“FINO” asks who ARE your real friends and allies?
By Maryann Jacob Macias
“Wow. Turd cakes again.” Sasha pushed her plate away. The barely defrosted burger was topped with yellowish cheese, the corners of it hardened.
Sasha took a photo of the burger, no doubt to show her parents the fruits of their tuition. An angry email from her overly-bronzed, elliptical-attached mom was already being drafted in Sasha’s head. She unearthed a non-regulation granola bar.
I once complained to my mom about the cafeteria offerings. Without looking up from the student paper she was grading, she said, “There’s hummus in the refrigerator if you’d like to pack your own lunch.”
Sasha dangled the wrapper in front of us. “Mmmm. Peanut butter.”
Rosa gasped. “Half this cafeteria is allergic.”
My eyes landed on Sasha’s backpack flair. Smash the Patriarchy. COEXIST. Maybe Rosa and I were part of her flair. The brown bread flanking her white meat sandwich. Sasha considered herself quite the rabble rouser.
“Are you ever going to use your phone again?” Rosa asked me, as she texted openly. The “no phones at school” rule was one of those that was so difficult to enforce that teachers just didn’t.
“Nope.” I deconstructed my burger, and ate the soft white bun. “It’s been kind of liberating to opt out of everyone else’s pseudo rage.”
Sasha asked, “Don’t you think it’s time you got over this social media boycott? You could be channeling all this rage into activism. You know…” Sasha brushed nutty crumbs from her lap, then looked up at me. “In solidarity with your uncle.”
I tore the bun into pieces, then ate each one, sensing Rosa’s eyes on me. Everyone’s eyes on me. All the time.
Sasha using the word “solidarity” is like me wearing a sari at a family member’s wedding: awkward, uncomfortable, unearned.
Celia sat across from us, occasionally glancing my way. She was one of the people I’ve known my entire school life, from kindergarten to eleventh grade, yet we hardly ever spoke. Lately, though, she seems to always have something on the tip of her tongue to say to me.
I hated to admit it, but I did miss my phone and the mind-numbing distraction it provided. If I had it, I could face it rather than my classmates’ concerned-yet-gossipy stares.
The bell rang. We gathered our stuff, and began to leave the lunch room. I went out of my way to avoid the table full of South Asian Student Alliance girls, who had been trying to recruit me since the incident. Sasha turned and put her hand on my arm. “I’ll give you guys a ride home. Let’s stop at the halal cart. We should show our support to your community. Consumerism for the social good, you know?” She turned and left the lunch room, her reddish blond extensions springing up and down her back; her flair catching the light of the hallway.
With every bouncy step, you could catch a glimpse of her ass cheek. No doubt the look she was going for.
Down the hall, Mrs. Crosby passed her, noticing the shortened skirt. I mean, you couldn’t not notice it.
Rosa shook her head. “At this point I’m just glad Sasha doesn’t raise her fist when she goes into ‘activist mode.'”
I laughed. “I love when you use air quotes.”
It was our turn to pass Mrs. Crosby in the hallway. She pointed to the flap of Rosa’s uniform shirt sticking out. “Tuck it in.”
Rosa sighed while tucking. Mrs. Crosby narrowed her eyes. “Do you have a problem?”
Rosa looked down. “No.”
“Good.” Mrs. Crosby replied. “And wash the blouse with some bleach. You should be taking care of your uniform and wearing it proudly.”
When we were out of ear shot, Rosa muttered, “Like I’m the only one. I didn’t get a chance to wash it last night because I had to work.”
The rage I’d become accustomed to feeling bubbled inside me. “I hate this place. She just passed Sasha in the hall and didn’t call out her for that rolled up skirt.”
Rosa smoothed her shirt then looked up. “Yeah, but I’m Puerto Rican.”
I left English class – where we were taking a break from Beowoulf to read The Kite Runner “as an act of social justice” according to Mr. Dixted – and headed to the computer lab. Without my phone, I was reduced to using a desktop to get my assignments. Fortunately, the school didn’t allow social media on its computers, so even if I was tempted to consume it I couldn’t.
