It would not be the first time – nor the last, I hope – that I would be labeled “ignorant” for what I’m about to say. I have no shame, as these words are ingredients from the heart, sprinkled with accoutrements of humor. And besides, if I am never ignorant in life, then by default I will know everything, and that is not only impossible, but infinitely uninteresting. I’ll take dumb over boring any day. I think.
When I was in middle school, I walked the colorful hallways of a culturally rich institution. What I mean by that is we had a lot of immigrants. I’m pretty sure there was a higher likelihood I would hear Chinese, Spanish or Portuguese being shouted down the hall than English (those Spanish and Portuguese speakers sure are loud people. Jeez). So instead of shooting themselves between the eyes as the school’s funding drowned in ESL and other foreigner-centered curriculum expenses, the administration boasted in its annual production of a Multicultural Festival. It took place in the spring; a lovely time when no one gives a crap anymore, and we all walk around counting the minutes until the final bell of the school year. We had a half-day of classes only, and directly after lunch, the student and faculty bodies were welcomed to join the festivities outdoors. Booths were set up to represent different cultures and languages; the Hebrews had their dreidels, the Brazilians had cheese balls and naked women (just kidding. Not really, I’m sure there were a handful of inappropriately dressed 13 year-olds), the Italians had boche, the Haitians had… I’m not sure. You get the idea. We all walked around, listening to songs, sampling food, trying games, laughing, and co-existing in a rarely seen, guards down, open hearted, human connecting manner. And of course, it was warm out and we were not in class.
I know I was in the 6th grade when this happened because I don’t remember interacting with any American kids. My grasp of the English language was satisfactory by that point, having moved to the country eight months prior, but I still existed in the sub-culture that was the ESL program. This essentially meant I had no idea what the white kids were doing, listening to, talking about, etc. But that’s all right, we had the Multicultural Festival, and I’m pretty sure they were stuck in class, so go us! After walking around for a bit I stumbled upon the German kids’ booth. My education thus far had mostly centered on Brazilian and South American history, but I had read Anne Frank and was well aware of the fact that Germans were Nazis. Regardless, I thought I might use the day’s theme of open-mindedness and socialize with them, especially since they looked pretty lonely in their funny clothes. Their corner lacked the nakedness and loudness of the South American style I was accustomed to, and when a teacher monitoring the booth noticed my side-stepping away, she asked I stay and invite a couple of friends over to hear the song the Germans were about to sing. Never capable of saying ‘no,’ especially when I’m not entirely sure of what is being said to me, I motioned for a couple of friends to join me and we stood there. Moments later, the Aryan kids were singing at the top of their lungs and in perfect unison, some kind of angry song (their national anthem, I later learned) that I translated to: “RUN AND HIDE, brown child.” As they Ichted and GutenTaggended away, I avoided making eye contact, carefully put back the flyer I’d taken from their table and walked away. Fast.
“Are you kidding me? Did you hear that? I was pretty sure Hitler was gonna come out from underneath the table and Zig Hail the hell out of everybody out here,” I whispered in Portuguese to my friend. She didn’t get my joke, as I should’ve expected, because she was very stupid.
How young and inexperienced I was. The fact of the matter is that frequenting a private catholic school in Rio had me interacting with just a few varying shades of white and light brown. It all depended on the combination of Native, European, and African blood your family had. Sure we had the occasional Asian (I remember a Chinese transplant in my 5th grade class who was ostracized for the better part of the first semester until she learned to pronounce her L’s. Yeah, catholic school girls are bitches), but for the most part, we were white-to-manila colored and either Catholic or some other type of Christian. Say what you will about the US, but moving here definitely exposed to me to a greater piece of the pie than I’d seen before. I had the to share my views in a very intimate setting when my 8th grade teacher proposed the following in-class writing assignment: “Reflect upon your journey in middle school and share an important lesson you learned while here.” It was near the end of the school year, and my heart was filled with mixed emotions; I was scared to be moving on to high school so soon, I was excited that my breasts might finally grow over the summer, but most of all, I was proud to have adapted so well and so quickly.
I thought about the multicultural festival, now a distant memory in my adolescent mind. I laughed at my naïveté in associating German culture with Nazi mentality. I was inspired at that moment by my recent history and wrote a heartfelt essay that went something like this:
When all of you guys were gearing up to start middle school with each other three years ago, I was struggling to reconcile with the fact that my family and I were moving to a completely different country. I left all of my friends and extended family behind. I left my dog behind. I was scared and I had no idea how things would turn out. I worked really hard, despite feeling so homesick, and I joined the green team by the beginning of the seventh grade. That’s when I met you guys. Back in Brazil, my friends all looked like me, dressed like me and talked like me. But the friends I made at Fuller Middle School come in all different sizes, shapes and colors. The most important lesson I learned in middle school is to be open-minded. For example, I had never had Indian friends before. At first, I thought it was really strange how Indian people don’t shower every day and they use that oil on their bodies that makes them smell really different. However, I kept an open mind and my Sri Lankan friend explained to me what it was all about and I grew used to the smell. Back in Brazil, I had never had any Jewish friends, but here I learned that they too can have fun in the holidays even though they don’t celebrate Christmas. I learned a lot from many different people, and I can honestly say that I’m happy you are all my friends, and I can’t wait for all the new things we will experience in high school.
I stepped down amid faint applause and open jaws and sat back on my seat. Mom would’ve been proud… I wonder why I’m not friends with any of those kids anymore…