When you’re different you have to work at belonging. You have to be either really helpful, smart, funny, anything to be cool for the crowd you want to hang out with. Later on when I was in high school, my dad expanded on his summer plan and from Caracas he sent me to Wallingford, Connecticut for senior year of high school. This time I remember daydreaming on the plane about the American high school experience with a locker. It was going to be perfect just like in my favorite TV show: Saved by the Bell.
I get there and they tell me that my assigned roommate is eagerly waiting. I opened the door and there she was sitting on the bed with a headscarf. Her name was Fatima and she was Muslim from Bahrain and she was not what I expected. She probably sensed my disappointment when I looked at her because I didn’t do too much to hide it.
See, as a teenager I wanted to fit in even more, I wanted to be popular, maybe have a boyfriend for prom. And I felt that Fatima just got in the way with her shyness and her strict dress code.
I didn’t realize that I was making her feel like the kids at summer camp made me feel. This was the high school equivalent of asking her: do you know what a hamburger is?
I was consumed by my own selfishness and unable to put myself in her shoes. I have to be honest with you, we only lasted a couple of months together, because she was later sent to live with a counselor instead of other students.
And I remember thinking: ah, she’ll be okay, she’s just different. You see, when we label someone as different it dehumanizes them in a way. They become the other. They’re not worthy of our time, not our problem and in fact, they, the other, are probably the cause of our problems.
So how do we recognize our blind spots? It begins by understanding what makes you different, by embracing those traits. Only then can you begin to appreciate what makes other special.
And I remember when this hit me, it was a couple months after that I had found out boyfriend for prom and made a group of friends and practically forgotten about Fatima, until everybody signed on to participate in this talent show for charity. You needed to offer a talent for auction and it seemed like everybody had something special to offer.
Some kids were going to play the violin, others were going to recite a theater monologue. And I remember thinking we don’t practice talents like these back home. But I was determined to find something value.
So the day the talent show comes and I get up onstage with my little boom box and put it on the side and I press play and a song by my favorite emerging artist Shakira comes up and I go: ‘whenever, wherever, we’re meant to be together’. And I said my name is Mariana and I’m going to auction a dance class and it seems like the whole school raised their hand to bid. My dance class really stood out from like the tenth violin class offer that day.
And going back to my dorm room, I didn’t feel different, I felt really special. And that’s when I started thinking about Fatima, a person that I had failed to see as special when I first met her. She was from the Middle East, just like Shakira’s family was from the Middle East, she could have probably taught me a thing or two about belly dancing had I been opened to it.
Now I want you all to take that sticker that was given to you at the beginning of our session today where you wrote down what makes you special. And I want you to look at it. If you’re watching at home, take a piece of paper and write down what makes you different. You may feel guarded when you look at it, maybe even a little ashamed, maybe even proud. But you need to begin to embrace it. Remember it is the first step in appreciating what makes other special.
When I went back home to Venezuela, I began to understand how these experiences were changing me, being able to speak different languages, to navigate all these different people and places. It gave me a unique sensibility. I was finally beginning to understand the importance of putting myself in other people’s shoes. And that is a big part of the reason why I decided to become a journalist, especially being from part of the world that is often labeled the backyard, the illegal aliens, third-world, the others, I wanted to do something to change that.
It was right around the time, however, when the Venezuelan government shut down the biggest television station in our country. Censorship was growing and my dad came up to me once again and said: “How are you going to be a journalist here? You have to leave.” And that’s when it hit me. That’s what he had been preparing me for. That is what the future held for me.