“Amani, hurry up, or you’re going to miss the school bus!” my mom called from downstairs.
The first day of my middle school career had dawned, and it was my first time ever having to take a school bus to school. My new school, Samuel Morse Middle School for the Gifted and Talented, was almost thirty minutes away from my home. I rushed down the stairs, grabbed my bag, and walked down the street and around the corner to the north corner of 70th and Oklahoma where my mom told me the bus would be waiting for me at 6:45 A.M. I glanced at my watch. It was 6:40 A.M. I had no idea if anyone else was even scheduled to be picked up at this bus stop, but for now, it was just me. My anxiousness ate at me. Who would I sit by? Should I sit in the front or back? Maybe I’d sit in the middle and play it safe? How would I know if it was the right bus? I glanced once more at my watch. 6:43 A.M.
No other kids had shown up yet. The only other kid in sight was a blonde boy across the street. Was that my bus stop? Should I have gone there? No, my mom told me to stay put here. She told me this was my bus stop. Oh, finally, there was a yellow school bus driving down the street. I glanced at my watch. 6:47 A.M. So, it was a few minutes late, but it was finally here. I watched the bus drive right past me, make a U-turn down the street, and return to pick up the blonde boy who stood at the corner across from me, before it drove off. OK, so that wasn’t my bus. I waited a few more minutes.
The bus never came.
The bus issue wasn’t the only problem I had to deal with. There were the normal middle school issues of hormones, pre-teen angst, and social issues running rampant in my life — but I now also had to deal with a gigantic school. Morse had three different floor levels, all of which went in a complete circle with interconnecting hallways. The different grade levels rarely mixed because each grade had their own hallways. We had practiced changing classrooms in fifth grade, but it was nothing compared to this school. In elementary school, we simply went next door. At Morse, we carried stacks of books, notebooks, folders, and pencil cases up and down flights of stairs to our different classrooms because we weren’t allowed to use our backpacks.
I had been mandated to move out of my safe community bubble by my parents. They insisted on my attending Samuel Morse Middle School for the Gifted and Talented. Morse Middle School was a diverse school. Students of all ethnicities from all over the city of Milwaukee attended this school for its gifted and talented program. I’d be the first Palestinian and first Muslim to attend this school.
Fast forward two years…
September 11th, 2001 dawned like any other normal Tuesday morning. I woke up and headed to the school bus for the half hour commute to school. As an eighth grader at the school, I finally felt comfortable because I was the “big fish” on campus now. I had grown into my own skin and had become a young woman now. I had my clique, loved my teachers, and was finally starting to feel like a grown-up.
My first class of the day was math with Ms. Gleason. Even though I hated math with a passion, she always made it fun. We were working on some algebraic forms in class when Mr. Allen, our social studies teacher, popped into class. A good looking man, Mr. Allen was tall, well-built, with milk-chocolate skin and a bright white smile. His handsome looks and great personality caused all the teenage girls to “crush” on him. As soon as we saw him, we all waved and screamed hello. He nodded but didn’t reciprocate our welcome with his gorgeous smile like he usually would. Instead, he whispered something into Ms. Gleason’s ear.
Her smile faded and the color drained from her face. Mr. Allen turned and walked out of the room. Ms. Gleason walked back to her desk and sat down at her computer. She typed quickly and stared at the screen intently. After five minutes, she resumed walking around the room, helping us with our math work, but the color remained gone from her face. We waited for Ms. Gleason to say something, but she didn’t.
It wasn’t until I had made my way up to science class the next period that I learned why Ms. Gleason and Mr. Allen had become upset. I walked into science class and saw a television cart set up at the front of the classroom. Ms. Moore barely showed movies in class. My loud and rambunctious classmates now had an eerie quietness to them. My peers quietly sat themselves down, staring at the television, hypnotized by the smoke and two burning buildings before them beneath the banner headline that read America Under Attack.
“Children, take a seat. The principal said it was OK for you to see this. You’re old enough. This is history in the making. Sit and watch,” Ms. Moore said, standing next to the television, turning the volume up to the maximum level, and then retreating to the back of the room, her arms crossed over her chest, to watch with us.
My classmates and I watched the replay of the planes hitting the towers over and over again. The news anchors’ words blended together. “In Washington, at the moment, the presumption is that this is a terrorist attack… difficult to understand… it happened so quickly.” My thoughts raced to my sister who lived in New York. Was she okay? What about my aunt and cousins? They lived there too. Were they okay?
The class sat in stunned silence staring blankly at the screen in front of them.
After twenty minutes, Ms. Moore turned off the television, waking me from my trance. She leaned against her lab table and rested her hands on her pregnant belly.
