What Are You? — A narrative essay by Shahbano Dar

What Are You?

            “Where did you come fro-… what race are y-… what’s your nationali-… um… what are you?”

What am I? I’m female. I’m seventeen years old, I’m 5’ tall and 110 lbs. I live in Cassatt, South Carolina and I go to North Central High School. I’m ranked nineteenth in my class and I’m captain of the North Central Silver Knights. These usually aren’t the types of answers people are looking for when they ask the question. I am Pakistani. I was born in Camden, South Carolina, but my parents were both born and raised for a portion of their lives in Pakistan. My father left Pakistan for college when he was 19 and my mother moved with her family when she was 9 years old and has lived in the United States ever since.

Growing up, I’ve always been the odd one out. Kids in school never quite knew where to fit me. I wasn’t pretty enough to be a prep, I wasn’t sporty enough to be an athlete, and I wasn’t quite smart enough to be top ten in the class. I was a cube trying to fit into a box with round holes. My peers knew that I was different, but weren’t quite mature enough to understand what that meant. I wasn’t black, I wasn’t white, I wasn’t Hispanic, I wasn’t Indian, and for some reason, if you didn’t fit into one of those general categories, you were too different to belong anywhere.

As I grew older, people in my grade began to understand a little more about where I was from. In a way, you could say that I’d gotten my own category in their mind. For some, that meant I was accepted more. The idea of me didn’t seem so foreign anymore; they’d gotten used to having me around and seeing that I really wasn’t as different as they thought I was. For others, that meant I had another war to fight – racism and ignorance.

People my age were only two or three years old when 9/11 took place, so many of us don’t remember the tragedy itself. However, the previous generation had witnessed it all happen themselves and many harbored a lot of hate towards Muslims. Many kids in my generation picked up on this hate, having grown up around it all their lives. Unfortunately for me, that meant that I’d have to take their blows, given that I was the only Muslim person the majority of these kids had ever met. The nicknames, the bomb jokes, the slurs, the insults, I’d heard them all. I could see the racist joke coming before the person even opened their mouth. I could hear the giggles and mean comments people whispered to each other from across the room. I could feel the discomfort in my stomach when someone who I knew would pick on me came close by.

It felt like I’d become the punching bag for all the pent up hate everyone had towards Muslims. I felt like I’d been vandalized with all the lies and stereotypes people were throwing at me, and the worst part is that I began to believe them myself. Sometime around middle school, I became afraid to tell people that I was Muslim because I knew what usually followed. I would just avoid the topic of religion and sometimes even race altogether, leaving people hanging when they’d all ask the same question, “What are you?” I’d put up a wall to block anyone and everyone out. I began to believe that there was something wrong with me for practicing my religion, but I knew that even if I didn’t, I’d still face the same hate for my race. I was very young and very lost about who I was and what to do about it. I knew I wasn’t a bad person; I’d never intentionally hurt anyone – but then why did I feel like one? Why did I feel like I had something to be ashamed of?

At the end of every day, I’d come home to my small Muslim family in tiny Cassatt, SC. I remember looking at my sister and wondering if she had to go through the same things I did – if she had to put up a wall or become a punching bag. I didn’t want to find out. I wanted to keep every ounce of my home life as normal as it could be. I wanted to be the outstanding role model of a sister and the perfect little Muslim daughter for my mother. I wanted to keep everything as if there was nothing wrong at school, but it grew harder as I began to doubt myself. Pretending everything was okay drained me, and I found that it only lead me to putting up another wall towards my family.

With all the negativity I was facing at school, I took to the internet to find a positive space for me to be. I ran a social media page where I’d post anything and everything that I liked with no rules and no filter required. I was free from the eyes of my peers and my family and for the first time in years, I didn’t need to put up a wall. I was free to be a just another stranger on the internet that no one knew and that was just the way I liked it. I surrounded myself with other people who accepted me for who I was and grew a following who supported me and gave me a new sense of confidence and a way of handling the ignorance I faced at school.

