The first day of school in a new town is horrible regardless of the circumstances. Now imagine being in a new country for a week and then immediately having to go to school. Add a dash of spice (the kind that horror movies are made out of) and make sure you don't speak a word of English. And finally to top it off, make it a junior high.
Junior high is probably the most awkward time in a kid's life since you are not really a kid anymore but not yet an adult. It's a very strange and uncomfortable transition period. It's hard enough fitting in under normal circumstances but throw my set of facts in there and you have a recipe for disaster.
Ah yes, I can still remember that first day of junior high with great detail. Day one at Lakeside Middle School was my first day of 7th grade. The only thing going for me was the fact that my grandparents' house was on the same street and it was comforting to know that my family was close by.
I arrived at Lakeside around 7:30 in the morning figuring that I could pick up my schedule and locate my class before the first bell. Noticing that everyone was standing in a line by our gym, my instincts from Iran kicked in and I quickly joined one of the lines figuring that it must be important. I randomly picked a line and joined the herd of cattle as we slowly moved forward.
Upon my arrival at the promised land, or more precisely, the front of the line, I was asked for my last name. At that point I realized that the lines were set alphabetically and I was standing in the wrong line. Luckily I was in the H-I line and the lady in charge of Js was sitting next to her and was more than happy to hand me my schedule.
I was thankful that I had dodged my first hurdle of the day given that I had the competence of a 5-year-old child. I took the paper from the lady and started walking to a quieter location so I could figure out what was going on and where I was supposed to go. I had been practicing a little basic reading and writing with my uncle but was completely ill-equipped to deal with the situation I was in.
To my horror, I found out that due to my late registration, they had hand-written my schedule. Even worse was the fact that they had used cursive writing and I could not decipher any of it for the life of me. At this point, I only knew how to say basic words like “hello”, “goodbye” and whatever else I had learned from Sesame Street. I was completely unequipped to deal with such high level stuff as cursive writing.
I looked around in desperation for an Iranian face in the crowd and found my cousin standing there looking over her schedule. I was both shocked and relieved at finding a familiar face in the crowd. Shocked to find out my cousin was going to the same school and had opted not to tell me; and relieved that I managed to locate her in the sea of students. I grabbed my stuff and ran up to her.
Given that it was 7th grade and everyone was trying their hardest to look cool and impress everyone else in the hopes of establishing their reputation for the upcoming years, I'm sure she appreciated her fresh off the boat cousin running up to her and frantically speaking Farsi to her. She probably wanted to melt away and pretend that she didn't know me, but instead, was very nice and helpful.
I was quite proud of myself to have escaped the second hurdle of the day unscathed. Apparently my cousin and I were in the same first class so she escorted me to the room. The class began and the teacher took roll and of course, when she got to my name, there was a long pause. My cousin who had encountered this situation before offered our names, thinking it had to be one of us that was causing the long pause. She was correct and my third hurdle of the day was handled smoothly.
I was starting to feel quite confident of my ability to survive the school day without incident but within 20 minutes my dreams were summarily shattered. Just as I had started to feel a bit comfortable in my surroundings and situation, the bell rang and everyone jumped out of their seats in search of their next class (later I found out that this was merely our home room and not a class). In Iran, we would sit in one classroom and the teachers would rotate but that was not the case for my classes in U.S.
My cousin joined the crowd and left me on my own. There I was standing alone in the room with my schedule in hand trying to figure out where to go when the teacher noticed my distressed look. She came by and asked if there was anything wrong (I am assuming this part since I didn't understand English at the time but she looked like a nice lady so that's probably what she was asking. She could have been saying “get the hell out of my room” and I wouldn't have known the difference).
I took out a piece of paper that my uncle Mehrdad had written for me. It was my life raft off the Titanic and my last true hope of survival in this unforgiving ocean of a middle school. It read, “I don't speak English, can you please help me?” I saw a smile on her face and she took my schedule from my hand and looked it over. She then took me to my next class and introduced me to the teacher. I made sure to memorize every detail so that I could get there the next day. The routine of teachers taking me to my next class continued for the rest of the day. I am eternally thankful to them and my uncle's note.
My fourth period class was physical education, which normally would have been great. No talking was necessary and I could show off how good I was (or thought I was) at soccer. Sports are probably the best way for kids to assimilate into new surroundings. Sports are universal and if you're actually good, you can get the respect of your fellow classmates without speaking their language. I think this is probably why my younger brother cruised through the whole assimilation process with relative ease.
Two events happened, however, that traumatized me during the physical education period. First, while standing in line, a huge blond guy came up to me and told me to go home. It took me a couple of minutes to translate the sentence in my head. Of course, I also misunderstood what he was meant by “home”. I thought he was telling me to go home for lunch. Since lunch period wasn't for another hour, I thought he figured if we all went home now the teachers could not do anything about it so I smiled at him to try to portray my approval at his clever thought process.
Sadly, that was not what he meant. He got angry and then pointed at me and fired off the same sentence. I started to think that this guy was trying to tell me something about my clothes (like they were dirty or something) and I should go home and change. Not knowing what to say, I just smiled at him again. This upset him even more and to illustrate his point, he punched me. Ah ha! A light bulb flashed above my head and I finally understood. Violence — the international language.
There's nothing like good old fashioned violence to get your point across. The teacher saw the punch and told him to apologize to me and shake my hand. I had no intention of shaking his hand fearing the worst but the teacher encouraged me to do so. We started to shake hands and he started squeezing harder and harder. Eventually he let go and I was set on avoiding him and his skin head friend for as long as possible.
Being wholly traumatized by getting punched on my first day at a new school in a new country, I was relieved that the day was almost over. Physical education period ended and at the end of our class we came back to the locker room to change. At that point we were informed that we had to take communal showers! Everyone at that age is in their awkward stage of growing, or more frighteningly not growing, depending on your particular position in the race to puberty. My jaw dropped at the thought of having to get naked in front of so many people. So I slipped out of the back of the room and pretended to be sick for the next two weeks until the mandatory showers ended >>> To be continued >>> Index
Comedy & Satire in San Jose on February 27 >>> Details