By: Sana Saeed
I used to love telling stories. As a kid, it was more than just a favorite pastime – it was my raison d’être. It was my way of channeling the unbridled creativity that comes with childhood, naïveté and exclusion. Books were my compatriots and their content was almost irrelevant. What really mattered was my place of departure; how and where a story would grab me, pull me in and keep me there. From a very young age, I had learned that the author was dead and “il n’y a pas de hors-texte” (there is nothing outside the text). But there was one thing outside of the text: me. No matter how much escape I sought from the troubles that fumbled around me, it was brief. Starting one book immediately after another was not enough; I needed to create what it was that I wanted. This desire was not outside the usual fast-paced and incomprehensible explorations of children. I did, after all, live in a world where linens and pillows became forts; backyards were areas for excavation of dead bodies and cool rocks – one of these which were never found – and my mother’s make-up and ungodly heels allowed me to experience the curiosities and absurdities of adulthood.
So, I started telling stories.
My first day of public school in New York was dread. Nineteen years and some natural revisionism later, that is the only way I can remember it. I don’t think of dread necessarily because of the events of that day, although those weren’t that pleasant either. That day is one of a few days in my life that I can pinpoint as a marker of formation and growth. My first day of the first grade at John Phillip Sousa Elementary School marked my entry into years of social exclusion, confusion, low self-esteem and, eventually, high achievement and ambitions.
After becoming exhausted with the in-house politics and power grabs of my Islamic school, part of the Islamic Center of Long Island, my parents made the decision to register me in one of Port Washington’s local schools. They had been determined to instill within me a solid moral compass that would be cultivated both at home and at school, but reality had other plans as to how this would play out. They had much faith in JPS – it was, after all, a revered elementary school in a rather affluent town. Education and moral well-being often top the list of priorities for the children of immigrants and it seemed the school would be able to provide both at exceptionally well levels. As my parents took care of registration, I took care of the billowing excitement inside of me. While a generally shy child in public, I had a weird type of spunk and rambunctiously mischievous sense of social interaction. No school uniforms, a proper playground and new kids to play with? My proverbial squeals could barely be contained.
A few weeks late into the first semester of first grade, I cautiously entered a classroom wearing a new fall dress and the stamp of unfamiliarity. My curious and pacing eyes were immediately met with suspicious looks. I was introduced to the class by the teacher and received a collective “hi Sana” of the most graciously unenthusiastic persuasion. I was assigned a seat, near the front, and quickly sat down and began to rearrange my new items inside the desk drawer. I scrunched my face and looked around. The kids were still looking at me. My desk’s surface immediately became fascinating as my sight decided to take refuge there.
The teacher began the lessons for the day, but I found it hard to concentrate on anything she was saying. Instead, I began to take mental notes: grades in this school weren’t divided by a carved wooden separator, but by floors. Everyone dressed differently. There was a play space inside the classroom. There was a boy across the room who, for no apparent reason, sent angry butterflies down my esophagus. My outfit seemed unnecessarily formal for school. I looked different. In fact, I looked unnecessarily different.
Recess came and I stepped outside, onto the playground. Within minutes I was surrounded by the enormity of presence held exclusively by 4 foot-somethings on school asphalt. The forced cordiality of the first “hi Sana” was gone and in its place came the mean-spiritedness that only a child can have and experience. The taunts began. My name was ridiculed. My nose was too big. I was fat. I was weird looking.
Unfamiliar with unprovoked enmity – and enmity in general – I began to cry and ran away. Having learned to respect and trust my elders, I turned to my teacher who was immediately visibly distraught by what I told her. Following recess, however, she decided the best way to redress the situation was to publicly announce in class that she would not tolerate any sort of bullying against any student. She didn’t keep it in general terms, however. She used my example and later even scolded the children in question for having said the things they had to me. Unfortunately for my well-being, this only worsened the situation. I was now not only the weird-looking girl with a weird name but also the weird-looking tattletale with a weird name.
And things just worsened.
Within months, I began to suffer now unfathomable bouts of bullying. One particular memory recounts an incident on the school bus, where almost every child present- older and younger- turned and laughed at me for a joke someone else had made at my expense. Some, discontent with just laughing, even widened the wounds, looking for more space to hold their salt.
Even supposed friends had their cunning ways of manipulating my vulnerabilities, moving me from First Best Friend to Fourth Best Friend in an instant. Their cruelty knew no bounds.
It seemed no one knew what was happening to me even though it was very much so in the open and something that I wasn’t exactly very quiet about. My parents were kept informed by my after-school tears but they were unsure of what they could do outside the home. Truth be told, there wasn’t much they could do at that point.
Becoming tired of the constant insults and isolation, as well as the uncertainty of friends, I began telling stories. I started taking small incidents, rumors, and expanding them. Sometimes I would do this in front of a big group and sometimes I would do it one on one. I wanted to create another world for myself where I was in charge and so everything became a part of the story I was creating in my mind. The problem, however, was that my storytelling translated differently in adult ears.
I had become a liar.
In the third grade, I was introduced to Miss Bloomberg. I was told that she and I would meet a few times a week to talk about my thoughts. That’s what I seemed to understand anyway. For me, it was an opportunity for more storytelling and more conversation. As anti-climactically turned out, Miss Bloomberg was a child psychologist and my school administrators and teachers were afraid that I had become a pathological liar who would be some sort of a threat to the other children as well as myself..
Despite my cries of the social isolation I was suffering through the means of collective bullying, I was seen as the problem. The problem was inside me and no one else. All the other children seemed fine but I was not fitting in and thus the only logical conclusion for my educators was that I had to be fixed so that I could be fit in.
No one seemed to see that I was trying to deal with a hostile atmosphere in a way I knew how and a way over which, most importantly, I felt in control. I had no control with how people, especially my peers, would treat me but I had control over what I perceived and what I said. At home, I would constantly perform for my parents and guests: dance, song, comedy and even some awkward moments of rap and opera. At school, performance came in the form of telling stories and stretching the truths at times to make my peers like me, even if for a moment. My younger brother also struggled to fit in and his shyness was taken to be some sort of a disorder. Both my brother and I were recommended for more therapy as well as medication to reduce and manage our ‘strange’ behavior. It was at this point that my parents, made more aware of what was happening, stepped in and took both of us out of the programs the school had put us into. They felt betrayed – betrayed as parents by educators to whom they had entrusted their children. I wouldn’t feel the pinch of this betrayal until years later when I began understanding what exactly had happened to me.
As I grew older, I found solace in writing. I wrote poetry, short stories and started acting. I wasn’t necessarily any good at any of these, but that didn’t matter. Being allowed creative, unregulated outlets allowed me to find myself and cultivate my own personhood that was built on confidence, knowledge and commitment. I wasn’t a problem; I had never been a problem but I was made to feel like a problem. All I had needed was a pen but instead received the conclusions of a culture of therapy and over-medication.
Yes Barthes, the author is dead – but I was and am very much so alive.