I hadn’t done anything wrong to deserve the way I was treated and I knew this now. I just needed everyone else to know this as well. It wasn’t my responsibility to put up with their hate, it was theirs to educate themselves enough to know better. I also knew that nothing would change unless I made it. I’d gone years putting up with the wrong things people would say about me, just pretending like it was a joke or pretending like I didn’t hear to avoid actually facing the situation. I realized that this was what I needed to change. This was what was allowing them to continue. It took every ounce of strength and confidence I had, but soon I began correcting people and standing up to their ignorance. When someone would make a joke, I’d be sure to call them out on how racist and incorrect they were. When someone would play dumb to make fun of where I’m from, I’d call them out on how uneducated they sounded. Once people realized that I wasn’t going to let them walk over me anymore, they stopped. I didn’t feel like I had anything to be ashamed of anymore and I wasn’t afraid to tell people who I was.

Though I’ve moved past the insecurities of being a Muslim Pakistani-American, it still bothers me to this day that something as unimportant as my race was the cause of one of the toughest challenges I’ve ever had to overcome. What should it matter what a person’s race, religion, appearance, sexuality, or any other factor that they can’t control about themselves is? People weren’t born with labels slapped on their foreheads. We all come into the world with the same blank slate and we are all equals. What am I? I am human.

From Instructor Poole:

I chose this essay because it reminds me why reading and writing is important. When we write about our own experiences in the world, it helps us to make sense of our lives. When we read what other people write–especially when it’s as well-done as this essay–we get to spend some time inside another person’s head, to see the world from their point-of-view. Doing that makes the world a better place.

Escaping Detroit: a narrative essay by Sarah Dick

Escaping Detroit

I was bruised. I was bloody. I was hanging out of an eighth story window of my apartment in Detroit, Michigan. Sean, my then boyfriend was on a drug and alcohol fueled rage and had once again taken it out on me. This was normal in our relationship. He would get angry, I would get hurt, and then he would apologize as if nothing had happened. I would forgive him and go on myself like nothing had happened. This night however was different. As I hung there cold and scared, I saw my savior shining brightly in the night across the street “Go Army.”

It had been two years since I left my parents’ home quite abruptly with a note saying I wanted to be an adult, and I was moving in with my boyfriend. I had packed my things and just left without warning. Looking back now I can see how cruel that was and how much I must have hurt them. Sean and I moved into our apartment together in downtown Detroit. He was a DJ and said this location gave him the best opportunity to book clubs, and I followed blindly. I was 19 and Sean was 26. In those early days Sean was a normal nice boyfriend. He brought me flowers at work, watched sappy girly dramas, and was really attentive to my every need. Slowly things started to go wrong, very wrong.

It all started at a party. Sean got very drunk and thought I was dancing with another guy. He dumped his drink on my head then threw the glass in my face. I still have a chip in my chin from where the glass hit. From there things just progressed and got worse. I was hit with beer bottles, baseball bats, anything that Sean could get his hands on. All the while I was completely cut off from my family. My parents took my car back and Sean did not allow me to speak to them. I had no friends and was completely isolated from everything I had ever known. I even had to report back to Sean after work and tell him everything that happened that day to keep him informed. I was not to talk to men at all. Then, at 20 I found myself pregnant. Upon telling Sean he was thrilled. He bought me flowers and loved on me so much. I actually thought things might be okay. Then he came home from a friend’s house drunk and high and threw me down our apartment building’s stairs. I was in the hospital for three days. I lost the baby, cracked two ribs and had a fractured a tibia. This was not how things were supposed to be.

However, I had no idea how to escape. He would find me. He knew where my parents lived and knew where all my friends lived, so I was at a loss on what to do. Then about a month later he had me dangling out that window over Jefferson Avenue and I saw the “Go Army” light. That was it! The Army would be my sanctuary. “I lived near no Army base so it would have to take me far away from Sean and all his horrors, wouldn’t it, “ I thought to myself. I held on tight and climbed my way back into the window. A plan began to form in my head on what I was going to do.

