by Esther Eriksson von Allmen '19
His name was Mohammad.
But before I knew this, I simply identified him as the shy, brown boy with freshly clipped hair and a plastic Safeway bag in place of a backpack. Keeping his gaze downward, he wavered apprehensively by the doorway of our classroom as we peered curiously from our seats, struggling to catch a glimpse of this new stranger. He wore a thick puffer coat even though we were in the middle of a late- August heat wave.
Mr. Gregal guided the boy to the front of the classroom, gently coaxing him forward with the same tenderness a person would handle a neglected kitten.
“Guys, this is MO…HA…MMAD…,” he said in an exaggerated voice that would likely be deemed offensive nowadays. “…and he’s from Egypt!” His over-enthusiasm made Egypt sound like Disney World. “He’s gonna be with us for the rest of the year, so let’s all be on our best behavior!”
Without saying a word, the boy sat himself down at the desk farthest away from the whiteboard, stretched his arms out onto the table allowing his forehead to sink into the crease of his elbow, and promptly fell asleep. We watched in shock as he dozed for three hours through both math and English. And we watched in amusement as Mr. Gregal struggled to get a handle on the situation. Did this boy understand what school entailed?
Simply put, he was strange from the beginning.
While I was packing up my school bag at the end of the day he approached me with a piece of paper and an ink pen.
“Can I have your telephone number?” he asked in a thick Arabic accent. I felt a twinge of reluctance creep up in my mind, but swept it aside and wrote down my phone number.
Later that night he called me unexpectedly.
“Is this Esther?” he near-shouted from the other side of the line. (He pronounced his Ss like Zs.)
“Uh…yeah this is Esther.” His enthusiasm caused me to grin.
“Oh Esther! Will I see you tomorrow?”
“Eh, yeah. I’ll be at school tomorrow,” I replied, thinking my response rather obvious.
“Okay, well it’s very nice to speak with you, and I’ll see you tomorrow then!” he bubbled and then promptly hung up the phone. The whole thing was bizarre, but I appreciated the refreshingly candid gesture of friendship.
While hanging up my backpack the next morning at school, I overheard a group of girls whispering with each other.
“Oh my God he called you too? That’s so awkward!” said one while laughing hysterically as another recalled the details of their short lived phone call.
“I get he’s trying to be nice, but I think it’s just creepy” complained another. “Mohammad’s like… obsessed with us or something.”
A braver part of me wanted to tap her on the shoulder and point out that had it been any other boy in our class, she probably would have been flattered.
Mohammad called me every few days after school usually just to say hello and occasionally asking about my day. The conversation always ended with him abruptly hanging up the phone while I remained on the other side of the line, smiling to myself. He was different, but certainly not mean. Just different.
The other girls did not feel the same way. As Mohammad continued to call, many felt more and more uneasy until finally they all banded together and approached Mr. Gregal about it.
“He’s making us uncomfortable!” they insisted. As I listened, I felt a stinging urge to say something in his defense. But instead, I watched as Mohommad was pulled from class and ordered by Mr. Gregal to stop calling the girls. He stood with his eyes wide and mouth gaping open, trying to formulate the words and sentences to respond, but to no avail. Had his English been better, he might have been able to adequately defend himself. In a painful silence, I observed as his genuine attempts to be friendly were misconstrued as “inappropriate” and “creepy.”
And from then on he stopped calling.
A couple of weeks later, when a male classmate of mine wore nail polish to school, something not entirely uncommon in my liberal community, Mohommad got himself involved into yet another controversy.
“Why are your nails this way? That’s for girls, no?” he asked, genuinely puzzled.
“Cause I can do whatever the fuck I want, that’s why,” the boy barked back. As other students overheard the conversation, many decided it was their “civic duty” to get involved. In fact, students who usually had no interest in these type of affairs, suddenly seized the opportunity to silence this seemingly intolerant foreigner.
“Dude, just mind your own fucking business,” snapped one student.
“Yeah, let him do what he wants,” said another.
In just a matter of weeks, Mohommad had been ostracized by my community completely. He was the school headache, a mosquito we could not quite slap into silence. Even some of the teachers found him a nuisance. His presence at our school was an intrusion of space to which he was not entitled.
One day, as we were lining up after recess, he tried to ask a classmate where the school office was. Before he could even open his mouth to speak, she covered her ears with her hands:
“Shut up and go away!” she spat harshly.
He tried again to speak, not quite understanding, but she was unrelenting:
“Shut up and go away!” she interrupted again, and she continued to repeat these same words on and on until he finally retired and slouched away.
Things reached a climax when Robert Graves smacked Mohammad across the face during lunch. His offense? He referred to an Asian girl in my class as “oriental.” What Mohammad said was perhaps a bit off-color, but none of my classmates could even try to sympathize with his “otherness.” In uncomfortable silence, I observed as his involuntary ignorance was mistaken for voluntary bigotry.
I live in a community that urges tolerance. We are the ones who march for gender equality, who have bumper stickers that call for coexistence. We hang pride flags above our doors in support of the LGBTQ community, and we puts signs on our front lawns that say, “Hate has no home here.” We are supposed to be the champions of the excluded. And yet, not a single person in my community could be Mohammad’s champion -- not even me. Immersed in the illusion that we are fighting intolerance, we complacently inure ourselves to the ugliness of prejudice. And for what benefit?
Mohammad left school two months before graduation.