“I know this is a scary thing, and you are probably too young to understand it, but when you go home, your parents will explain it to you. Otherwise, when you go to Mr. Allen’s class, he said he will explain it to you. For now, we’re going back to science, and just try to focus, OK?” She gave a weak smile and resumed her normal lesson.
A few periods later, during social studies class, Mr. Allen turned the television back on, and we received more updates. He insisted that the class watch the story unfold in real-time because it was history in the making. This time the news anchors talked about a group called the Taliban and a group called Al-Qaeda. Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, and person on television at the time, called the people who did these horrible acts terrorists. NBC’s Andrea Mitchell speculated that the people who flew the planes into the towers and the Pentagon were Muslims and Arabs, supported by Osama bin Laden.
I placed my head on my desk.
Shortly after, I felt a nudge in my back. I turned around and faced Jason, one of my classmates. “What?” I said.
He leaned closer to me and motioned towards the television. “So you’re telling me your people did all that? What the hell is wrong with you?”
I stared at him in shock. My people did this? Did they do this? I didn’t even know who the Taliban and Al-Qaeda were. “Shut up, no they didn’t,” I said.
“Yes they did,” he whispered. “They did it. If they don’t like it here, tell them to go back to wherever they came from.”
Tears welled up in my eyes. I lowered my head down on my desk again, unable to grasp what Jason said to me. I was unable to follow what was happening in front of me. I was unable to comprehend why this was falling back on Arabs and Islam.
I was unable to understand why this was falling back on me.
When I returned home from school that day, my first instinct was to make sure my family in New York was safe. My mom was laying on her bed watching the news unfold on the television in her bedroom. I crawled into bed next to her and rested my head on her chest. She stroked my hair.
“So you’re telling me your people did all that?”
“Mama, is Sara OK?” I asked.
“She’s fine, habibti. Everyone is fine,” she replied, still stroking my hair.
“Mama, what happened? I don’t get it. Was it Arabs?”
She stopped stroking my hair and instead, patted my back. “It’s fine, you’re young, don’t worry about it. Whoever did it is bad, and they’re gone now anyway. Don’t worry about it. Go do your homework now,” she said, turning up the volume on the television with the remote control.
I climbed out of her bed and walked out of her room. I turned around and stared at her as she stared absentmindedly at the television. From her empty gaze, I knew that whatever had happened was not fine.
September 11, 2001 changed the world for Americans and non-Americans alike, including those of Middle Eastern descent.
It had everything to do with me.
I raced to the computer and signed into my America Online (AOL) internet account. My older cousin, Safa, was online. I turned to her for guidance because she was older and wiser; I needed to know what was happening. I needed to know who had done this. The television news provided no new information. Unfortunately, Safa was no help. She only confused me even more about the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. I tried to learn as much as I could about the Taliban and Al-Qaeda on my own over the next few days. I tried to do as much research as I could online, but when I told my parents, they yelled at me. They said the government was now tracking anyone interested in those searches. I asked to go to the library, so I could read about the topics a bit more. I also sat with my father and had him explain the two groups to me.
I found that they were “Islamic” militant groups based out of Afghanistan that take the words of Islam out of context. They wreaked havoc on those around them while they called themselves fundamentalist Muslims. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda organizations claimed to do horrible things to people on behalf of their religion. On the contrary, Islam preached and continues to preach peace.
After the horrendous acts of September 11, many American citizens acted out against those who looked even remotely Middle Eastern. For example, “Five hundred furious people mobbed a Chicago-area mosque and refused to leave until they were forced out by police. A Pakistani grocer was murdered in Texas. A man on an anti-Arab rampage in Arizona fatally shot a gas station owner who was an Indian-born Sikh” (Reaction to 9/11). As these stories began to make headlines, I began to internalize the importance of everything that had happened over the last few days. Was my family safe? Was I safe?
When I returned to school following the attacks, the school scheduled an assembly to let students know guidance counselors were available to talk if we were having a hard time coping. A lot of the students shrugged it off. It meant nothing to them. Nothing in their lives had changed.
After the principal dismissed us to our lockers, I met up with my friends and tried my best to maintain my normal routine. My friends maintained normalcy with me, so I did the same as well. Upon reaching my locker, I noticed Jason and a few of his friends hanging out nearby. I kept my head down and opened my locker to grab my materials for the first few classes. I focused as hard as I could on my math, science, and social studies materials, trying to not notice Jason and his posse walking up behind me.
“Amani,” he said.
I ignored him.
“Amani,” he said a little louder.
I turned. “What?”