The next day while Sean was at work, I walked over to the recruiting station that housed that Go Army sign. I spoke with a recruiter and lightly explained my situation. They understood and promised to help me. We got everything done we could that day. My next step was to call my parents and ask for their help and forgiveness. My mother was in tears, and my father was speechless. They knew something was wrong but did not know what. I explained I had a plan to leave Sean, but I needed them to come and get me and help me pack, quickly. I did not want Sean to know anything; I just wanted to leave him. I was still scared of him even though taking those initial steps to leave him left me with a sense of power. I was sure to keep my plans secret and continued to act normal around Sean, but my departure was fast approaching.

The day had finally come when my parents would drive that 47 miles into downtown Detroit and pack up my life to escape Detroit and Sean. The recruiters from the Army showed up to help me evacuate the apartment and help me pack up. I cried tears of utter joy and gratitude for those that were around me supporting me in this endeavor. When the last box was tucked away in my mom’s car, I knew this was it. We drove to Troy, Michigan, another 45 miles away for me to take the Army placement test. From there we went home.

It took two weeks to finish all the paperwork and get me officially enlisted in the Army. I was going to be an Intelligence Analyst and train in Arizona. I was thrilled it was far away. I had not heard from Sean, but I was still scared of what he might do. I left on April 16, 2003, for Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for Basic Training. My parents were so proud. From there I traveled to Arizona for advanced training and then on to Germany for my first duty station. I met my husband in Germany, something I never thought I could have because I never thought I could trust again.

Three years later I got a call from my mother saying I needed to look at the local Detroit news and that it was important. The headline read “Local DJ in ICU after being thrown out window.” I read the article; it was about Sean. Someone had thrown him out a three story window, and he landed head first on the pavement. He was in critical condition and not expected to survive. I contacted some of his old friends online and found out that he had been with another girl and was beating her as well. The theory was that someone was seeking revenge for what Sean had done to her. A couple of days later Sean died. I felt nothing except relief. He was gone, forever. The boogyman could never get me ever again.

At 19 I learned that just because you may think you are ready for adult situations does not necessarily mean you are. I wanted a life that was all my own, and I got a life that was full of pain and anger. That is until I saw the Go Army sign while I was forced to hang outside a window in the cold. The army saved my life, and I can truly call myself a survivor.

From Instructor Jones:

I nominated Sara’s narrative essay because it is one of the most compelling narratives I have ever received. She not only shared her personal experience as a victim of abuse, but she also shared how she overcame this terrible experience. Her essay was well crafted from beginning to end, and I believe her story is inspirational. I have to say that I was completely surprised when I read her essay since she was an intelligent, self-confident military veteran when she was in my English 101 class. I am happy to say that she is now continuing her education at USC

Redefining Pretty: a reflection essay by Daisy Noyola

Redefining Pretty

I open the box of cheap hair dye. It reads, “Luminous highlights for dark hair.” After months of begging and listening to my mother’s warnings, I finally have her permission to dye my hair for the first time. No one else in my 6th grade group of friends is allowed to dye their hair yet, and I feel supreme. Inside the small package, there is a bottle of hair dye and also a pouch that reads “bleach.” I’m not very informed about hair care or beauty products, but I feel a tinge of nervousness when the stuff that my mom uses to clean floors is about to be put in my hair.

“Mom, why is there bleach?” I ask.

“Don’t worry. That’s hair bleach. It’s supposed to go in your hair,” she replies.

I exhale and become less tense. I still have a lot of questions, but I decide I will let her start. She runs her fingers through my thick, dark hair and begins to separate it into sections. I look up and see my reflection. My skin is bronze, even with the absence of sunshine. I look at the picture of the girl on the hair dye box sitting on my bathroom sink. She is smiling big and bright with perfectly pink lips, a ski-slope nose, and fair skin. Her “dark” hair compliments her hazel eyes.

