“Wake up, Skylar!” hissed my older sister, Robin. “It’s already eight-fifteen!” My groggy eyes adjusted to the early morning light streaming through the window and I glanced at the clock. She was right. I had twenty minutes to get dressed, have breakfast, and brush my teeth and hair. I dragged myself out of bed. I was exhausted. I had stayed up till two o’clock reading a great book about the fall of the Romanov empire. And now I would have to pay the price.
I sighed. Today was the first day of seventh grade. I wasn’t nervous. I’m never nervous on the first day of school. It’s always the same. The work’s easy, and I never make any friends. I don’t have any friends outside of school either.
Unlike Robin. Robin is popular, and has more friends than you can count. Actually, she has fans. That’s all she wants really. Fans.
The morning was a rush, and I just managed to catch the bus, but only by running as fast as I could to the bus stop. I was panting as the bus doors opened to admit me.
I stepped inside and found a seat by the window in the second row I sleepily stared at the head in front of me. It took me a minute to realize what was different. The head in front of me was wearing a headscarf. It shocked me, but that wasn’t the only thing wrong. She was sitting in the first row.
Kids here will tease you mercilessly if you sit in the front row. Don’t ask me why. I’ve never been able to quite understand the kids that go to Newberry Middle School. But I’ve got a basic idea. They aren’t motivated, and because of that, don’t try to live up to their full potential.
Because I was different, I got teased a whole lot. But it didn’t faze me. Part of it was the fact that they may tease me, but I know that it is not bad to be a nerd or globally aware. I’m proud that I’m not like them.
The girl turned around to look at me. Her eyes were big and brown, with long, dark lashes. The brown was almost black. Like a doe’s eyes, or coffee without cream.
“Hi,” she said. It was almost a whisper.
“Hi,” I squeaked back, but she had already turned around.
A new girl. And she had promise.
Newberry Middle School had seven rooms: the sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade classrooms, the multipurpose room, the office, and the girls’ and boys’ bathrooms. I know it seems a little sad, but Newberry is a small town. A very small town. If you live here, your great-great-grandparents probably did too. It’s so small, the town sign says Newberry, Population: 514. So the seven rooms accommodate the ninety students just fine.
Today, I trudged into Mrs. Park’s seventh-grade classroom. So did the Muslim girl. I looked around the room. I was sitting at a table in the back, next to Darcy. That was OK. The Muslim girl was sitting at a table across the room.
Mrs. Park walked in, her purple heels tapping the floor as she closed her door and walked to her desk. “Welcome back, to another hopefully great year at Newberry Middle School.” Silence followed her words.
“Now before we start, let me introduce you to Leyla Aghdashloo, who will be joining our class this year. Leyla, how about you come up and introduce yourself?” Leyla walked up to the front of the room and stared awkwardly at all of us.
“Hi,” she said sheepishly. She took a deep breath and started over, this time sounding more confident. “Hi, I just moved here from San Francisco; I live with my mom and dad and three sisters who are fourteen, ten, and seven. I like to read, write, and act. I also love being out in nature.” She walked quickly back to her seat.
“Thank you, Leyla, we are fabulously lucky to have you in our class this year,” said Mrs. Park, her smile wide and fake. “Now what did you all do this summer?” Hands shot up, including Leyla’s.
I put my head down on my desk and listened to the other kids talk. All I had done all summer was read. And sing in the bathroom when no one was home. I love to sing. I could spend my whole summer just singing. But I’m too scared to let anyone know I do. It means so much to me, I would die if just one person gave me the least bit of criticism. This is a big problem for me as my mom is a trained singer. She doesn’t sing professionally, but she knows a lot about it. She says her criticism is her way of saying I’m good, and she just wants to make me better. That if I wasn’t, she wouldn’t even bother. But I know this is not true because of Robin. Robin is tone deaf. She has no range. Her voice wavers when she sings. But she gets criticism. Lots and lots of it. So me, I resort to singing in the bathroom, until I have enough courage to come out of my shell.
The teacher’s voice jerked me out of my thoughts. “Leyla, I’m sorry, but headscarves are not allowed in school.” Leyla didn’t move. “Leyla, please take off your headscarf.” Leyla sat as still as a stone, her eyes on Mrs. Park. “Leyla, if you do not take off your headscarf, then I will have to send you to the office.” Mrs. Park looked angry now. “Very well then,” and Leyla got up and walked right out. No one that I have ever seen has been sent to the office on the first day.
There was a loud silence, until Mrs. Park said, “OK, stand up, it’s time to say the Pledge of Allegiance. And boys, please take off your hats.”
I stood up, my eyes wandering. I wondered what my classmates thought about what had happened to Leyla.
“With liberty and justice for all,” we finished. I sat back down. Liberty Liberty means freedom. That includes the freedom to practice your own religion. The freedom to worship as you choose. I looked across at Darcy. Around her neck was a silver cross.
CHAPTER THREE: LAND OF THE FREE
Leyla did not return. I wondered if she had been sent home. At recess, the whole class was jabbering about Leyla.