“Just thought I’d tell you again that maybe you should go back to your country. You know, if your people are going to do stuff like this,” he said.
His friends laughed.
I turned away from him, threw the books I needed in my bag, and slammed my locker shut. I took a step forward to head toward class, but Jason took a side step in front of me.
“What? No response?” he said.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “I was born in West Allis, dummy.”
“Yeah, but you’re not American. What kind of American name is Amani, anyway?”
“So? Maybe it’s Mexican. Maybe I’m Mexican.” Crap. What had I just said?
“Oh, so you’re Mexican?”
If that’s the only thing that would get him to leave me alone, then fine. “Yeah, I’m Mexican.”
“Oh, my bad,” he said, stepping to the side.
I kept my eyes to the floor and made my way to Ms. Gleason’s math class. I had almost made it safely inside the room, when I heard someone call my name once more.
“Yes, Ms. Busse?” I responded.
My English teacher, Ms. Busse, waved me over to her empty classroom and shut the door behind us. Our Globe Theatre dioramas lined the cabinets around the perimeter of the room. The soft lavender smell of her perfume lingered in my nose, calming me. This room was my safe haven. After I heard the door click shut, I exhaled. And I burst into tears.
She handed me a box of tissues and rubbed my back as I held my head in my hands and cried. She asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Everything. Jason’s being a jerk about what happened in New York. I still don’t get it.”
“Well, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. Are you OK after all that happened?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I just wanted to make sure you were OK. I know you’re Palestinian and I wanted to see if anyone was giving you a hard time. So is Jason giving you a hard time?”
I wrapped my arms around myself. “It’s fine, Ms. Busse. I’ll be fine.”
“Amani, if someone’s harassing you, it’s not fine. You have to say something. I’ll take care of it. I promise.” She grabbed my hand. “But it’s not OK for them to do that to you.”
I nodded and offered a weak smile. “Please don’t talk to him about it. I took care of it already.”
“You took care of it?” she asked, crossing her arms. “How so?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “I told him I was Mexican.”
Ms. Busse stared blankly at me. “Are you sure that was the right move?”
“I think so. I don’t look like an Arab or Muslim anyway. And no one really knows the difference. It’s fine for now.”
She nodded. I gave her a hug. “Thanks, Ms. Busse.”
The rest of the year flew by smoothly. No one harassed me about being a terrorist or told me to leave and go back to my country. The “Mexican” thing worked and things went back to normal. It wasn’t until Mr. Allen began his unit on the Trail of Tears in January that my religion and culture became an issue once more. Through this unit, Mr. Allen taught that Andrew Jackson wanted to remove Native Americans from their land and give the land to white farmers. The American government began passing laws to do this. Mr. Allen told us things like this still happen today. There are oppressors and people who are still being oppressed.There are people whose voices are being silenced all over the world.Click To Tweet
“I told him I was Mexican.”
His goal was to bring awareness to our school of this type of oppression through a march around the school. Students in the eighth grade class were to dress as people from the Trail of Tears or those from an oppressed country. My best friend Becky and I asked Mr. Allen if we could dress as women from a country like Iran or Afghanistan wearing the abaya and niqab, mandatory clothing for a woman in those countries. He approved.
When the day arrived to wear the abaya and niqab, I brought them to school, threw them on in the bathroom over my clothes, and carefully wrapped and pinned the scarf over my head. I was covered head to toe in the traditional black garb that my mom used in the house for prayer. When I exited the bathroom, everyone stared at me. Students from all three grade levels turned their heads to see my ghostly black figure float down the hallway. The only time I didn’t notice if anyone stared at me was during class because I focused on my work. It wasn’t until gym class that a girl from a different eighth grade class approached me.
“What the hell are you wearing?” she asked.
“An abaya and niqab.” I replied.
“The Trail of Tears march in Mr. Allen’s class.”
“Isn’t that what those stupid girls wear in the terrorist countries?” she asked.
My face felt hot. “No,” I replied with clenched fists.
“Why don’t you go back to your own country?” she asked. “We don’t dress like that here.”
“First, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Second, I was born here. Third, this is my country too. And I do what I want, you don’t like it, oh well,” I retorted, taking a step closer to her.
She took a step toward me when her friend ran up to her and pulled her back. “Jay, forget it. It’s dumb, let’s go.” They both ran off.
Even though four months had passed since September 11, tensions still ran high. Even pre-teens who didn’t fully understand everything that had happened were doing their fair share of discriminating. But I knew I had learned one thing…
I wouldn’t discriminate against myself.
I was Palestinian. I was Muslim.
And that could never change.