I have been in one single fist fight. It was the end of 5th grade, and shit got real bloody. Little skirmishes with my siblings and cousins don’t count...no this fight was brutal, I was filled with rage and I broke the other girl’s nose and she had to go to the ER.
The rage was stemming from the fact that I became a bullied social outcast within a couple weeks or so of being in America and at Sandy Springs Elementary School in Atlanta, Georgia. I arrived in the US of A in April, 2002 a hopeful and happy girl, grateful to be reunited with my family. We had all been on a refuge journey for months before this and for about 6-8 months my mother, father and two baby siblings had been living in Atlanta while working on finding a way for me to fly here and join them. In that time I was passed around between family members and trusted friends in Europe, moving every couple of weeks.
But I arrived, I made it. I was excited to begin learning English so I could finally understand all the television shows and songs I loved. My parents enrolled me in the last two months of 5th grade so that I could get a grasp on the language, take ESL classes, and be ready to jump into the curriculum in the fall. I was also VERY excited to be attending the same school as my two cousins. We all lived together in a cramped apartment—my family plus my aunt, step-uncle and two cousins—and so it felt like I got to start school with two built in best friends.
Unfortunately things didn’t fall out that way. I was a novelty at school at first. I would hear “that’s the African girl” whispered around me as I walked in the hall. Kids loved to stop what they were doing to indulgently show me how to work the things that were so regular to them but completely new to me, like mechanical pencil sharpeners and water fountains. I thought the food given to us in the cafeteria was absolute trash but seeing as how everyone else dug in and even had their favorites, I felt like I had to make myself enjoy it as well. In the ESL classes I learned I understood English much faster through reading, so the library became my favorite place very quickly. I discovered book series that shaped my understanding of what being an American teenager was, or what it was supposed to be. Pretty soon I could be found perpetually clutching a thin copy of either a Sweet Valley High or Babysitter’s Club book, my face right in the book as I ignored the world around me.
I’m not sure what changed about me that started making the other students avoid me or make fun of me. It was hard to interact with them, they all talked really fast and used slang that wasn’t covered in my ESL classes. I spent a lot of time staring and smiling vaguely because I didn’t want to ask someone to repeat themselves. I didn’t chew gum, my mom wouldn’t buy me lip gloss, and I didn’t know anything about boys. In fact I took things too literally. “Hey, do you like boys, or girls?” someone would taunt me, but doing it in a way that I took as a conversation starter. I would smile and answer from my heart, “Yes! I like boys and girls too! We can all be friends!” Having delivered perfect sentences I would smile even brighter, satisfied with myself. It took a couple more times for that specific interaction to happen before I caught what the kids were chanting as they laughed and ran away. “Gay! She’s gay, she’s a LESBIAN!” No one in my family would tell me what that word meant, and we didn’t have google, so I just made things worse by asking different kids what that meant. But things didn’t get horrible until someone saw that I have little nubs that stick out on both pinkies. These are remnants of the two extra fingers I was born with, something that had never bothered me until some American kid saw it and started calling me “The African Witch.”
This was when things became truly terrible for me. Kids went out of the way to avoid me, going as far as to turn and run in another direction rather than walk past me and risk coming into contact with me. They refused to touch things after I had, and raised a big fuss if they had to. In music class once we had to hold hands while singing something and one girl just slapped my hand away while the one on my other side held my wrist, making sure my sweater sleeve was firmly in place between her skin and mine. My cousins, one in my grade and the other one below ours, didn’t interact with me while at school. They had finally been able to assimilate themselves in by this point and no longer were referred to as Africans themselves; there was no way they wanted to chance being lumped in with me.
I knew this was all wrong and that it shouldn’t be happening. Back in Rwanda I had been friends with nearly everyone, and I loved to lead all of us in games at recess. I had been a bit of an ambassador of sorts, going between cliques to schedule races and afterschool card tournaments. It was strange to be so avoided and disliked for reasons I couldn’t help, but at the end of the day I found real companionship in the books and stories I read during that time. I relied on them to regulate my moods. I kept my head down and read and waited for the summer to arrive so that I wouldn’t have to go through this slow torture every day.
I ended up fighting someone on the very last day of school. The day was bright, hot, and I was excited to be done with this school; I had been told that I would be starting somewhere else for 6th grade. I had begged and pleaded my mom to pay someone to braid my hair and she gave in for that day’s graduation photos. I ran my fingers through the long micro braids compulsively, feeling like one of my long haired heroines from the books I loved. We got through the morning assembly and then our class was sent out for an extended recess period, after which would be a special lunch and ice cream treat for the graduating class.
The heat can get oppressive in the south so the school had little bungalows spread out all over the recess yard so that kids would could have some shade. I sat in one these bungalows with another quiet-ish girl, me reading and playing with my hair, her just resting. All at once she stood up and left in a hurry, rushing past the group of girls at the entrance to the bungalow. I put my book down and stared at them, waiting for them to make the first move. They were led by the typical Mean Popular Girl. “We want to use this one.” She threw the words at me fast but at that point I was able to catch on. “I am already using it. There are other little houses.” The giggled a little at me saying “little houses” but they understood me. Queen-bee put her hands on her hips and sent in a soldier with a toss of her head. One of the girls stepped up to me and got close and asked me to leave. I said no, getting fed up with this treatment. On the LAST day?? I couldn’t have just ONE day not end up horrible?? The girl that had been given the order to hustle me out looked back at her leader, then back at me. She reached up and pulled my hair, intending to bring me down to the ground.
My HAIR?? My precious hair that I had JUST gotten braided so you know that shit was tight and it hurt still?? I reacted with lightning reflexes and slapped the shit out of her reaching arm. I heard someone gasp. She looked down at her arm and got furious and pushed me, and the fight was ON. It’s all a blur now but I remember feeling so relieved to finally let go and express all of the anger and pain I had been feeling those past few weeks. I felt like a superhero having their Moment, the event that happens that awakens them to the fact that they have powers. I felt invincible. There was a point where we were rolling around on the ground and I got on top of her and I remember using both fists like hammers on her face, screaming wildly. Adults rushed us and pulled us apart but it was too late. I had a few scratches and aches on my face and shoulders but her whole face was a mess of blood and she was crying. “She’s crazy” “Oh my God!” I could hear the whispers but I held my head high, breathing heavily and still clenching my fists. I was taken to the office and reprimanded for fighting and breaking her nose, then told I wasn’t going to be allowed to partake in the special lunch and ice cream treat. I remember thinking it was unfair, as she had started it. But the staff was adamant, and I was asked to sit outside the principal’s office and wait to be picked up. My aunt was the only adult who wasn’t working at that time of day and she came to get me, concerned for me. But I was fine and I told her I had broken a girl’s nose because she started it by pulling my hair, and that I had been banned from lunch. She told me she was proud of me for standing up for myself, although she hoped I wouldn’t fight anymore.
She bought me an ice cream cone from McDonald's on the way home so I pretty much won in every way that day.