Every advice I give is a reminder to myself first and foremost.
I don’t remember a lot about class 305 except the fact that I had a very kind teacher named Ms. Latimer, a kid who spat in my face named Carlos, and my once-best friend from whom I first learned what discrimination felt like, Edwin.
The day I learned what discrimination felt like is still crystal clear in my mind. I remember the dimly lit room our class was situated in, with the tiled marble green floor and the desks that were arranged into the two sides of the classroom so the middle was wide open for walking through the class with ease. Ms. Latimer assigned a special writing project that day and I knew Edwin had to be my partner for the project.
By third grade, Edwin and I had been classmates since kindergarten so we were, by fate, best friends. We used to be the kind of buddies who sat next to each other for lunch every single day for three years. In the second grade, we always used to make up stories about building tunnels that would connect our houses together, and Edwin always promised he would get it done soon but was having trouble digging the tunnel with his spoon (which apparently kept breaking so he had to get new ones). We used to draw a loading screen on a post-it and fill up the loading bar slowly. There was supposed to be a magical train that came by that would take us to our “treehouse” when the bar was filled to a 100 percent but that never happened of course. And we would draw our imaginary tree house together, filling it with all kinds of stuff our limited elementary school knowledge could come up with. Edwin was the greatest friend I ever had in my years in elementary school.
Until that one day in the third grade. As our whole class got up to look for the partner they wanted for the writing project, I gave Edwin the signal to go to the end of the classroom so we could sit down and discuss the project. As I got my stuff and started to walk towards him, I accidentally stepped on one of my classmate’s book. My parents had taught me that it was a Muslim duty to kiss a book of knowledge three times if our feet ever touched it. Later in life I learned that kissing the book was actually an innovation of Bengali culture, but at the time I just followed what my parents said. And so I bent over, picked up the book, and kissed it three times. It just took a few seconds, but I wonder what my life would’ve been like had Edwin not turned his head and saw me kiss that book for those very few seconds. If we still would have been the best of friends had he not turned his head and saw me perform a deed that would literally change his entire outlook on me.
I saw him staring as I put the book on my classmate’s desk, and felt something off about the way he was looking, but I shrugged it off and sat in front him. Right away he asked, “What were you doing?” I replied, “I was just giving the book Salam (that’s what we called the whole book kissing thing). I’m a Muslim so I have to do that.” Edwin suddenly tensed up a little and said, “You’re Muslim?”
“Yeah! I’m a Muslim! What are you?”
“I’m a Christian. I didn’t know you were Muslim.”
I wish I could say that he was asking me that out of interest, but I now realize that he asked me those questions out of the disbelief that he was friends with me for three years and hadn’t once realized that he was friends with a Muslim. Eventually, the questions stopped, and we began to discuss the project. The conversation was tense, Edwin hurried everything as if he wanted to get out as soon as he could, but I couldn’t realize that something was wrong.
The next day, Edwin and I sat in the same spot of the classroom again and began to discuss the project. But he couldn’t wait five minutes until he said, “Hey, is it okay if we sit in different spots in lunch today?” I shifted a little, confused by the question and asked him, “Why do you want to sit somewhere else?”
“I just want to sit somewhere different today. Y’know like try something new and talk to other people. You should do that too. We could sit next to each other sometimes.”
“But we’ve been sitting next to each other for so long, why now?”
“My mom said that Christians and Muslims shouldn’t be with each other. You know after 9/11 and everything she thinks we shouldn’t hang out with each other.”
I can still remember that moment of fear when I knew somewhere in my heart that I was about to lose my best friend. And over what? Because I was a Muslim and he was a Christian? Because, somehow, kissing a book three times put me in the same spotlight as the horrendous terrorists that took the lives of thousands? I had all these thoughts swirling in my mind, and I was a third grader who had no idea about what made me so bad that I had to be taken away from my best friend.
I accepted the truce, but we never sat next to each other again. By the end of fourth grade, I was bumped up to 401 and he was staying in 405. The year our friendship ended was the year that we were separated as classmates as well.
It was my first experience of discrimination, and to this day, I still can’t find a logical reason as to why our friendship had to end over such a thing. The era in which segregation and prejudice was an official thing in America ended many years ago, but it didn’t end with just white and black people. Today, it exists between people of all races, and ethnicities, and religion. Especially religion.
But with hardship, there’s always ease. Even if that means waiting several years for that ease to come. Recently, two Muslims were shot outside of a masjid, the place of worship for Muslims, and as soon as my friend Garnet, who is a Christian, heard about this she told me,
“You know it breaks my heart knowing that in so many places in this world people can be killed for doing something as simple as having faith or a belief, and you know to be honest to still hold onto your faith for all of you to hold onto your faith in a time when so much hate is taking over like I can't imagine but it's just I admire your courage and faith so much and I have nothing but love for you and your family and spiritual brothers and sisters I'm praying for all of you and my church is praying for all of you.”
That was all I needed for me to rewind to about ten years ago when I was told I couldn’t be friends with a Christian. And here was my friend telling me that she’s praying for me and for all the Muslims, and so is her church. There was no greater comfort than a friend basically telling me that it doesn’t matter what my faith is, or what hers is; our friendships and prayers don’t belong to a special class of faith, race, or ethnicity. In a time when it’s so easy to become separated and targeted, the best feeling is to know that there are people who want us all to be unified, and we need that more than ever.
So go out there, get that one friend of yours who's of a completely different faith, race, or ethnicity (or all three), and start breaking down the doors that divide us. If you’re a Bengali Muslim and all your Muslim friends are Bengali, take a trip to an Indonesian or Pakistani masjid and meet some of the amazing people there. If all your friends in school are of one faith, visit that club in your school that follows a different faith (I really regret not doing this), and start digging the tunnels that will connect us all together.And of course, whatever I say of benefit comes from the God that I believe in, and whatever I say that is harmful and wrong is from me and only me.