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Jabeen Akhtar

Why I Lied to Everyone in High School About Knowing Karate

Illustration by Ellice Weaver

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.

“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.

Author yearbook photo, 1990

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.
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