grew up with my parents always telling me I was special and capable of anything I set my mind to, but being special is not the same as being different.

Courtesy of Mariam Sheikh
Courtesy of Mariam Sheikh

I was born and raised in New York, Staten Island to be exact. New York is just how people describe it — a melting pot filled to the brim with various types of people. I attended a Catholic school, not because it was Catholic necessarily, but because it was private. But now looking back, I realize, it wasn’t really a traditional Catholic school. I encountered people of various races, ethnicities, social class, people who dressed uniquely based on their culture, people who spoke multiple languages — but to me, this was normal, common. This amount of diversity wasn’t even acknowledged because I was so accustomed to it.

I was also raised in a diverse household — my mother Italian-American and my father Pakistani. While my mother technically converted to Islam, we still celebrated a mixture of holidays from both my parents. Thanksgiving was always at our house, Eid was at my aunt’s, while Christmas and Easter was at my grandmother’s. It all became customary tradition. My cousins from my dad’s side even began to celebrate with us. We would color Easter eggs together or exchange gifts each year under our ornamented Christmas tree. This fusion of culture, and of religion, became an integral part of my tight-knit family. It was and still is normal to me.

When I was in middle school in New York, never once was I asked what religion I was or where I came from — simply because it didn’t matter — each student came from a family who came from someplace unique in the world. Identity was not based on nationality, race or religion, but based on your character or your personality. Now, you can attribute this to the fact that we were in middle school or to the fact that I grew up in a diverse area — either way this ignorance to such social divisions was something I had become accustomed to.

In the middle of eighth grade, my father got an amazing promotion. One that required him to relocate to Ann Arbor. Now there is the Ann Arbor that we know and love, the Ann Arbor that is the University of Michigan — it is a fairly diverse place with various people each with their own views and opinions, not unlike New York in some ways. However, when I moved I was entering high school, so I didn’t see this Ann Arbor quite yet.

In New York, at least when I was living there, the public school system was not the best, not like it is here in Michigan. That is the reason why my parents always tried to send me to Catholic schools, they were private with better education, but also not as expensive as the college prep schools. Catholic school was a happy medium.

Upon moving to Michigan I began my high school career at a Catholic school in Ann Arbor. This is where I learned what it meant to be different — it meant being an outsider.

Now, I’m not going to sit here and bash the whole school because most people were kind and I made friendships that will last me a lifetime. And just because some people were ignorant does not mean I classify all Catholics as being ignorant, not in the least bit. However, I do feel like it would be a disservice to myself and the community if I didn’t share some of the things people like me go through simply because others view us as “different.”

Religion is something that I have always just attributed to nationality. You are what religion your parents are, and that in turn comes from their country of origin. My family is not very religious, and I am not very religious. But then again, I believe religion is subjective and each person is entitled to believe whatever they want, whether it is in something, or nothing at all. At my new high school we had to attend mass once a week as a school. And after a few weeks my peers began to notice when I was one of the only students not getting up to receive communion. They asked and I answered — I am Muslim.

Most kids didn’t believe me, some were bewildered as to why I was even at the school, others simply didn’t care. But from that moment forward there were always those few people who would go out of their way to use this aspect of my life against me.

I was in class one day when my teacher had everyone go around and say what they had done over spring break. I always hate when teachers do things like this, no matter how menial I always get bored and nervous, but I planned out my answer and it was simple — I slept. However, before I got the chance to even say my generic, yet honest, response, another student answered for me. While they didn’t yell it for the world to hear, it was audible enough that the whole class heard. The student made a remark about how I was probably making a bomb over break. Most of the class erupted in laughter, some kids stood up for me, and the teacher ignored it — acted like he never heard.

Normally this type of comment doesn’t affect me, I am not prone to what other people think about me, but in that moment I was embarrassed and ashamed. Not for the student who said the snarky comment, but for myself. I kept thinking about how if I was “normal” then people wouldn’t have any reason to see me as different. Looking back on it now, it was a foolish way to think.

In another instance during class we had a substitute teacher who was taking attendance orally. When he got to my name — Mariam Sheikh — he began to repeat my last name a few times looking at me, and then he proceeded to ask me where my headscarf was. Again, the room erupted with laughter.

What could I do? I was not going to sit there and cry. I was not going to leave the room and rat on the teacher. But I also should not have laughed along with them like it didn’t bother me because it did, but what choice did I have. At a school of about 500 kids and in a class of 120, everyone knew each other. Making a scene out of sadness or anger would have just alienated me from people and I didn’t want that for myself.

The stories and instances carry on and range from teachers dropping my name as one that was considered a “terrorist name,” to teachers in theology classes claiming that people who were not Christian or Catholic would go to hell regardless.

As much as it offended me, I don’t blame anyone for anything, ignorance is ignorance, people want attention for reasons others cannot comprehend. And those experiences made me the person I am today, one who is comfortable sharing all of this with an unknown amount of strangers.

However I should hope that in a world that is constantly progressing, a world that is finally beginning to accept all people, the term different should not matter. Yes each person is unique, yes everyone is special. But no one should be called different, no one should be made to feel like an outsider.

Who has the authority to say that I am different from everyone else, different from what?

What is the norm? What is correct? What is right? That isn’t for anyone to decide.

I don’t want to be different, I want to be me.

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