I was a freshman when I first told a classmate that English wasn’t my first language. For some reason, I’d spent my time in school keeping that secret as close to my chest as I could.
My friend stared at me in shock, because “there was no way!” that I hadn’t started out speaking English. No one believed that my mother would have to send a sheet of paper with the words I would say, the phonetic translation of Marathi words scratched out in her handwriting. All so that I could communicate with my preschool teachers. There, between intermittent nap times and sessions with my mother, I learned English, a language that I will describe with my father’s running quote: “It’s a very funny language.”
Halfway into first grade, my father’s job jerked me into yet another move from Pennsylvania to Virginia. I proudly paraded into my new classroom, and within fifteen minutes, had managed to receive a red card and alienate all the students at my table. Let me make this clear, I’ve never been a troublemaker. Even today, I find sharing study guides to be a little over the line. All I’d done was talk. My first first-grade teacher had no problem with this free expression, in fact, for someone presiding over six-year-olds, she entertained our every thought, pushing us to explore our ideas and include those of others. So, the snatching of my ability to talk, while done for the purpose of others' education, served as a rude awakening, especially because my new teacher, Ms. Russell, never communicated to me that I wasn’t supposed to talk. She simply gave me the awkward introduction every new student got, pronouncing my name incorrectly (refusing to let me correct her), and tossing me to the wolves. If it isn’t clear, I still harbor a grudge against her, only compounded every time I recall she pushed back against my ability to express myself. As a result, I said little in school that year, afraid of crossing an invisible curve that no function could define, because she herself didn’t know. I know now, this silencing held me back at a time I was only learning to find my voice, one that deserved to be expressed.
I was switched over to a gifted and talented magnet school during third grade. The school was an amalgamation of the children of ambassadors, politicians, oil executives: a melting pot of students from over eighty countries. For the first time, I saw nearly every skin tone one could think of and wasn’t one of the few saying, “I don’t know the English word for it.” From the blur of the two years I spent there, our annual Diversity Day and Culture Night stuck out in my brain even today, nearly ten years later. It was the first time I got to see the stories of others. These stories, as it turns out, are ineffably valuable, as a 2018 UCLA study found that students felt substantially safer, less lonely, and less bullied in a learning environment with more diversity. I was lucky enough to experience these results first hand.
At the age of ten, I didn’t think about leaving Virginia as a loss of diversity and culture; it was just losing the first set of friends I was old enough to miss. Texas was a drastically different environment, and while I was incredibly ( and dishearteningly) wrong about everyone riding ponies to school, my move to Katy put me into a world I hadn’t cognizantly experienced before: one where the majority were Indians. While Katy certainly lacked diversity, I was included in a way I’d never been before. Suddenly, I wasn’t the only kid in the math club, wasn’t the only kid speaking Hindi and watching Bollywood movies, wasn’t the only kid who wore Indian clothes to school.
I was one of many, an experience entirely new. In a way, being one of many, while good for me emotionally, hindered my growth in a way the presence of diversity never did: it prevented me from wanting to explore my own uniqueness. I went with the flow, ignoring my religious questions and practicing Hinduism, for fear that those around me would reject me. School ought to be a place where students work to figure out who they are, but in an environment where no one is different, we become scared to be different. We become scared to be ourselves.
Moving back to Texas before eighth grade, I managed to swing spending the last 5 years here. The Woodlands is exactly what it sounds like: a primarily white, incredibly affluent township, where problems that are deemed to be too ugly are simply swept under the rug. My junior year, the colossus of this tendency made itself clear to me. We’d had multiple cases of blatant racism, where the victim switched schools, spurred by an environment that refused to acknowledge that there was a problem, let alone act on it. But it wasn’t until our swim team went viral on Twitter that I realized my school refused to deal with any problem, no matter how obvious. On competition days, the cross country team wore a white shirt and a red tie, the football team wore khakis, and the primarily white and Hispanic swim team wore dashikis, a traditional West African form of dress.
At best, it was a quirk of theirs, at worst, blatant cultural appropriation. No one commented on it, until a video of their pre-meet ritual began circulating, where the boys would make a circle and chant, then run around screaming while someone played drums. The week after, my debate coach, gave us the opportunity to talk about it, to discuss our experiences with cultural appropriation and our thoughts on the incident. And so, knowing there was still a chance people wouldn’t understand, I bared my stories, refusing to falter even when one girl, friends with half the swim team, said her part (arguing that as a minority, if she wasn’t offended, no one should be) and left. Leaving all of those around her unvalidated.
I was lucky enough to be in a place where I had the freedom to have that conversation. The places we live inherently determine our access to free speech, something I understood knowing that conversation would never have been initiated in my classroom in Pennsylvania or New Jersey because there was a lack of diversity to bring up the issue in the first place. It also likely wouldn’t have taken place at another school in our district across the highway, one with significantly less funds and freedom to express, from not being allowed to wear leggings to less seminar style class opportunities.