1986. I Was A 12Yr Old Misfit At School, Completely Invisible For Who I Really Was!

I was stuck. Deeply, utterly stuck in a situation where we rejoined the family as the poor cousins who needed the goodwill of the others to survive.

I remember lining up in that field of dust every morning, singing songs of faith during morning assembly. It was really just an ordinary moment in the lives of the students at St. Mary’s School, New Delhi. But for me, it was torture.

Just a month prior, I had been a twelve-year-old, American girl living in Dayton, Ohio. I’d pop wheelies, follow wooded trails, play Truth or Dare, hang at the mall, tell my diary about my crushes, and sleep in my dreamy canopy bed. I was an adventurer and a princess all at once.

Now, here I stood in my slightly rumpled school uniform holding back my tears and hoping that I’d make it through the day without breaking down.

School assembly was a daily event involving a sea of one thousand students organized by class and lined up by height. On that particular day, about two weeks into my new school life, the breeze was especially hot and the heat from the earth was seeping through the soles of my shoes. I noticed the girl in front of me. She had long, neat braids. I could smell the slightly nauseating aroma of coconut oil wafting towards me. I’m sure her mother had lovingly massaged it into her scalp the night before to nourish her mind and hair. My own hair was short and layered. With my mandatory white hairband pushed through it, I looked a mess. I wish I had long hair, I thought. I wish I could blend in or just run away.

At the shrill sound of a whistle, the physical ed teacher commanded us to attention. Just like my classmates, I stood military straight. The school principal came on stage and we bowed our heads in prayer—like many schools in India, our school was founded on the Christian faith. Church was not unfamiliar to me. My friends in Dayton had gifted me a bible and at times, I’d tag along to Sunday service. But given where I stood, the prayer felt staged. I couldn’t fathom why so many Hindu kids were praying this way.

Then there was the choir singing “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Those lyrics taunted me: “We’re brothers together, we shall not be moved. We’re sisters together, we shall not be moved. Just like the tree that’s standing by the waterside, we shall not be moved.”

There was no “we.” I was standing alone.

The sun was bearing down. A girl in the line next to me swayed and fainted. Then another fell. Student monitors carried them away while the rest of us continued standing, listening to the day’s announcements followed by several synchronized physical training exercises. I wished I would fall down. I wanted to go home. But home was an awkward place too. I now lived with my parents and brother in a tight two-bedroom market flat above a raucous roadside restaurant. To approach the main entrance, one had to hop over an odorous open drain. There was no telephone, no air conditioning, often no electricity and when it rained, water would pour through window cracks to flood the hallway. Lizards crawled on the walls and hid in cabinets. Mosquitoes were incessant.

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School assembly finally came to an end. We peeled away line by line to our classrooms, with the school monitors inspecting our uniforms as we passed. Our first class was PE which began with another line up and inspection. The mustachioed teacher, his authoritative whistle hanging from his neck, walked the line. I stood at attention, spine and face straight with hands out so he could scrutinize my fingernails. “Where do you live,” he asked in Hindi as he stood before me. “Greater Kailash, Sir,” I offered trying my best to keep my voice low and my American R’s from rolling. “Do people have such dirty nails in Greater Kailash?” he asked, his tone tinged with sarcasm. My nails are not dirty, they are long, I wanted to tell him. “No, Sir,” was the most I could muster though.

It was 1986. India was a government-regulated, young democracy teetering on a socialist ideology. There were just two television channels in Delhi back then. I, on the other hand, was a product of the MTV generation.

My parents never readied me for the culture shock.

Perhaps it’s because they were preoccupied with their own issues. My father was an alcoholic and undiagnosed but certainly on the spectrum. My mother was tied to him at 19 and trying to find her own happiness while tending to my younger brother who also was on the spectrum. We moved back to India because my father lost his job and my mother longed for the love of her own people. I remember sitting on that Air India flight about to take off from JFK. My father had been agitated because his suitcase zipper had snagged on the chiffon sari that my mother had packed inside of it. He had been jiggering the zip and muttering under his breath. A wave of embarrassment and sadness swept over me at once. I fixated on the image of the Air India maharaja mascot printed on the bulkhead to stay calm. As the plane took off, I could hear my Dayton school friends singing farewell: “Goodbye, Sunaina. Goodbye, Sunaina. Goodbye, Sunaina. We’re sorry to see you go!”

