Can I Sit with You?

Two Braids
January 16, 2008, 8:01 am
Filed under: elementary school, fitting in, hairstyles, race, school bus

N. Chandani
Elementary School

Both of my parents came to the United States with the hope of prosperity. My mother and father, both doctors, met each other in New York and shortly after, got married. I have one brother who is four years older.

I still vividly remember the first years of grade school with horror. Growing up in India, my mom always had long thick black hair that was made into two braids like Pippi Longstocking. So in turn, she dressed me the same way for school in the United States. It was difficult enough to have a different name than everyone else, let alone I was the only girl in first grade to have long thick black hair and two braids attached to my head. Let’s just say Pocahontas was my newly established name. All of the other first grade girls had simple and pretty names like Sarah and Julie. They had short blonde hair with cute barrettes and ribbons. I pondered time after time why couldn’t my mother see this? Was she blind? At that moment I didn’t want to be Indian, I just wanted to be a normal first grader. Every day I would beg my mom profusely, to please, let me have one braid. I would have done anything: eat my vegetables, do my homework, anything to get rid of the dreaded two braids. But no. Every day she would put those two ugly braids in my hair and off to school I would go.

I had one trick up my sleeve. As soon as I got on the big yellow bus to go to school, I would wrap one braid around to the other shoulder to give an illusion of one braid. It was pathetic, yes, I know, but all I wanted was to fit in so desperately. I remember one time in particular when I had school pictures. My mom, as usual, made two braids in my hair and even got a little fancy with pink sparkly barrettes and a little rouge on my cheeks. This time when I got on the bus, I got the courage to take out the braids completely. Finally, for the first time, I felt like everyone else. I took my first grade pictures confidently with my hair free and flowing.

A couple of months later my mom received my school pictures. She didn’t say much but the look is one I will never forget. It was a look of hurt and disappointment. A look of pain that only a mother could have. At the time I did not realize what the big deal was. I thought my mother’s goal in life was to make me miserable. What was the big deal if my hair was in braids or just let loose?

I am twenty-one now and I believe just recently, I have understood why this meant so much to my mother. The braids were meaningless, but the symbolism of them was everything. You see in my mother’s eyes her little girl was denying her culture. Every time I asked her to take out my braids it made her feel as if I was embarrassed of her and where we come from. My mother knew that over time I would lose certain parts of my culture but I don’t believe she thought it would begin so early. Perhaps this is why she held on to the braids. She wanted me to have piece of who she was. She never asked me to put the braids in my hair again, and to be honest I was not about to ask her to.

Today, I still have a tough time looking at myself as the world truly sees me. When I look at myself, I see me as I see everyone else around me; sometimes I forget that I am not Caucasian. I am Indian. No matter what I do I can’t run from it or deny it. Not even freeing myself from Pippi Longstocking and Pocahontas can help me run away from who I am. I am, and will always be, the little girl with long black hair and two braids. I will always have the name no one can pronounce, the name that stands out. There will never be a time when I can be the girl with blonde hair and blue eyes. I won’t have the family who drinks milk with their dinner and – I am happy for that. Even if I don’t look, act, or sound like everyone else, that’s okay. There comes a point in each person’s life when they can either use their differences as an advantage or be inhibited by those differences.

Never let adversity define your life.


Go Ahead, Jump!
November 25, 2007, 9:06 pm
Filed under: eighties music, fitting in, music, popular crowd, popularity, school bus, Van Halen

by Seymour Rosenberg
Age twelve at the time

In 1983, California’s largest almond growers’ concern sent me and the rest of my Catholic School’s eighth grade class on a field trip to Sacramento. Woo-hoo!

As you know, you are the music you listen to, even in eighth grade. I liked Gary Numan, Pat Benatar, and the Talking Heads, but none of my classmates did. Even so, I wanted the cool kids to think I was one of them and come hang out with me. I’d seen them scribbling “Van Halen” all over their Pee-Chee folders and notebooks, so I bought a Van Halen painter’s hat and wore it on the bus. And it actually worked! Several people came and sat with me, saying, “I didn’t know you liked Van Halen!”

So began many fruitless years of trying to achieve coolness points through musical means.

(At least the hat matched my blue and red corduroy OP shorts.)

Spitting Image
November 1, 2007, 7:01 am
Filed under: elementary school, middle school, name-calling, orchestra, race, school bus

by John H. Kim
Age 10 at the time

Fifth grade was a low point in my life. I had finally made some friends in third grade, and gotten through fourth. Then we moved to the other side of the mountain, to a huge, run-down old house overlooking the Hudson River. My parents had bought it as a fixer-upper, and I think got a real deal. It had a four-and-a-half acre mostly wooded lot, with a garage that used to be an old stable. There were no other houses for quite a distance, which made it kind of lonely.

