As I begin to find my writing legs again, and attempt to write more thoughtful and op-ed style pieces on this blog and beyond, I wanted to start with something I shared on Facebook that hasn’t left my system. I find myself thinking about it every day.
As people get older, they tend to cling more and more to the power of nostalgia. They seek solace in memory and what they define as their ‘golden days’ (assuming those days were not tainted by any variation of abuse and/or struggle). This notion that the ‘greatness’ of older days can surpass anything we live with in the now or the future is dangerous. But I understand its pull. It’s allure. The trap of it.
The real trick is finding a balance between the thens and the nows and yet-to-happens.
A friend posted an announcement from my first high school’s alumni association announcing that much of the school was to be knocked down and rebuilt turning it from an open air high school (the last of its kind in the county) to a more ‘modern’ closed one (read: prison and death trap should there be a school shooting).
It didn’t take long for a tidal wave of melancholy to hit me.
My first year in America was a formative one of culture shocks and unexpected life lines. And much of the intersection of the two happened at Clearwater High School.
Three days after I arrived in America, fleeing from the war, I started high school. I was 12. It wasn’t that I was smart – my high school transcripts (vastly different from my academic performance in college) will prove that. My mother started me in school in the Middle East early. Though, at 12 the material I was studying as a high school freshman were things I had done as a 7th grader in the Middle East.
I had gotten to know America and fallen in love with it through the films I watched growing up in the Middle East. The archetypes were as real to me as my own family. On the few occasions we took summer vacations to America to visit the first wave of my family that had emigrated I would revel in visiting American toy stores, restaurants, and grocery stores. I fe1l in love with American cereals and Saturday morning cartoons. I had always known that I would eventually be sent to America for my college education as my brother had been; that my family would make the move once I was ready because, per Arab/Armenian family traditions, the unit sticks together.
But the war pushed those plans up four years early.
My first time riding an American school bus was confusing. I remember walking from corner to corner, on my own, unsure of where I was meant to stand. I still remember the girl who signaled for me to wait with her; how she became my bus mate. I still don’t know why she chose to speak with me. I wish I could remember her name. Strangely, I never saw her around the school. Only on the bus.
My first exposure to real Americans – my peers-to-be – was a confusing, shocking reality check. The semester was already underway. I was a late addition. I don’t think my teachers knew I was a refugee kid. I am not sure it would have made a difference.
On my first day I learned three things:
- The word ‘motherfucker’, which I both understood given equivalent insults in Arabic and Armenian, but whose use confused me as a catch-all word for all manner of situations. ‘You Motherfucker!’ ‘Motherfucking rain!’ ‘What a motherfucker that test was!’
- That I shouldn’t wear shorts with my socks pulled up, because then I’d look like a ‘dickhead’. This word I knew from my brother’s casual use when he apparently forgot my name. On more than one occasion. I wanted to look cool and American. So down the socks went.
- The phrase ‘sand nigger’ – which confused me more than insulted me. I didn’t know where to begin with it. The first word was clear to me. The second I had never heard before. But I was a keen observer of tone. And something told me the furrowed sneer that ejected that word meant it was not good.
This was NOT the high school from the films I watched ad nauseam.
I spent much of the first year being filled to the brim with all kinds of words and phrases that I knew were meant to scare and criticise me. This was America during a war, after all, though one it had not started but had butted into (no surprise). And America during war is often intolerant at best – moreso than usual. Thankfully, and weirdly, this first year is the only one in my adolescence/young adult life where I experienced any kind of racism in America. It was a difficult year. I was separated from my parents. I didn’t understand the customs. Most everyday references went completely over my head. And why the hell was an 84 considered a C+?
At least I spoke the language.
This first year is also where I got bit by the theatre bug, something that happened because I needed an extracurricular course and they had NONE of the sports I played growing up and was obsessed with. So I chose an Acting 1 course because I idolised Robin Williams, Carol Burnett, and Nell Carter. I thought this was the way to be like them. I didn’t think my aspirations had anything to do with being a professional actor. I just wanted to make people laugh like they made me laugh. To twist my voice, my body, my face in a thousand different ways just to hear what I thought was, and still think is, the most beautiful sound in the world: Laughter.
I found solace in the auditorium. It became a church to me. Holy. Sacrosanct. I can still recall every inch of this one. Most of them actually. But this one was special. The feel of old curtains. The smell of the wooden slats on the stage floor. How cool they were on my back and legs as I lay there with a book on my stomach being taught about diaphragmatic breathing and thinking it was the most miraculous discovery ever.
