She wore denim jeans and a cobalt UCLA hoodie, like half of our school, and a glistening indigo hijab enrobing her bright face, enhancing her caramel complexion, like a waterfall cascading onto her shoulders. She nervously glanced around the corners of the room, noticing all 24 pairs of eyes noticing her. Instinctively, she shoved her hands in the pocket of her sweater, marveling at her feet as Ms. Kendrick began her introduction. “Class, I’d like to introduce you to Aaira al-Meer, your new classmate. Aaira, would you tell us a bit about yourself?”. The new girl lifted her head up, held it high, and with a confidence no one expected stated “I am 14 years old and transferred hear from Hartwood Middle School.” She glanced up at the teacher, a glimmer of hope in her eyes, hope that her brief statement was enough. “Thank you, Aaira. Why don’t you go sit down in that back row over there, by Steven. Steven wave, would you?” Ms. Kendrick suggested. Aaira quickly walked to her seat in the row next to mine, the sunlight from the windows casting reflections on the walls from the shimmery threads on her head. She sat down and greeted Steven with a warm smile, the kind that can only make you feel like the sun is rising within you, upon which Steven responded with a curt nod before facing the front again. I watched her smile fade, hurt flashing over her face, as she also faced the teacher. Ms. Kendrick began her lesson about a physics concept of some kind, but I was too disturbed by Steven’s reaction to actually take it in. Steven is such a nice boy, I thought. His parents are so kind and he’s usually a welcoming person. Maybe he’s in a bad mood today. We all have those. I tried to sort my thoughts and push them aside to concentrate on physics but Newton just wasn’t interesting enough to grasp my full attention.
Later that year, things had changed. Aaira had fit in well with the class despite the uncertainty people felt at the start of the year. She hadn’t just fit in, she’d thrived. Aaira had run for class representative but barely lost to long-time favorite Angela Marin. She had become the president of the drama club, her performance for the spring show of “Cats” receiving rave reviews from parents and teachers alike. She was rather marvelous at fitting in, one could say. She and I had become acquainted, friendly even, over the course of the first semester. We had been placed next to each other for a new seating arrangement Ms. Kendrick tried out and ended up liking enough to keep it the same for a while. Every day in class, we’d talk about her auditions or my soccer practice or Jordan Graves’ hotness and how annoying Nina Langley was that day. I’d ask her about her old school, she’d ask me how I knew French so well, she’d ask where I got my sneakers and I’d compliment her on the colorful and always uniquely patterned hijab she was wearing that day. And so we talked back and forth, learning the ins and outs of our personalities, our hobbies, our pasts.
May 23, 2017, was the day nothing mattered. News broke that a terrorist attack had occurred in New York City, reporters said damage was nearly as bad as on 9/11. Thankfully, we were on the other coast but the wave of fear rolled farther than California. School had been canceled, flags lowered to half mast. The president was on TV giving a meaningless speech. News outlets updated casualty reports frequently, the numbers of death invading every screen or paper or conversation. The evening of May 23 brought the answers so many Americans were afraid of but wanted to hear anyway. The terrorists had claimed responsibility. They were Islamic terrorists. Suddenly, the event that united us all through fear was less of a security issue than a reason to hate Muslims.
The aftermath of the attack caused ripples in the previously calm sea of our class, waves even. I had just settled into my seat in the back of the classroom when Aaira arrived. Almost instantly, the mood shifted. Paper airplanes hit the ground and didn’t take off, pens stopped writing last night’s homework. And then the tension broke. “Why’d your uncle blow up New York? He hate the pizza or something!” Steven jabbed. “Yeah! Where are you hiding your bomb? I bet it’s under that towel on your head!” Nate added viciously. Aaira stopped, looked around the room at the cowering figures and mouths spouting disgusting comments left and right, and strode over to her seat next to me with her head held high. As she sat down, I marveled at her composure. “Aaira, doesn’t that bother you? I mean, I think it’d bother me.” I asked curiously. She turned to me, a small, kind smile tugging at her lips. “Lara. Those comments don’t bother me, “ she answers, “ I have built up a sort of tolerance. Growing up Muslim, or a part of any minority, in this country exposes you to hate and disrespect stemming from the fear of the unknown from an early age and it’s not easy. The important thing is to have the courage to value your individuality over the opinions of others. Every day I choose to wear this “towel” on my head as a symbol of my faith, as a connection to my God. My religion is a part of my identity and no one must be ashamed of who they are.” she finishes. At that moment, I didn’t know what to think. I only knew what I felt. I felt a tingling sensation on my skin, goosebumps emerging on my bare arms while a feeling of warmth rose from my toes to my cheeks. “That’s incredibly brave.” is all I can muster.
And before the bell rings, all Aaira says is “I had to be brave to be me.”