We lived off highway 9W instead of a regular street, so the school bus didn’t stop near our house. I walked to school instead, which was only a quarter-mile if I cut through our enormous mountain lot to the dead end of Franklin Street. This involved trekking through a wide grassy path through the woods, past an old swimming pool. The walk was bearable some days, but when I had orchestra practice and had to lug my French horn, it was a real pain.

I had a hard time adjusting to the new school. I missed my friends Mark and Jason, and would call them on the phone a lot. At some point into the school year I finally invited someone from orchestra over to our house. I can’t remember his name anymore. I remember he played a woodwind of some sort, certainly something a lot lighter to lug to my house than a French horn.

When he came over, my mother was home. She brought us some snacks, then we looked through my stuff and around the house. We didn’t talk about anything in particular, and didn’t play games like I did with my old friends. Then we went outside to the big yard. The garden was still probably a mess, but it was big. Suddenly, he got mad over something, and yelled, “The problem with you is that you think you’re the spitting image of your mother!” Then he stalked off.

I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.

I couldn’t recall exactly what we had been talking over, but it didn’t seem to involve my mother. I cast my mind in all directions, trying to think what it could mean. Was it some sort of clever dig at my looks? I hated clever insults, or rather I hated being embarrassed for not understanding them. Was it a play on words, something about “spitting”? Insults often seem to invoke mothers.

Then something occurred to me. My mother was white, and my father was Korean. Did that have something to do with it? I still didn’t understand why he said that, but it did seem to make a sort of sense. In fact, I realized he was right. I didn’t think of myself as Korean at all. I didn’t interact with my father much, so most of my mannerisms came from my mother.

Still, it was a puzzle. My visitor was white, but I think he was from an immigrant family of some sort, maybe Eastern European. What would make him say that? I couldn’t remember what would prompt that, but then, I didn’t remember much about what we talked about anyway. As far as I can remember, we didn’t talk or hang out after that for the rest of the year. I certainly never asked him what he meant by it, or what made him say it.

It did make me think about a lot of things. I still remembered some of the popular chants from elementary school. One was “A fight! A fight! A nigger and a white!” Another was “Chinese; Japanese; Dirty knees; Look at these!” — done pushing up and down your eyebrows, then pulling out your shirt like breasts. I didn’t understand what was behind those rhymes as I thought about what he had said, but I somehow knew they were related.

I made it through the rest of the year at that middle school, but I never made any friends. The next year, my parents put me in a private prep school across the river. It was a long bus ride, but the bus would stop at our house. Some things changed, but others didn’t. I still didn’t think of myself as Korean for the most part, but sometimes I would stop and think about the incident, and my image.

Wet Dog
October 10, 2007, 7:01 am
Filed under: best friends, new kid, school bus

By Laura Henry
Seventh Grade

In seventh grade I was going though a major awkwardness phase (okay, who wasn’t?). I was on the brink of figuring out how to assert myself and promote my own personality, but still followed the lead of a few more obnoxious girls in my group from elementary school days. I wore big ugly thick glasses, had my hideous Oglivie home perm (thanks, Mom…) and was a short shy bookworm nerd.

A new girl, Becky, moved in to our neighborhood one street over from me. She was a year older and was huge, thuggish, and played soccer. Somehow she became friends with my best friend, yet at the same time made my life a living hell on the bus to school every day. I was no stranger to being taunted on the bus, but she was in my face, yelling and scary. She would call me a “wet dog” when I got on the bus with wet hair in the morning. My friends did not defend me. My sense of outrage that this big stupid mulleted new girl could come and completely disrupt my life grew and grew.

One day on the bus ride home I waited for Becky to get off the bus, and then screamed, “You’re a BITCH!” out the window at her. Then I sat back down and knew my life was over. I could hear her screaming, “You’re dead, I am going to kick your ass tomorrow!”

I got off the bus one stop later and ran home like the wind to barricade myself in. I was trembling, crying, and sick with dread. I was going to have to be in a fight. What would it be like? It would hurt and I would have to try to punch her back.

I can’t remember any of the next day except the end of the school day. I was at my locker getting my books and all of a sudden there was a huge crowd of people behind me, yelling. Becky was there yelling at me; another girl, Kelly, was there yelling at me to take my glasses off so that Becky could punch me. Someone grabbed my books out of my hands and threw them over the lockers. It was all a hideous confused blur. I started yelling that there was no way I was going to take off my glasses so that someone could hit me, were they idiots? I started crying and somehow managed to push my way out of the crowd to a bunch of teachers who were standing nearby.

I tried to tell a teacher what had happened. One of them grabbed my arm above the elbow hard and dragged me to where my books had been thrown. She made me pick them up and then dragged me to the vice principal’s office. I kept asking her to let go of me, and said she was hurting me. I told her I had not thrown my own books (why would I throw my own books, lady!?), that someone else had, and that they had tried to hit me. Outrage! She did not listen and she did not care and neither did the vice principal.