This was a beautiful escape for me though I didn’t think of it as one. It’s where I made my first friend sitting in Joy Roche’s Drama 1 class at a side table. Christina. I remember her name. Her face. The impossible alabaster hue of skin. Her kind green eyes. The red lipstick she always wore. Her blonde hair.
And Sjevdia. The gypsy girl who taught me to read cards and people. She was a wild child.
And Ginny, and Molly, and Scooter. With whom I did a lip sync to ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ for the school lip sync show. They wrapped me in toilet paper so I could be the mummy.
And my teacher, Mrs. Roche. A woman who was tough, loving, supportive and never questioned this little strange brown boy being in class. A woman I would one day share a stage with. A woman I got to love and respect as an educator and performer in equal shares.
I was cast in my first school play that year – The Curious Savage – where I had to fake play a violin. The rest of my performance was horrendous. Trust me. There is video proof. My director’s oft-repeated criticism still rings in my ears today: You have arms! Use them!
I spent most of the time watching the upperclassmen, all of whom I came to worship and admire. I wanted to do what they did. I got to share a dressing room with the male ‘star’ of the program and I turned into a ridiculous sycophant as if he were one of the celebrities in the posters that festooned the walls of my bedroom in the Middle East.
I was the ONLY brown boy at the school. And the only one well within three counties. This wasn’t really a problem for me, to be honest. The school I went to in the Middle East was incredibly diverse with students from quite literally all over the world. I wasn’t used to a homogenised student body. I didn’t realise I was missing anything. I was excited to learn how to be a white American.
And then I met my first black person. She was in my math class. Homely. What would be described as a nerd in the stereotypical sense. And I was incredibly confused why other students would harass her after class. I would watch her try to grab her things and rush away. I wasn’t entirely sure what was happening. And then one day, someone spat on her. I knew enough to know that was not a good thing. It horrified me. And confused me.
I was soon adopted into a group of black folks. A group that got tired of seeing me sit by myself at lunch time and took it upon themselves to find out who I was and marveled at where I came from.
Through them I came to understand what Racism was, though to this day I still find the notion of it ludicrous.
I learned about black history when I was taken to the house of Miss Millie – an already-ancient woman who turned her house into a kind of museum.
I was taught what gospel music was. And by taught I mean they thrust me into the thick of it and made me sing songs I didn’t understand in a style that I had never heard before.
I was taught what it meant to have a Chosen Family. A tribe. A community that lifts you up, holds you close, and defends you. At that age, in those circumstances, I didn’t know truly what that meant. It’s only now as I sit here that I really understand what a safe haven that school became for me even on the darkest of days when people would ask if I rode a camel to school, or lived in a tent, or wore towels on my head.
In the middle of the year, my parents finally found a house. In a different part of the county zoned for a different high school. While I lost the fight to stay at CHS for all of high school, I won the battle to see it through to the end of the year. And I kept it to myself, knowing my days were numbered. It was salt in the wound to find out the acronym of my new high school was also CHS – as if that would have soothed the upheaval. The second major one in less than a year, but the second in a long line I would come to know.
In time, my new high school proved to be a different kind of haven. A joyous one. But that is for a different story.
I, sadly, never saw the Bus Girl again. I don’t know what happened to Christine. I lost touch with Scooter a little at a time but stayed connected with Ginny and Molly – for a few years at least. I don’t know what happened to Sevdia but I hope she’s as wild as she was back then. I never saw my amazing tribe again. I don’t remember the reason why, now. It sort of happened before I realised it.
But I always stayed connected to that theatre and that program. Many – actually, I think most – of my longest friendships came out of that auditorium. Crazy, insane people who protected me and made my life better in ways they never knew. In ways I didn’t until I became an adult. I got to meet newer people through friends I had when I was there and new ones I made as I started to do community theatre. Even though I didn’t go to high school there, I was still a troupe OG, so I split my social time between two drama clubs. And I still know them today.
I think about how much I gained in and from that first year and how much I have lost and let go since. I wish I could find them all again. I wish I could find those days again. But I also know the dangerous allure of thinking about it too much. How you could drown in nostalgia and forget about the present let alone the future. It is a difficult thing to straddle: The line between the future and memory.