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Jabeen Akhtar | Longreads | July 2018 | 16 minutes (3,917 words)
In 10th grade, I was chosen to be photographed for a yearbook feature called “Out of the Ordinary Hobbies.” The yearbook staff heard I had a green belt in karate and wanted to do an interview with photos. Anna*, a yearbook editor, approached me about the feature while I was organizing my locker.
“How did you know I knew karate?” I asked her.
She said Rodney told her, who heard it from Julie. Or maybe Heather. I didn’t remember telling Julie. Or Heather.
*Names have been changed.
“I mean, a green belt, wow,” Anna said. “Not many people have those types of skills.” Anna said she always wanted to take a self-defense class. Why didn’t the school offer karate instead of stupid stuff like home economics? She’d rather know how to protect herself than sew a button. Maybe I could give her a few pointers, she said, show her what to do if someone attacks her with a knife from behind.
I nodded along as Anna spoke, pulling textbooks from my backpack and stacking them in my locker where the poetry collection I had written for third period English sat visibly on the bottom shelf. “SMERSH” the title of the collection said, which was also the name of Stalin’s counterintelligence agency. Below it was the subheading, “Death to Spies.” It was 1990, and though the Cold War had recently smashed into pieces, wall by wall, mallet by mallet, we still spoke its language. It was no surprise to me that things like the USSR, KGB, dead drops, poisoned lipsticks and perestroika would find their way into the stanzas of my electric typewriter-printed pages. Besides, poetry, I had decided, need not be tedious ruminations on flowers or pallid reflections on grief.
My English teacher had disagreed. “Too James Bond,” she wrote across the title page, marking it with a “C.” I placed my civics book over the top of it, hoping Anna didn’t see my grade.
“The yearbook feature is new so we really want the best of the best,” Anna said. “So tell me…are you in?”
Mary Lynn entered the hallway, her wall of freshly lacquered bangs holding steadfast as she shuffled past us towards her boyfriend’s locker. She was one of the few headbangers to penetrate the wealthy student government crowd, however tenuously, clearly trying to hide her behind-the-gym cigarette habit from them with an extra splash of Jean Naté. She glanced at me over her Trapper Keeper, her eyes a mix of curiosity and mild indignation. No one ever stopped by my locker to talk to me and now here was someone from the yearbook staff and the visit looked official. Clearly, I had been chosen, out of the entire student body, for something in the yearbook. Something important. Which meant that in some capacity, I was important.
I couldn’t blame for Mary Lynn for being skeptical.
Anna’s pencil anxiously tapped her notebook. She was waiting for a response. I stuck my hand deep within the bowels of my locker, searching for a purple scrunchie and in my mind, searching for a way to tell her.
“Well?” she asked again. “Will you do the yearbook feature? Are you in?”
I’d been here before, in this same position years ago, and I knew what I needed to do. I needed to stop what I had set in motion. Stop things before they went any further, before they perilously and irrevocably went too far. I needed to tell Anna the truth.
I’d never had a day of karate in my life.
I looked down again at my locker, where my “C” hid under a pile of textbooks. I zipped up my backback and swung the locker door shut.
“I’m in,” I told her.
Later that night, I picked through my closet selecting an outfit for the feature. I wanted to look stylish, but not trying-too-hard. Acid washed jeans rolled at the ankle. A black top with green stitching at the collar, silver hoop earrings. Black pleather Oxfords from Payless.
What other hobbies would be featured in the yearbook, I wondered? Things like sculpting, knitting, skydiving? That short guy David with the Eddie Van Halen waves and sleeveless jean jackets was always working on fancy cars at his father’s auto shop — VW Bugs, Camaros, convertible Beemers and Saabs. I wonder if he’d be in it. Maybe he’d see my profile next to his and seek me out after school. “Hey, man, I saw that you do karate. Sweet!” he’d say. Maybe he’d give me a lift home in one of his cars, tell me all about the new catalytic converter he’s installing in a Porsche 911 Carrera.
I put a New Order tape in the cassette player and turned up the volume:
I feel so extraordinary.
Something’s got a hold on me…
I bounced around a little as I hung a rejected cream sweater and two pairs of pants back in the closet. In the privacy of my room, I allowed myself to feel it: the energy, my rapid heart rate, a growing sense of excitement.
I was going to be in a yearbook feature!