“What was she thinking, wearing that thing to school,” said Ashley. “I mean, duh, did she really think she was going to be allowed to wear it? I mean, it’s just so stupid. And the teacher was all, ‘Leyla, take it off,’ but she just wouldn’t listen. What’s her problem?”
“I don’t know,” I said, my face turning red with anger. “But I know what your problem is. You’re ignorant and stupid. Leyla had just as much of a right to wear it as anything else. Wearing headscarves is part of a Muslim woman’s attire. It’s part of their religion. Besides, Darcy wears a cross. If she can wear that, then why can’t Leyla wear a headscarf? This is a republic, not a dictatorship. We are allowed to worship as we choose. This is supposed to be the Land of the Free, or so says our national anthem. This rule denies our Constitution or Declaration of Independence. This rule is un-American!”
“Huh?” said Ashley. “Whatever.” She flipped her hair and walked away.
I was still burning. I shouldn’t have told her that. I knew she wouldn’t understand. But it wouldn’t have been like me to keep silent. I would’ve wanted to try to make them see. It would have been against my beliefs to do so.
“Hi, Mom, I’m home!” I called out as the door slammed behind me.
“Hey, Skylar,” my mom said as I entered the kitchen, “anything special happen at school?”
“Nope,” I said as I dropped my backpack on the floor. “Unless you count a shocking act of discrimination as something.” My mom seemed interested. So I told her.
“What?!” My mom seemed genuinely surprised. “That’s crazy! I’ll have to take this up with the board.” My mom is on the school board.
Two hours later my dad came home. We discussed it with him. We had a plan. I picked up the phone book, found Leyla’s number, and dialed.
CHAPTER FOUR: INDIVISIBLE
A month later, I walked into Mrs. Park’s classroom, and I noticed immediately that something was different. There was Leyla, sitting in her seat, the last table on the right. She was wearing a headscarf.
Mrs. Park came in. She saw Leyla, but said nothing. And I knew why.
After Mom and I had our talk with Dad, I called Leyla up on the phone, and told her that my mom would take her problem up with the school board, and asked if one of her parents could come and talk to the school board about the importance of headscarves to the Muslim religion. Leyla said her father would come.
The school board put it on their agenda, and at the next meeting, I came too.
Leyla’s father talked about how a headscarf, or hijab, was not a symbol of inferior status, that the Prophet Muhammad was quoted saying, “If the woman reaches the age of puberty no part of her body must be seen but this, and this,” pointing to his hands and face. Wearing a headscarf did not mean you were inferior to men, but you must guard your modesty.
When he was done, I got to get up and make a speech.
When my mother first proposed this idea, I was reluctant, but my mom said the school board would be more surprised and willing to listen if a student expressed her displeasure.
I had never spoken in front of adults before. Most of them seem to think that you’re just a cute little kid, and shouldn’t be taken seriously. But this time, they seemed to really be listening.
I said, “I don’t know if you all recall, but last year, when we went to war with Iraq, the sixth-grade class made a poster that illustrated the great things about being an American. One was the freedom to practice your own religion.” Here I paused, letting my words sink in. “This rule goes against that. Today we look back on the ban and discrimination with scorn. There are many things we do not want to be, and one of those things is hypocritical. And what, may I ask, is the difference from wearing-another religious symbol such as a cross? Only that a headscarf is more important to the religion.” I looked around at the faces surrounding me, trying to glimpse their emotions.
“We need to remember that not everyone in the United States is a Christian. The United States is founded on many different peoples, not just one group. The United States isn’t perfect, but let’s try and help it live up to its name, the Land of the Free.” I walked slowly back to my seat as the people around me clapped.
After my speech, there was a vote, eight-to-one, in favor of Leyla.
As school board meetings were every two weeks, Leyla had to wait a month before coming back to school. During that time, I had been over to her house quite a bit, and we had become friends.
Leyla wasn’t like anyone I had ever met. She wasn’t narrow-minded, and she didn’t believe everything grownups told her, though she always respected them. She’s also very funny and imaginative. But most importantly, she’s the only one who knows I sing.
We were sitting in her backyard, when I suddenly broke into song. I sang only one verse before realizing that Leyla was sitting right there. “Don’t stop,” she said, almost sounding annoyed. So I sang the whole song. “That was beautiful,” Leyla said softly. I told her my singing was a secret. “Really?” she said.
“Yep,” I answered. But it isn’t a secret anymore.
“Good morning, everyone,” said Mrs. Park, snapping me back to the present. Haley’s hand shot up. “Yes, Haley?” said Mrs. Park wearily, as if she knew what was coming.
“Why are you letting Leyla wear that scarf-thingy around her head?” asked Haley in an accusing voice.
“The school board has decided to stop the rule banning headscarves,” answered Mrs. Park edgily.
Leyla and I raised our eyebrows at each other. We both decided not to mention her incorrect use of the word “stop.”
“Now stand up please, boys, take off your hats, let’s say the Pledge of Allegiance.”
“I pledge allegiance to the flag . . .” started our class in a dull, half-pronounced monotone. Leyla and I suppressed a giggle. It was always this way, but for some reason, it was funny today. I swept my eyes across the room as the Pledge of Allegiance came to a close. “. . . with liberty and justice for all.”