As Ms. Jillian distributed crisp orange sheets of construction paper, she called out in her cheerful voice, “Halloween is right around the corner guys and our classroom has no pumpkins, no ghosts, not even a teeny tiny spider to get our little friends in Class One spooked. Let’s get to it!”
Aaniya shyly took the sheets from Lee and, in barely a whisper, murmured, “Thanks”. Lee smirked. Aaniya cringed. She knew she was doing something wrong but could not figure out what could possibly have gone wrong in this little exchange.
Again, Lee smirked, but this time she glared pointedly at the stack of orange sheets remaining in her hand. “Don’t they teach you where you come from that you are supposed to take ONE and pass the rest back?”, Lee said, loud enough for most of the class to hear. Most of the kids did hear… and, naturally, snickered. Aaniya could feel her ears burning hot with embarrassment. How on earth could she have been so dumb? This second day of school was going as badly as the first.
Scrunched low in her seat, she got to work. Mindlessly, she started doodling dark scratches with her sharply pointed Number Two pencil. Attempting to draw a pumpkin was easier said than done. Peering to her left, she snuck a peek towards the paper of the girl next to her, the girl with the bouncy golden blond ponytail. Fluid lines graced her paper. Already, a beautifully symmetrical pumpkin, an intricate spider creeping down a wispy web graced her page… this girl could draw! Aaniya turned her gaze back to her own ‘Work of Art’ and tears burned the corners of her eyes. Her throat clogged up. Hers was crap!
For the millionth time, Aaniya cursed the fates and longed for the safety of her bed with the uneven stack of the latest Nancy Drews and Sweet Valleys beside it. There she could pretend to belong. She could be Nancy, solving mysteries, or one of the twins, with perfect blond hair and an equally perfect golden life.
Oh how Aaniya craved normality, to not stand out with her not quite straight and not quite curly brownish black hair. How she craved that secret ability that made her class breeze through life with confidence!
Why couldn’t she be one of THE COUSINS ? They probably had costumes already for Halloween and would definitely be going trick or treating. Their parents would be taking them! Their parents probably even had their house decorated! But then, they were born here so they were American in every sense of the word.
Amma and Abba would kill before celebrating such vile AMERICAN traditions! “This is not our country and these are not our values Aaniya!”, they had repeated countlessly over the years when asked “but why can’t we”…
Feeling helpless and miserable, Aaniya, scribbled along on her once promising orange construction paper, willing the clock to hurry along. Thankfully, this was the last class of the day.
Squinting at her paper, Aaniya thought her drawing was a great replica of what her neighbour’s two year old recently regurgitated when Aunty fed him mushed up carrots and peas. With a self-deprecating chuckle, Aaniya added uneven blobs of black, green and white across orange. Her ability to make fun of herself saved Aaniya from total humiliation today as she felt the wetness recede behind her eyes.
As she continued her bizarre scrawls and scratches, Aaniya thought to herself, today I will ask Amma if we can have a costume and a pumpkin too. Maybe a Barbie costume? And a pumpkin on the doorstep ? Just this once…please ?
Even before the thought of asking had fully formed in her head, Aaniya knew what the eventual answer would be… a resounding NO.
The shrill ring of the bell brought Aaniya back to the present. Despondent, she gathered up her belongings and haphazardly dumped them into her bag. Slinging it across one shoulder, she made her way through the melee of chattering middle-schoolers towards the school’s main exit.
As Aaniya made her way home, she felt a familiar anger tightening up her chest. If they were not ever to be ‘American’, why on earth did they continue to live here ? She thought to herself. Why not go somewhere where they belonged ?
As quickly as that last thought popped into her head, she dismissed it. She shuddered at the thought of moving to her birthplace, the land who’s people and customs had become more alien to her than this land where she had spent the majority of her childhood.
Oh what’s the point, she thought, as she made her way towards their latest rented accommodation. Nothing is going to change. I don’t belong anywhere! With these despondent thoughts, Aaniya slowly trudged homeward.
“I asked if you’d like to hang out for a while after school ?”, she said. The doorbell had rung just as Aaniya had come in to her house and hung up her jacket in the hallway. And here was this girl from school, the one with the bouncy ponytail. She was saying something. In her nervousness, Aaniya could only see her lips move but heard no sound. The girl looked questioningly at Aaniya. Blushing and calling herself every sort of a fool, Aaniya asked her to repeat.
Suddenly the day seemed less bleak. Gathering her thoughts, Aaniya replied that she’d need to ask her mum first. Aaniya ran into the kitchen, bumping head first into Amma who was busy preparing dinner. So excited was she by this branch of friendship extended her way that Aaniya was incoherent in asking Amma’s permission. Luckily, her new friend was rather more composed. She introduced herself to Amma as Helena. Amma was rarely taken by surprise but this girl’s composure rendered even the unflappable Amma speechless. Helena quietly asked if Aaniya could come and carve pumpkins at her house this afternoon as that is what her family had plans for. Aaniya tensed and could feel the stiffness coming over Amma’s features.
Amma began to explain to Helena that we do not celebrate Halloween and other common American holidays but before she could finish Helena blithely interjected, “Oh, neither do we, we are Greek!”
Aaniya tried to read Amma’s expression as Helena said this; she couldn’t decide if it was one of confusion or just pure disbelief. What did occur to her was that this could turn out be an interesting friendship.