I used to think that the day would never come…
The list of reasons why this would never happen for me was extensive. I was an average student — C’s mostly, sometimes skating by with a B minus. I would never make the cut for “Most Likely to Succeed.” I was too short, my hands were bony, my lips were too big, and my eyebrows were too thick, so no chance for “Best Looking.” Boys weren’t interested in me, so “Best Looking Couple” or “Best Dressed Couple” or any iteration of “couple” was out. I told myself it was just the popular kids voting for each other in those categories anyway. A big incestuous circle jerk that would carry on decades later in the corporate world over promotions and million-dollar hedge funds.
But I always wanted to be a superlative, to have a special place in those black and white pages or in the consciousness of my peers. I knew it would never happen based on merit, based on who I really was. So I told a lie. A lie was a shortcut to grandeur. A lie could help fill the bland, infinite void of mediocrity.
The truth would not lead me to recognition or honors, a lesson I had learned early on. When I was in 5th grade, I wrote a short story for my English class called “The Dinner Guest.” It was about a man at a dinner party telling the woman seated next to him a thrilling story about a murderer whose right leg was shorter than the left. After the man finishes his story and gets up from the table, the woman gasps as she notices one of his legs is shorter than the other.
The story was dark and complex, but much to my surprise, everyone loved it. My English teacher passed it around the school, and the next day, I was informed it was the best story of the year. I was named the winner of the 1985 Wolftrap Elementary Author’s Award, and, as all winners did, I was to read my story to the entire school at the next assembly.
It should have been a hallmark of achievement for a 10-year-old girl who was a middling student, barely visible to her teachers, one who still fumbled trying to braid her own hair.
But it wasn’t a hallmark, or any sort of moment to look back on with pride. All week I had tried and failed, over and over, to write a story of my own, growing increasingly desperate as the clock ticked on. The night before the story was due, I plucked an anthology off my older sister’s nightstand and leafed through it until I found a story I liked. It was called “The Dinner Guest.” I didn’t simply lift the plot or copy a few sentences. Besieged by an odious combination of panic and laziness, I copied the entire story word for word, even the title. And now I was going to have to read it at the assembly, in front of everyone, where surely someone in my school would recognize the story and I’d get caught for plagiarism.
What would my father say? He was already unhappy with my struggles in school, unhappy with how I was turning out. He’d leave newspaper clippings of child prodigies on my desk in my room. The last one had been about an Indian boy in California who was able to do calculus at age 4, graduated college at 12 and was on his way to becoming the world’s youngest doctor at 17. Maybe my father thought it would serve as inspiration. Look at this boy. Look how exceptional he is. You can be like him.
Maybe my father thought exceptionality wasn’t asking too much of me. We belonged to a coveted brand of immigrants — educated, hard-working and productive. The type of immigrants America loves. The type who come here from what white people often understand to be primitive third-world jungles and become doctors at 17. The standard-bearers of the bootstrap-pulling-to-riches ideal of the American Dream. Immigrants like us are purposeful. We are let in on the condition that we will promote a fanciful, egalitarian narrative of America. And as long as we continually strive, achieve and contribute, go above and beyond, showcase extraordinary talent, and become exceptional citizens, we can stay.
To earn our keep in America, in other words, we must be like that boy.
But what if we’re not like that boy?
What if we’re like me?
A few nights before I had plagiarized the short story, my father sat with me at the kitchen table, going over the geometry test my teacher had sent directly to my parents with a note. I was averaging a “D” in class and hadn’t done well on the test, now marked up by my teacher in red ink. I never knew what the note said.
“This is a 90 degree angle,” my father told me, his finger tapping on the image he had drawn in my spiral notebook. “Now let’s widen it.” Using a compass, he drew another half-circle with lines through it and asked what type of angle it was.
I looked at the compass — the etching in the metal, the pointed spears — and traced my finger along the new design. I said it was a right angle.
“No,” my father answered. “Acute.”
He reached across the table for the protractor he had recently purchased for me. The other kids in class had clear plastic protractors. Mine was electric blue.
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“Now we’ll draw an angle here,” he said. “What is this one? It’s called…what?”
The blue color was a ploy. It didn’t make this fun, or less intimidating. I looked at the compass, then back at my test, then back at the drawing.
“We went over this, remember?” my father said, his voice rising. “What angle did I just draw?”
It was getting late. My siblings had gone to bed.
“A right angle,” I said.
“This is not a right angle.”
He flipped through my spiral notebook and drew a giant “X” on a blank page. He went over everything again, drawing and drawing and drawing. Parallel lines, perpendicular lines, right angles, acute angles, obtuse angles, straight angles. He drew a little box where two lines intersected, asking what type of angle it was. “This is an easy one,” he said.