The library is that quintessential haven for girls who didn’t want to go home, hate their friends, or are closer to books than people —like girls in every young adult novel I’ve ever read. Take Bernadette, the senior who is best known for being accepted directly into medical school, nevermind college. The school loved touting this fact. It was too bad that everyone now called her Dr. Bernie in that bitchy all-girls high school kind of way.
Right now, it was just Bernadette and me, thankfully. No lingering stares. No classmates who’d barely said two words to me in three years suddenly wondering if I’m “ok.”
I guess I was in good company. If anyone was used to unwelcome stares, it was Bernadette.
After almost half an hour of deleting messages, printing assignments, and downloading reading material, I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Bed check?” I asked, without looking up.
“Most high schools do feel like prison.” Ms. Potter sat down next to me.
“My parents called?”
She nodded. “Like they have every day for the past two months. You need to use your phone again, Nina. The school has made an exception for you; you can use your phone on campus to check in with your folks. They want to know you arrived at school safely.
“The news dies down. Comments sections close.” She lowered her voice and glanced at Bernadette, who couldn’t care less that I was there, then leaned in to me. “What happened to your uncle was awful. Everyone knows that. But you’re safe here.”
I continued selecting, unselecting, and deleting junk email.
She sighed, like everyone did, all the time. “How’s everything else going?”
“Great. Sasha wants to get falafels later. In solidarity.” I half raised my fist in the air.
“You know Sasha’s a FINO, right?” Ms. Potter arched her eyebrows.
“A feminist in name only.”
I didn’t want to laugh, but I couldn’t help it.
Ms. Potter added, “She should really be wearing a pin that says, I disown my white privilege.”
“Make it a full body suit.” I sat back and looked at her. I didn’t want to relax, but Ms. Potter had a way of putting students at ease. Maybe because she wasn’t much older than I was. “You should trademark that.”
Ms. Potter smiled. “Well, if this whole teaching thing doesn’t work out…”
We sat there for a few minutes. She logged into her email account, and within minutes, my email dinged with notifications. It was a message from Ms. Potter. I looked over at her. “Thank you, no, I don’t need school counseling. My parents have that covered.”
She sat back and clasped her hands. “I know. But I was instructed to send the resources to you. I came in here to find out what more the school can do. What will help?”
“Your parents are worried. Have you talked to them?”
I shrugged again.
“They told me they’re considering moving back to India.”
My throat got lumpy.
I turned to Ms. Potter. “Did you tell them that was just running away from the problem?”
“If I wasn’t employed by the institution to which they write tuition checks, maybe I would.”
“Ugh.” I folded my arms.
“Why don’t you tell them that? What do they talk about at home?”
“Reverse diaspora. Internalized white supremacy in their departments. That their colleagues are self-loathing, latte liberals, and disingenuous progressives.”
Ms. Potter laughed. “Boy, are you the child of professors or what?”
“How ‘even the people who are supposed to get it, don’t get it,'” I added.
She nodded. “Well, talking the talk is the easy part.”
I sat up straight. “I know. I can be the school ambassador to students of color. All seven of us!”
Ms. Potter stopped smiling, and I immediately regretted the joke. “I know the school’s lack of diversity is part of the problem.”
“Please. I’m used to that. It’s…”
“What, Nina? The school—” She paused — “I want to help you, and other kids who are feeling what you’re feeling. Isolated, unsafe…”
I let out a deep breath.
“It’s…being told to stop sulking. Stop being negative. Stop being a downer. Like…I’m responsible for everyone else’s comfort. Plus everyone always staring at me! But not ever coming up to me and saying, ‘Hey I’m sorry about your uncle, that’s fucked up.'”
Ms. Potter said nothing. She sat there, and listened.
“It’s all of the super-educated people who don’t get it. Teachers, administrators, parents at this school. They don’t want to get it. They don’t want to understand how I, how we, my family, feels.”
She leaned forward. “I do. So tell me.”
I blinked, releasing a fresh wave of tears. “Afraid. Anxious. Isolated. Like someone, anyone, could hurt me. Or my parents. You think they’re afraid when I get on the bus everyday? Well, so am I. When they go to work, or out for lunch, or to get a coffee.” I paused. “These days it feels like none of us ever knows if we’re make going to make it home.”