That snagging feeling stayed with me throughout my early days in Delhi. I was stuck. Deeply, utterly stuck in a situation where we rejoined the family as the poor cousins who needed the goodwill of the others to survive. I felt a budding inferiority complex taking root within.

At school, they saw me as either an American idiot or a foreign-returned spoiled brat.

“What time is it, Sunaina?” a classmate would ask so he could snigger at my accent.

“Do you have a beauty mark on your face like Shalini does?” the popular girl’s crony would cattily compare.

“Don’t you know how to sharpen a pencil?” a teacher chastised. Despite being an English medium school, everything from my red thermos bottle to my Swatch watch left me standing out like a sore thumb. I couldn’t keep my notebooks neat, I could barely speak Hindi let alone handle Sanskrit. ‘Humayun’ and ‘Connaught Place’ were unpronounceable as was most of the content in my history and geography books. Math, physics and chemistry were far beyond my grasp. They demoted me, a straight-A 7th-grade student in the U.S., to a 6th grader again. I felt so diminished. And no, I did not know how to sharpen my pencil because I was expected to whittle it with a razor blade.

The PE class ended with no further incident. The desperation to flee school, however, was turning into panic. The most dreaded class of all, Sanskrit, was ahead. Please fall sick, I willed my body. I sat through music class digging my fingers into my temples hoping to induce any kind of headache. The class was singing some Hindi song which was impossible for me to follow.

Just lie, I told myself. Tell them you’re sick. But I feared telling lies. Somehow I expected God to strike me down. I dug those nails of mine into my scalp. Come on, something should happen. If God cares about me, something will happen! Nothing.

The song ended. I gingerly raised my hand. “I’m sick,” I announced. “Please may I go home for the day?” My music teacher sensed my fib but also my distress. “Go tell Benny Sir,” she said. So off I went to the vice principal’s office. That very same teacher who told me to sharpen my pencils.

“I have a headache,” I told him. “Little girls don’t get headaches,” he quipped as he peered over his glasses straight at me. I insisted that it was true. I was so relieved when he let me call my mother to take me home. I was going to get away from this school and find a better alternative. It wasn’t my mother who came, however. It was her father—my authoritarian grandfather whom everyone feared. We sat in the car and he told me to include more milk in my diet. I felt wretched for my lies.

We went back to my grandparents’ home where my mother had been spending the day. I immediately told my mother the truth. I depended on her to get some reprieve. “I cannot go there. Please transfer me to the American Embassy School,” I beseeched. “No, Sunaina. You are Indian. You have to adapt to your homeland. We don’t have the money for such an expense,” came the response. She told my grandfather that I had lied to get out of school. Nobody punished me but I only felt worse. One could call my mother’s attitude tough love, I guess. But to me at the age of twelve, it felt like a kick in the gut.

Everyone expected me to find a way to fit in. I was expected to get smarter. I was expected to make friends. I was expected to forget America.

That night, I did my homework, polished my shoes and packed my hefty school bag. I went through the obedient motions. I didn’t want to go back but I wasn’t a rebel. Mom drove me to school the next morning and walked me straight into the principal’s office. “Sunaina is fine,” my mother told her. “She’s just having a hard time adjusting to her new school.”

“Leave Sunaina with me,” the principal replied, “I’ll speak with her.” In that moment, I completely panicked and clutched at my mother’s arm. “Please stay!” I screamed and begged. My mother grew stern. She pushed me away and said, “You have no choice. You have to be strong.” She turned and left while I sobbed and cried for her to come back.

Mrs. Vas, the principal, was a caring woman. She was my savior that day. With genuine compassion, she heard me out and then she offered me a challenge. “Study hard over the summer break,” she said. “Take the proficiency exams again and if you pass, I’ll double promote you up to seventh-grade. I’ll also exempt you from Sanskrit for six months so that you can learn Hindi first.”

For the first time in my life, I knew what adversity felt like.

It is said that you shouldn’t have to prove yourself to anyone. But I knew that unless I rose to the occasion and proved to all that I was as good as the best in the school, I would have failed my own sense of self. That same morning, during school assembly, I took the words of the choir song quite seriously. The song was “We Shall Overcome.” I vowed that I would.

After all, I had no choice. I had to be strong.

Published here first.

Image source: Biswarup Ganguly / CC BY

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About the Author

Sunaina Mehta

My name is Sunaina Mehta and I am the founder of The Leela Collective. TLC is the passion project that I have been preparing for my entire life. I have been lucky enough to meet read more...

6 Posts | 5,328 Views

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