I got three days of in-school suspension. (Why?) Becky attempted to become my best friend, inviting me over to play Playstation (not interested!) and filling up my locker with candy and cake and balloons.

The girl picking on me, the teacher, the crowd of kids … none of their behavior made sense to me. This is one of the incidents that really helped me realize that: A) I could defend myself, B) I didn’t have to be friends with anyone I didn’t really like, and C) other people were idiots and it wasn’t my problem.

Forever Young
October 9, 2007, 7:01 am
Filed under: best friends, Canada, elementary school, middle school, Ontario, school bus

by Elaine Park

For a few years, in grades five and six, I went to a small rural school a few miles out of a town that was a few hundred miles out of anywhere else. At lunch and recess we all played marbles and the girls skipped rope. I could manage single-rope skipping, but never double dutch. I was not even allowed to turn the ropes for double dutch. In the winter we played a game that involved tramping out a big circle in the snow, cut into pie-shaped pieces that we had to run around. We played dodge ball, which I was relatively good at, although to this day I am uncomfortable with things flying at my head. The kids teased me for colouring people’s hair orange when I was doing art, but I was pretty sure that “red hair” was just a figure of speech and the orange crayon was the way to go.

By seventh grade, I was discovered to be an advanced learner and got sent into town on the bus to Robert Moore Elementary, the biggest school in the area. We had French taught to us by a hip young Quebecois couple who were eventually caught smoking dope and fired. We had music taught to us by the crusty high school band teacher and learned to play recorders.

The students at Robert Moore were contemptuous of “farmers” as they called us kids who came in on the bus. Although some of the kids did live on farms, the label didn’t make sense for me. We had moved to the area from an even more remote northwestern Ontario town, but before that we had lived in England, France, and Belgium, as my dad was in the military police in the Canadian Air Force. I had seen the gondolas of Venice, walked among the row-on-row crosses in Verdun, gone shoe shopping in London, and got my first pair of glasses in Luxembourg. I had learned to say “fermez la bouche” courtesy of the rude grandchildren of the lady who lived next door to us in the village of Virton. My parents were both from Toronto, and my mother was painfully intellectual and only listened to classical music and Broadway musicals. She had a lifetime birding list. Clearly it was not I who was the hick.

When I first started going to school at Robert Moore, some of the kids tried to set me up for a prank involving a boy who was overweight. They crafted a pretend love note from him to me. It was going to be a masterful humiliation doubleheader. The girl who sat behind me, who a few years later became quite a nice person, passed me the note. I somehow picked up the wrong piece of paper and opened it up. It was blank. “That piece of paper you passed me was blank,” I earnestly told her. Much later I found the pretend love note and realized with some wonder that I had completely messed up the plan basically by confusing everyone too much to proceed.

After a while though, I developed some solid credibility by being compulsively defiant of any form of authority while pulling down some of the highest marks in the school, and also by being a little exotic from having living abroad. I was welcomed to join the bad kids in the back alley while they smoked cigarettes, even though I didn’t smoke myself. I eventually became part of a group of girls who liked me as much as I liked them, and we stuck together from then on.

I’m sure I wasn’t happy about any teasing I endured during these years, but when I look back, I don’t remember feeling that angry or bitter about it. I knew I was an outsider, but I changed school every two years until I got to high school, so I was an outsider for a legitimate reason. I also took my status as evidence of my superiority. I was proud of being different because being different for me meant being better.

Instead, when I think about it all, I feel a softly glowing gratitude for the kids who did befriend me. There was the girl who taught me how to draw a face by making a U and then filling in the details of hair and eyes and nose. The girl who came to my house to make mud pies and act out episodes of The Man From Uncle, and who joined me on a tour of all the town’s churches one day when there was no adult around to stop us. The girl who had me over to her crowded, noisy house where the only place to find solitude was on the roof of her porch. The neighbourhood gang who included me in a perpetual travelling game of football that raced from yard to yard on summer afternoons. The tangles of kids who absorbed me as a matter of course into the jumping, swinging, chasing anarchy of childhood fun.

I especially remember with satisfaction the friends who were along with me on the wild ride from grade seven dances to graduation day. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen or heard from them. I guess I could find them if I wanted to, find them graying, and matronly, and slightly disapproving of me and my habit of running for freedom whenever obligation got too close. But I prefer to keep them as they were, especially my closest and best friend, who lives forever in my mind with her long, brown hair blowing behind her in overlapping flaps as she bikes ahead of me, sensible, loyal, and kind — with friends and family intact and the whole glorious future stretching out in front of her — it’s a memory that I treasure and don’t want to redeem for the unequal reality of the present. I hold it as a sacred icon — for me and for her.