Ms. Potter’s gaze softened. “You know what? I’m afraid too, for all of my students and friends with brown and black skin.” She looked at me intensely. “But you are safe here, Nina.”
“I know I’m physically safe, but…”
“It’s hard for a lot of people to step out of their own comfort and truly empathize with someone who is unlike them. Because it means changing themselves, and acknowledging that maybe they’re not as unbiased as they’d like to believe.”
“Imagine how different things would be if they did! Will they understand when it’s my turn to be beaten for being brown-skinned? When someone wants to hurt me because of how I look? Because my parents are educated? Because they took someone’s make-believe job? Because we have a nice house? Not knowing anything about me? What will it take? It’s here too! Crosby just called Rosa out for an untucked shirt, meanwhile Sasha’s skirt was rolled up so high you could see her ass cheeks!”
Ms. Potter hung her head. Then, she looked at me. “I know it’s no consolation, but your uncle’s going to be ok. Thank goodness.”
“Because he moved back to India! Because after he got the shit kicked out of him, the best anyone could do was sensitivity training. He had to leave behind his practice, his whole life here!” I wiped my eyes on my sleeve, and noticed the time.
She looked at the clock. “Forget about class, I’ll write you a note. This is important.”
I continued. “I was born here. I don’t know how to live in India. I don’t speak the language. It’s too hot.” I sniffled. “And the movies are too long.”
Ms. Potter smiled, then reached for my hand. “What else?”
“My friends. I would miss them. Even though some of them are assholes.”
“Rosa’s a good egg,” she said.
I nodded. “She gets it. Too much, probably.”
“I would miss you.” She sat up and put her hands on her knees. “We could make this official, you know. I could call your parents in, and we could have a conversation.”
I wiped my eyes. “Make sure you have evidence-based models to back up your claims.”
Ms. Potter laughed. “How about I be your advocate, and we see where the conversation goes? At the very least, they’ll want you to finish out the school year. That buys us some time.”
Before we left the lab, Ms. Potter hugged me. “You are not alone, Nina.”
Sasha and Rosa were waiting in the parking lot, in the MINI Cooper Sasha got for her sixteenth birthday.
Sasha applied lip gloss in the rearview mirror. “I’m starving. I might get a plate instead of a sandwich. It’s so hilarious that it’s usually Mexican guys serving the falafels and shwarma!”
Rosa rolled her eyes and looked at me in that why are we friends with her? way.
It seemed like a question I had avoided for too long. Habit? Laziness? One more year then I’ll never have to see her again?
“Why don’t we get sushi? Or pizza?” Rosa asked.
“Why not the halal cart?” Sasha asked as she buckled up. “I’m sure they could use the business.”
Rage. Again. “Are you tone deaf?”
Sasha turned around. “What’s up with you? You’ve been pissy all day.”
“You thinking you’re helping is my problem. You calling me a killjoy is my problem.” I opened the door and got out of the car. Then, I turned and faced her. “You eating hummus as an act of protest is my problem.”
Rosa got out. “Nina, wait…”
“Don’t be petulant, Nina. I’m an ally!” Sasha called out from the car window. She rolled up next to me. “I think you need some space. I’ll call you later.” Then, she sped off.
I stormed across the parking lot and back towards school. Rosa caught up with me and grabbed my arm.
“That was amazing.”
I sat on the front steps to calm myself down. “It won’t change anything.”
Rosa sat down beside me. “Well, maybe she’s one more person who’ll tiptoe around you, or avoid you completely.”
I laughed. Rosa got up, and offered me a hand. “Just because we’ve known her since kindergarten doesn’t mean we still have to be joined at the hip.”
I took her hand and got up.
“I actually do feel like having a falafel now. Is that wrong?” she asked.
I shook my head. “I do too. But I wasn’t going to tell her that.”
Maryann Jacob Macias lives, writes, and eats in Queens, NY (also known as the world’s borough). She received her MFA in creative writing from Pine Manor College, and works full-time for a global philanthropy committed to advancing opportunity and promoting equity and dignity. Maryann is currently working on a few picture books while raising two kids and a yellow lab in a fifth floor walkup. Find her on Twitter at @MAJacob5.