Twenty years ago, I immigrated to the United States from Nigeria. Twenty Years ago, my English was nowhere near what it is now nor did I know the ins and outs of American society. First grade started off well and although I had just learned English by way of Hooked On Phonics, I did well enough to get by.
Second grade wasn’t so forgiving. As I adapted to the culture and navigated the educational system, the once shy six-year-old was no longer. Enter the ambitious wide-eyed seven-year-old. I wasn’t afraid to answer questions or to raise my hand. This caught the attention of my teachers–Ms. Quandt and Mrs. Stewart. It also caught the attention of my classmate Barbara.
From what I can remember, Barbara didn’t waste any time trying to humiliate me or call me names. She made fun of my accent and even physically taunted me. In second grade I wrote my first diary entry. It involved Barbara. I wrote thoughts about how I wanted to disappear from the planet and even make Barbara disappear too. Such morbid thoughts for a second grader.
My diary was short-lived. I wrote only a few entries then lost interest. One day, my father found this diary while cleaning. He told me that what I wrote wasn’t nice. That words hurt people. He went to the fridge, removed an egg and told me to follow him outside. Once outside my dad dropped the egg. He said, “Look at that egg. Look what happened to it when I dropped it. Can you put the egg back together?” “No”, I replied. That egg was meant to symbolize the words that I wrote in my journal. Words that couldn’t be taken back once they were written, like how the egg couldn’t be put back together once it was broken. Later, that egg would also represent how bullying would affect me.
As I mentioned, my teachers picked up on how I progressed. In second grade, I was selected to take the “gifted” test. I passed. At first, it felt like a secret society of special people. In third grade, I’d get transported in a school bus with another student and we’d be taken to Palm Lake Elementary School once a week for gifted. Since 1968, the orange county public school system has described the gifted program as an exceptional student education. Basically, you’re selected to take an IQ test. If you pass, you enter a program hat allows you to get exceptional education different from the rest of the school.
Initially, I saw being gifted as a boon. I only learned English two years prior and now I was an exceptional student! In 1998, I was one of only two students at my school who was in that program. In 1999, I would learn that this boon would be a misfortune. Fourth and fifth grade were some of my worst years in education. The insults were endless. In school, I was labeled as smarty-pants and know-it-all. Eventually, I’d stop raising my hand in class. I was also known as African booty scratcher, among other demeaning phrases referring to my African roots. Prior to that, in second grade, I was proud of my heritage. In my later years of primary school, I just wanted normalcy.
In my final years of primary school, if I could’ve, I would’ve given anything to be a normal American kid. I didn’t want to be smart or born in another country. I didn’t want to have a weird accent or eat weird food with my hands. I just wanted to be normal. In fourth and fifth grade, it wasn’t just one person that did the tormenting, it seemed like my entire class was against me. I hated Ms. Young’s entire fourth and fifth-grade class.
Many days I’d come home crying and my mom would ask me what was wrong. I lied and told her I was alright. She eventually figured it out. She asked if I wanted to move to a different class and I told her no, that I could handle it. Looking back, I wish I had transferred. I remembered one day being so angered by a classmate after he called me a derogatory name that I pushed him out of his seat.
He fell and hit his head on the ground and for a brief second I was happy that I thought he got what he deserved. He pushed me back and I was ready to fight. At that point, I didn’t care. Ms. Young came over and said that we were both in trouble. Latifat, I know the kind of parents you have and how much trouble you would be if I told them. What I wanted her to say was, Latifat why did you push him, you almost seriously hurt him. I would’ve replied, because, every day he sits in his chair and hurts me with his words. Today I couldn’t take it anymore. Today, I wanted him to hurt like he was hurting me.
The torment extended beyond school. Many of the kids in my class played basketball at the local YMCA. I was horrible at basketball but it was my first love. I joined the team and the torture continued. The combination of being a bad player and being the one that was generally disliked was a bad combination in practice. I would always be picked last. I barely participated in team events or was hardly ever invited. I felt like an outcast. My love for the sport made me endure it all. I had so much fun trying to play that I didn’t care whether or not I fit in.
On the court, some of my friends would stand by and watch as the insults were hurled. I’d stand there like a mute. Later, I’d go home and say to myself, man, you should’ve said this or you should’ve said that. Innately, I wasn’t a fighter. I was someone that liked to help people and liked being friendly. Insulting people wasn’t my M.O. Eventually, I overcame it all. I matriculated into middle school and everything got better.
In middle school, we were separated by test scores. The kids that were now in my classes had an open mind and were more accepting. They were also mainly white students. There was a period of time where I likened being kind and accepting to being white. Only because it seemed like the white students were the ones that truly accepted me for who I was.
Flash forward twenty years later. Now as an adult, I’ve relived some of my experiences and tried to placing myself in the shoes of my bullies and even in the shoes of my teacher Ms. Young. Many of my bullies came from disadvantaged backgrounds and broken homes. Their actions were partly because they didn’t know any better. Their parents never taught them that you treat others how you’d like to be treated. Another attribute of my bullies, jealousy. Many of them were jealous that I was getting all this special treatment because of my educational status. They didn’t have any achievements of their own that they could be proud of.
Most importantly, I would say that the reason for their behavior is attributed to the fact that their world is so limited. Many have never met anyone from another cultural background and most haven’t traveled beyond the limits of the state. If they did, it was to visit a relative in another state. Their lenses were limited and so was their mindset. This is not an excuse to say that it is right to cause suffering to others but, just my insight. I think back to the egg and the broken pieces. I liken the egg to an image of my primary school self. My shell has been rearranged and put back together. The cracks from the broken parts will always be there. I have forgiven my bullies but, I will never forget. The scars on my egg remind me of that. The scars remind me of who I am today and how I have been shaped by my experiences.
** If you or someone you know is being bullied please get help. Everyone doesn’t always make it. Too many lives are affected as a result. Visit http://www.stopbullying.gov for more information. It may save a life.
*** If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide or causing harm to yourself or others. Please seek help. Nothing in this world is worth ending another life. Visit http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org