I felt myself shrinking in my seat. I looked at the phone attached to the wall, the yellow cord spiraling down, the plastic jug of cherry Kool-Aid on the counter, anywhere I could for answers. “I…I don’t know…”
Almost immediately, my father’s glasses were off his head, torn from his face. He threw them onto the table. The sound of gold-plated chrome and glass crashing then skittering across wood echoed through the kitchen and into the dark living room, startling me. I let out a tiny, hurried shriek.
Then the world went black. My father’s arms were around me, encasing me, the scent of drug store cologne overwhelming the air as I started to cry. Tears fell onto the bottom of his white dress shirt and pooled into one, damp spot.
My father pulled me in closer. Did he ever tell me about the time he was visited by a Jinn, he asked me? His voice sounded jubilant now, his frustration with me gone. I grabbed a fistful of his shirt to hold onto.
He was just a little boy, my father said, my age, maybe 10 or 11, washing mungra beans in the garden of his mother’s home in Kasur for the evening’s supper, when a Jinn appeared before him. The Jinn told my father his arms were magical. They could wrap themselves around anything and form an impenetrable barrier. “My skinny arms,” my father asked the Jinn? “Yes,” said the Jinn. “Don’t let size fool you.” Those arms were like steel. Nothing could get through. Anything within those arms would be safe, the Jinn told him, protected from all the evils of the world.
If he could, my father said, he would keep me in his magical arms forever. Keep me protected. But he couldn’t. He had to let me go, unravel his arms and let me out. So he just wanted me to do better. That’s all. Do a little better so that when I’d be out there in the world, I’d be so great, so powerful that no one would ever dare mess with me. People like us in this country, we are always foreigners, no matter what our papers say, and they can take away who we are or what we have at any point. That is a fear he lives with every day, my father said. A fear he has for his children. We have to do great things, be important people, be really amazing, so that they like us, and want to keep us, and not do those bad things to us. Did I understand, my father asked? Did I understand what he was saying?
I understood. And I would for the rest of my life. This wasn’t just about not doing well in school. This wasn’t just about disappointing my father. My average grades, my average intellect, my average skills, my utter, intractable averageness, was a risk to my very being. I understood that I was just one more C, one more report card barren of celebratory gold and silver stickers, from being a forfeiture on the America-immigrant contract.
A few days after my short story was passed around the school, I got a note from the principal. “Please see me in my office.”
This was it. I was caught.
I clutched the note in my hand, damp from perspiration, as I walked past a 1st- grader banging on a xylophone, and a darkened room with kindergartners asleep on gym mats, to the center of the school where the administrators worked. I found the principal behind a Formica desk, straightening her nude pantyhose.
“Have a seat,” she said.
I dutifully sat on an oversize plastic chair, my feet dangling over the metal legs.
“I want to assure you that I, personally, loved your story,” the principal said. But it was too violent for the kindergartners, she explained, so she’d rather me not read it during the assembly. Instead, would I be okay with this dot-matrix certificate and a few Strawberry Shortcake pencils?
I told her I was fine with her decision, even agreed my story would not be appropriate for a younger audience, looking like the most mature and gracious fifth grader she had ever seen. I left her office with my new pencils and once home, showed the certificate to my parents. “We are so proud of you,” my father said. My parents were going to frame it, show their Pakistani friends how talented a writer their daughter was. Which wall to hang it on, they wondered? They argued over the best spot. I could hear them as I went upstairs, back into my sister’s room. I found the anthology still on her nightstand, ripped the story out, and kept ripping until “The Dinner Guest” had disintegrated in my hands.
The Author’s Award for my plagiarized story would remain my singular achievement for the next five years. By the time I reached high school, not much had changed. I still struggled academically. I still tried to be exceptional. But the pursuit of exceptionality is consuming, never-ending. If you can’t be exceptional in one area of your life, you’d have to strive for it in another, then another, then another.
I decided I wasn’t going to be exceptional academically, so maybe I could be socially. That seemed the next logical step.
In 10th grade, I was the periphery girl in my group of friends, the hanger-on, my status always in question. I wasn’t the first person Christy bragged to if a boy got flirty in P.E. class, and Shannon didn’t offer me rides home after school. My inclusion in group activities was hit or miss. I once saw Christy and the other girls in the group, Shannon and Michelle, meeting at the locker of another girl, Rebecca, before a pep rally so they could enter the gym together, something that had to have been coordinated in advance. Whatever note had been drawn up in class with instructions and maybe a heart or rainbow sketch was never passed to my desk. I entered the gym alone. I sat on the bleachers near the exit with a few teachers as cheerleaders kicked up their legs in red and black uniforms, the cheers and howls and stomping emanating from a crowd intoxicated on school spirit.
