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.


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.”

Five Little Pumpkins: A Literacy Narrative by Whitney Crow

Five Little Pumpkins

            Almost a decade ago I first began the journey of teaching my children how to read.  Nine years later I have a twelve-year-old daughter that reads above the level of a college sophomore, and an eight-year-old son whose ability to read is almost as impressive.  However, as amazing as they both are, it was a struggle to get to where we are now.  To explain what we went through I will have to start at the beginning.

Lilly, my daughter, was four-years-old and it was February in Missouri.  The weather there was always unpredictable.  Some days could be mild, and others as harsh as living 500 miles north.  This particular day we woke up to no power, no running water, and no phone service.  I looked outside and there was at least three inches of ice blanketing the world.  The ancient oak tree in my front yard had fallen taking out the power lines, the road, and my neighbor’s car.  The root-ball of the tree was twice as high as my house and completely blocked my driveway.  Not that it mattered much; my car was almost as old as the tree and running on four bald tires.

We lived in a very small town, over an hour from my family and friends.  I was eight months pregnant and my husband had left us to find himself a half-a-dozen states away.  The power had been out most of the night, and our heat was electrical, so it was getting cold fast.  We had two cats and I gathered them up, along with every blanket, sheet and pillow I could find in the house and built a shelter for us in the middle of the living room.  At first I just focused on feeding Lilly breakfast, and making sure we were warm, but then I realized we were going to be there for awhile and I would need some way to entertain her.

Lilly never showed the same interest as other toddlers did in toys.  She would play with them some, but for the most part she would stare at them, or talk to them, or sing to them.  Her doctor had diagnosed her with mild autism (which later we found out wasn’t the case) and said that she would never be completely “normal”.  She seemed her most content when left alone with her imagination.  As an infant she hardly ever cried and would sing to me in her made up baby words every morning when I got her out of her crib.

Since toys weren’t going to occupy her, and I didn’t have much space for her to move around in inside our makeshift tent, I decided to grab a stack of children’s books off the shelf that my mother had given me.  I started by reading to her, but I kept having to try and get her attention.  When I did get her to look at me, her expression wasn’t with interest in what I was saying.  It almost seemed like a look of concern; as if she was trying to figure out if I had lost my mind.

I had read to her before, but it was more of a “look at the pretty pictures” type of reading, then me trying to convey a story.  Since we seemed to have all the time in the world, I had decided to focus on making her focus on me.  So far in her life I hadn’t been able to do it.  I would sing to her and she would go into her own little world.  I would talk to her and she would look right through me.  She would respond with some words, and some actions, but never directly.  She was always well-behaved, but not because I told her “no” or even showed her how to behave.  She was just naturally calm.  She seemed to inherently know what I expected of her.

I read three or four books, and was about to give up when all of a sudden she grabbed one of the books on my lap.  It was a Halloween themed book called “Five Little Pumpkins”.  My mother had just given it to me and I believe it was just something she had picked up at a yard sale for a dime.  Lilly’s eyes lit up.  The pumpkins on the cover had jack-o-lantern faces, and she stared into them as if she was trying to read their souls.  I was afraid to open the cover.  Would she lose interest if I read the words inside?  After a few minutes, I decided to read the first page.  To my surprise, she seemed to listen intently.  It almost seemed as if she was focusing not just on the book, but on me.  I read the next page, and the next, all the way to the end.  Then I heard it: “Again Mama”.  My eyes filled with tears and I immediately started the book again.  She seemed even more engrossed the second time through, and then I realized something.  She was focusing on me.  She was looking at the book, and then into my eyes; at the book, and again into my eyes.  It was the first real connection that I had made with her, and from that moment on it was as if the wall between her and the rest of the world hadn’t fell necessarily, but had broken just enough for there to be a window for her to reach through.

We spent three days without heat, and the last without much to eat or drink, but I wouldn’t have traded what I was given that day for a luxury condo on a sunny island.  My daughter had found me, and from that day on we never lost each other.  Five Little Pumpkins was the first book I read to her brother after he was born, and first book that they both learned how to read on their own.  (Although my mother says it’s because they had already memorized all of the words.)  I still have it.  The edges are worn, the pages are smudged, and the binding is held together by yellow rubber ducky duct tape that my daughter once called “book stitches”.  Someday I will read it to my grandchildren, and tell them how their mother found our world.


From Instructor Mahaffey:

Each semester, I assign my English 101 students a Literacy Narrative, and every single time I sit down to grade, I come across stories from students that blow my mind, make me laugh, humble me, inspire me, and even sometimes make me cry. Whitney’s narrative did a little of all that.

A Literacy Narrative is meant to showcase a student’s experience with literacy at some point in their lifetime. Students can choose to write about a number of different topics–learning to read or write as little children; exploring ways they read or wrote throughout their elementary and secondary educations; experiences with proficiency testing or college applications; even learning how to read and/or write music. Whitney chose a different path, though. She decided to show a personal connection she has with writing and her daughter, which takes guts because she is trusting her reader with something that literally transformed her relationship with her daughter. Her writing shows that college essays can go beyond the academic, stuffy voice that students so often think they have to mimic, and instead can be personal and full of storytelling magic we usually like so much. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!