In my mind, this box of hair dye would somehow magically erase all my imperfections. I was planning on washing my hair, letting it dry, and looking at my beautiful golden locks unfold in front of my mirror. All of my expectations were slowly beginning to diminish the further the hair-dyeing process continued. My mother was certainly not a cosmetologist, but I had trusted her with my hair. The box came with simple instructions, which I had made sure to translate into Spanish to her, and I could tell she was as clueless as I was as she lathered my hair with the hair bleach aimlessly. I began to panic every time I looked up at the mirror, but I would try to reassure myself that my hair would look pretty when she was done. I would be pretty when she was done.

The process was long and miserable. There was constant tugging at my hair and the smell of hair bleach and dye would linger in my nose for the next few days. The chair I had been sitting in was far from comfortable, and my mom had demanded I sit still continuously. I thought it would all be worth it, but when my hair was finally dry, my excitement took an abrupt halt. My hair looked nothing like the golden locks I had envisioned. My black hair was mostly still there, and the “highlights” looked like brass. My face felt hot and a lump began to form in my throat. I was distraught. A million worries began to pop into my mind, but my number one worry was that I had to go to school looking as ridiculous as I did. My plans of transforming my entire appearance were destroyed thanks to cheap hair dye.

My middle school years were plagued with my disastrous attempts like this one to alter my appearance. It seemed that no matter despite how horrible the results were, I still continued to try and change. My eyebrows were once bushy and almost connected, but I spent so many nights ripping them off that they now grow patchy and in a strange array. I remember countless hours of clicking through YouTube tutorials on how to make my eyes look big using cosmetics or tutorials on how to make my skin lighter “naturally.” I would spend nights planning out how I would change my hair and how I would wear my makeup. Although, many of my plans fell short because I didn’t have the materials nor the skill to most of the things that I wanted. I became obsessed with watching beauty gurus, and I even convinced myself that I would be able to look like the skewed image of “pretty” that I had created for myself. These things certainly weren’t what I should have been focusing on as a preteen, but that didn’t stop me.

When I would think of my appearance I often used the term interchangeably with my worth. Most of my idols at that age were beautiful women and girls who had colored eyes and silky, light hair. As a child, my dolls did not even resemble me. I would always pick out the pretty dolls, with blue eyes and golden locks. It was this type of thinking that lead me to believe that the characteristics that defined me were a burden. I hated summer because my skin was already “dark enough” and the sun would disgrace me even more. I hated my nose because it was too wide, too long, and too crooked. I could never see the beauty in my dark brown eyes because I had spent too much time admiring eye colors that I thought were prettier. It had never dawned on me that my heritage, which has given me my defining characteristics, carried its own beauty.

Now, I know that my “imperfections” were only the result of my apprehension to accept my culture. They were a result of the predominantly white school which I attended during my middle school years. I had spent these years denying my Latino background because I never saw it as appealing. When I would look into the mirror, I would always find ways in which my face did not match up to the Eurocentric standards of beauty that had been ingrained in my mind for so long. At the time, I wanted nothing more than to wake up one morning and look like the girl on the hair dye box. I had never resented a face more after all of the trouble I put myself through. It wasn’t until recently, as a 16-year-old, that I began to realize that these characteristics were a part of me that I could not mask. I have been able to expand further on the word pretty. I now know that it is not a word that must be skin deep. I have learned that I have a pretty mind, a pretty heart, and a unique exterior with its own beauty.

From Instructor Poole:

I chose this essay first and foremost because it’s well-written and it feels honest. It’s also an act of courage; Daisy has written eloquently and with humor about a potentially painful episode of her life. Writing about our own experiences is something that’s often a lot more difficult than it seems, and Daisy has done that well in “Redefining Pretty.”