I was about 12 years old when I realized that I didn't have a father. Up until that age I didn't feel his absence. I had friends that called a guy “dad”, but their “dad” beat them up when they did not conform to the rules established by him.
I had my own kingdom at home; I ruled, for I was the only boy in the house. My mother saw in me something of great, which I never understood. Throughout my life, I sensed that I was different, of special merit. But this sense of pride always faded when either of my two uncles was present and while my mother was out of sight. They took “good care” of me, for the sake of my sisters.
“What's wrong with you boy!?” This was the line my uncles started off with. It was at these very moments that I would realize that something intimidating was going to happen. My minimum sentence was a kick in the butt. I didn't mind that since I had a natural cushion that would protect me from any long-term pain. Pulling my ear was the one punishment I hated the most, since it was the sisters' favorite. I remember having a perpetual lesion in the back of both of ears, where the handles of my glasses are sitting now.
No obvious bruises were ever marked on my skin. The idea, I guess, was not to hurt me physically, but to make me realize that I wasn't the king of the house after all.
I was the favorite child of the entire Changizi family when my mother was around and the most miserable when she wasn't; another reason I loved my mother so much. Almost the same reason I did not feel the absence of my father. I never missed him. Nor did I feel his absence.
My friends, though, always resented me, for I had no bruises on my skin, except little secrets on the back of my ears. They had long “adjustment times” with their fathers almost every day, especially in the evening when fathers came back from a long and hard day of work, and mothers had done all their invisible jobs and were ready to complain about everything, including the boys. Girls were fine, I sensed, until they became teenagers and physically grown. I never understood why, until I grew older. But every time I saw bruises on my friends, I prayed and thanked god that I did not have a father.
At the beginning of sixth grade, on the first period of the first day of school, I had an English class. Mr. Habibi was the teacher. He, unlike other teachers, was a very nice and gentle guy. At the first session of school, teachers would go over the roster and tale roll to make sure that everyone was there. Then they would find their favorite students based on their last name and their association with people they knew outside of school. These associations would always come handy when it came time to reduce your “crimes” at school. The closer the ties with the teacher, the lesser the punishment.
I didn't have any problem with that, for my family was well known in my hometown of Gorgan in northern Iran. I never feared any discrimination from my teacher. However, being the teacher's pet did not completely discount the possiblity of physical punishment.
That year there were a lot of new faces around; kids that were coming from other towns or even villages. Mr. Habibi, was young, inexperienced and, therefore, different. He cared about the students and wanted to get to know them.
Our class had eight rows of long tables formed in two columns accommodating three students on each table. Mr. Habibi's desk was near the second column of tables next to the window, across from the door. I was on the forth row, first column. That was my favorite place: not too close to the teacher, since I did not intend to be under his nose, and not too far to avoid any accusation of mischievous behavior.
That very first day he did not take roll. He simply began from the first row on the second column closest to himself and asked: “Please introduce yourself and tell me how many brothers or sisters you have. And also what your father does for living.”
I thought I hadn't heard the last part right. “Did he ask about our fathers? Teachers don't ask these kinds of questions,” I thought. Suddenly, something weird started happening in my stomach. Everything was turning upside down.
Ah, what do I say? I didn't want anyone to know. Absolutely no one! Announcing I lacked a father was to admit I was weak. It would do nothing but attract pity. Or even worse, some kids might tease me for that. How cruel and dumb of Mr. Habibi! The good feelings I had for him as a new and gentle teacher faded quickly.
The whole column was done. I hoped the next column would start from the back, for it would take longer to get to me. By then recess might start. I looked at my watch. It was only 20 minutes past the hour. We still had half an hour to go. The introductions continued from the back. Now I could feel the burning hot air coming from the eighth row. I was going to melt in a minute or so.
I could barely hear anything. My ears started to make noises as though I had mosquitoes in them. My storm in my stomach was getting worse. Drops of sweat poured down on my face. My whole back was wet. My hands started trembling. I wanted no one to see me that way. My weakness had to remain my secret.
Now they were up to the row behind me. My heart was pounding. I could hear every single beat. For some reason I couldn't raise my head. I was trapped. I had surrendered. I couldn't think of any way out of that inferno. The heat was going to melt me, like a cheap tasteless ice cream, in a second or so.
“Next!” Mr. Habibi called. My heart dropped. I rose my head and looked at him. He wasn't looking at me. The guy behind me stood up. “My name is Ali. I have one brother and two sisters … ” He was speaking slowly. His voice was shaking. He moved right up to his next sentence hesitantly: “I don't live in Gorgan. I travel every day from my village. I walk four miles to the main road to join other kids who get on a bus to Gorgan.”
The more he talked the worse his voice got. Then he stopped and sat down.
“Well, how about your father? What does he do?” Mr. Habibi asked. Ali stood up again hesitantly: “My father, my father … he … he … he's … dead.” Suddenly he burst into tears. I automatically turned and looked at him. His shoulders were shaking. He had his head down. He was pressing hard the bottom edge of his faded and wrinkled old coat into his pale, bony fists. His hands were shaking.
My heart sank. I could hear the loudest silence, the most annoying noise ever. Time had frozen. Everything was dead, but Ali; he had been chosen to suffer. I couldn't move. I was dead too. I had almost forgotten about myself.
Suddenly, I remembered what was about to happen to me in a second. I felt the flames rising from within. I was on fire, deaf, blind, speechless. I was paralyzed, next to nothing. Then I heard a kind voice: “Dear Ali, don't be so sad. It's a great loss to you and your family. But guess what? You are not the only one. I know how you feel. I lost my father too. And not just me, Changizi has lost his father too when he was very young … ”
As soon as I heard Mr. Habibi referring to my secret, a thunderbolt struck me. It awakened me. A wave of sudden shock traveled throughout my body at the speed of the light. A pleasant wind rushed over my whole body. I miraculously felt revived and relieved.
“Our strength,” he went on, “is not coming from our father but from within ourselves. A lot of great human beings did not have a father. Take Einstein for example. In fact I have read somewhere that kids who lose their father grow stronger than the rest of their peers. They become more successful in their lives, since they learn the toughness of life early and they rely on their own strength rather than someone else's. I am sure you and Changizi will be stronger than the rest of us … ”
The more Mr. Habibi spoke, the stronger I felt. Strangely, I was feeling special and important, since I was being exemplified as a strong child and glorified by Mr. Habibi. I now saw myself as a pioneer or a knight. And I owed all this to my father — the one I never touched, saw, felt or missed.