On Mondays, I’d hear about my friends’ misadventures at the mall. Eric and his hot rich friend who went to that all-boys private school in Maryland were skateboarding in the parking lot when they ran into Christy and Michelle. After hitting up the food court for some Asian Express, the four of them went to Tower Records where Eric tried to steal a Smiths cassette and got caught. The manager kicked them out and Christy was still worried her mother would find out.
In class, I’d hear other groups of girls giggling and whispering about their own mall dramas from the weekend, something that always baffled me. Every time I went to the mall, no one was ever there except parents with little kids and the occasional sketchy mustached man in the indoor playground area. It was like every girl in high school knew which nights to congregate at the mall except me. Like there was some popular fun girl signal put out over the city but instead of a bat it was a silhouette of Patrick Swayze and my curtains were always drawn.
But maybe, with everyone thinking I knew karate, maybe with the yearbook feature, all of that could change.
Maybe, in the yearbook, the name “Jabeen Akhtar” would appear in large letters, larger than any of my friends’. It would force them to do a double-take, to look at me anew, with fresh eyes.
She knows karate? they’d ask.
Yes, I do, I would answer. I know karate. Bet you didn’t know that, did you?
Maybe the yearbook feature would prove that I deserved a little air time, some recognition. Something more than just the little square photo with the masses. The yearbook feature could say what I couldn’t to my friends and peers and teachers over the span of ten years roaming the school hallways alone: look at me.
The day arrived that Anna had scheduled for the feature. I met her and a photographer behind the school after 6th period. Anna asked for a quote about karate, and I told her about the importance of concentration and timing. Then the photographer told me to stand in front of the red brick wall adjacent to the cafeteria.
“Ok, Jabeen,” he said, readying his camera. “This is it. Show us what you got. Go!”
My fists clenched. My leg shot up, and black Costco socks poked out of rolled-up acid-washed jeans.
“Wow!” Anna said. “What a kick!”
A few hours later, I sat at my desk in my room. I fidgeted in my chair, too small now to contain my puberty-widened hips. I thought about the feature, what it would look like when it came out in the yearbook, if I’d look pretty. If I’d feel ashamed seeing another one of my lies memorialized in print, just like the Author’s Award still hanging on the wall on the floor beneath me.
I hadn’t wanted things to go this far. I’d just wanted to be exceptional. To not be average. To allay my father’s fears, to show him I could earn my keep like that boy in the article.
I tugged at the electric blue protractor, now scuffed and marked, faded with time. I remembered that day at the kitchen table.
But I wasn’t like that boy. I wasn’t exceptional. I wasn’t a child prodigy, or a good student or a talented writer. I wasn’t popular. And I didn’t know karate. This was who I truly was, a composite of negatives, a person defined by all she is not.
That Jinn had been wrong about one thing. There was one thing my father’s arms couldn’t protect me from: myself.
I could fool everyone, but I knew the truth. I knew the real me. And all the lying and cheating and stupid things I did could no longer mask this unequivocal fact.
I pulled out some loose stationery from the top drawer and grabbed a pen.
“Dear Anna,” I began to write. I asked her to please not publish the photo. The truth is, I explained to her, I’d never had a day of karate in my life. I must have told someone I knew karate for…I don’t even know what reason, but I never thought it would get around the school this way. I was sorry for lying to her, sorry for wasting her time.
When I saw Anna the next day, she was heading to lunch with a small crowd. I held the note and steadied my breathing.
I could do this, I thought. I could do what I should have done the day Anna first approached me at my locker.
Maybe I was so busy lying and cheating that I never gave myself a fair chance. Maybe if I stepped out of my own way, I really could be an exceptional person someday, do something to make my father proud. Do something to truly deserve a place in the yearbook as an “out of the ordinary” girl. I could start right here, at this very moment. I could start by telling her the truth.
Anna saw me and waved. “Hey, Jabeen!” she yelled.
The sound reverberated down the hall — the sound of my name, whizzing past classrooms and bulletin boards and French Club announcements and Walkmans and letter jackets and students with their heads buried in their lockers. Anna’s friends looked up. Other people looked up.
And at me.
They looked at me.
I turned the note over in my hand.
“Hey,” I yelled back.
I crumpled the note in my pocket, turned and walked to my next class.
Maybe I’d tell the truth next time.
* * *
Jabeen Akhtar is a writer based in Charlottesville, Virginia. She is the author of the novel Welcome to Americastan and is a frequent contributor to the LA Review of Books.
Editor: Sari Botton