Sunday Short: Choices, Choices
October 7, 2007, 6:12 pm
Filed under: "Can I Sit With You", DoubleTrouble, religion, school bus

Sometimes we get entries that don’t quite fall into the thousand-word essay category, but which need to be told, all the same. We think they make good Sunday Shorts, so don’t forget to cruise on by on Sundays.

Also, apparently now we are the playground bullies in asking DoubleTrouble to share her tales (see #7). And we thought we left peer pressure behind once we left Junior High! Thanks for participating, DT!

My CISWY Options, In Chronological Order
By DoubleTrouble

1. Spent my entire lifetime believing I was fat, even though it’s probably only really been true for the past 7 years, and for a time in college. Why? Because of the catty girls behind me in the water fountain line who said that my belly was getting so fat as I was drinking water. In retrospect, they were probably just hot and thirsty and wanted me to hurry up.

2. Requiring speech therapy in first/second grade because I couldn’t pronounce the “sh” sound. Came out as “s.” Not too big a deal, unless you know my name IRL.

3. Second grade school bus. I got on the bus at almost the last stop, and no one would let me sit with them. Happened repeatedly. Although I wasn’t aware of why at the time, in hindsight and conversations with my brother, it was probably because I was one of the few Jewish kids on the school bus.

4. Fourth grade. Chorus tryouts. Basically all the kids get to join. All the time. Except for me. Did it have anything to do with the fact that all the other kids were given familiar Christmas songs to sing, together in a group, and I was given a Hanukah song that I didn’t know, to sing by myself?

5. Sixth grade when two classmates taunted me (endlessly), claiming that I stuffed my bra. And that I did such a poor job that the two sides were uneven.

6. Junior high, and the perpetual lunch time fear that I wouldn’t have anyone to sit with in the cafeteria.

7. Adulthood, challenged to take on a creative writing project and terribly fearful that I don’t have the ability or the wit to produce anything publishable.

Best Friends
October 3, 2007, 7:01 am
Filed under: best friends, elementary school, new kid, school bus

By Mary Tsao of Mom Writes (
Fourth Grade

Fourth grade was not a good year for me. I was in a new school in a new town. The school I went to was in a wealthy neighborhood while I lived in a poorer neighborhood, which is another way of saying my family was poor while my classmates’ families were not. Plus, I rode the bus to school, which at this school separated the kids who fit in from the kids who didn’t. If your mom or dad drove you to school you fit in; if you rode the bus to school you didn’t.

Oh, and did I mention that I had a buzz cut because the previous year I had head lice and my mom cut all my hair off? Yes, I was the new girl who had a bad haircut, wore the wrong clothes, lived in the wrong part of town, and rode the bus. All of those reasons combined with the fact that I was a shy, introverted kid who preferred reading books over playing sports or
gossiping, meant that I did not have many friends. And when I write that I did not have many friends, I mean that I had no friends at all.

But one day all of that changed. On that day, a cute little girl with short brown hair, a smattering of freckles across her nose, and a squeaky voice, decided that she wanted to be my friend, my best friend. I had a friend! I started to like going to school.

My friend and I met up in the schoolyard after the bus dropped me off. We talked about life, and she confided in me that she was trying to stop biting her nails. She showed me how she coated her chewed-up nails in a mixture of hot sauce and vinegar so that she wouldn’t be inclined to bite them. She said it hurt her fingers and that she was growing to like the taste of hot sauce, but I was impressed. She was the first person I knew who was actively trying to improve herself. She seemed so mature.

She also had the kind of family life that I dreamed of having, the kind with a mother and a father, a brother, and a dog. I lived with my single mom and my twin sister; I idolized anybody who had the things I didn’t have. she introduced me to the concept of talking on the phone, and one night we talked for hours. I ended up getting in trouble because my mom’s boyfriend kept getting a busy signal when he called our house, but it was worth it. I had a friend.

Until the day I went to school and she had a new friend. That was the day she told me that she and the other girl had discussed it, and they had decided that best friends don’t come in threes. I was the odd girl out. Literally. And with those harsh words spoken in a matter-of-fact tone and before the first bell rang, I no longer had a friend.

I don’t remember how long our friendship lasted. I don’t think it was very long. I don’t remember the girl’s name or much about her except for what I’ve told you. The thing that I remember most vividly is how she put hot sauce on her fingers. Looking back, it seems appropriate that a girl who liked hurting herself–even if it was in the name of self improvement–would think nothing of hurting me.

It was difficult, but I managed to survive fourth grade. I kept to myself, read a lot of books, and buried myself in imaginary worlds where best friends are reliable and if they’re not, justice is swiftly served.

I went to a different school for fifth grade and for various reasons, my life improved. I had several close friends and I didn’t feel as alone, different, or isolated as I did in fourth grade. I never did get another best girlfriend, though. Having one best friend in a lifetime is enough for me.