A Very Large Expanse of Sea - Tahereh Mafi
We always seemed to be moving, always for the better, always to make our lives better, whatever. I couldn’t keep up with the emotional whiplash. I’d attended so many elementary schools and middle schools I couldn’t keep their names straight anymore but this, this switching high schools all the time thing was really starting to make me want to die. This was my third high school in less than two years and my life seemed suddenly to comprise such a jumble of bullshit every day that sometimes I could hardly move my lips. I worried that if I spoke or screamed my anger would grip both sides of my open mouth and rip me in half.
So I said nothing.
It was the end of August, all volatile heat and the occasional breeze. I was surrounded by starched backpacks and stiff denim and kids who smelled like fresh plastic. They seemed happy.
I sighed and slammed my locker shut.
For me, today was just another first day of school in another new city, so I did what I always did when I showed up at a new school: I didn’t look at people. People were always looking at me, and when I looked back they often took it as an invitation to speak to me, and when they spoke to me they nearly always said something offensive or stupid or both and I’d decided a long time ago that it was easier to pretend they just didn’t exist.
I’d managed to survive the first three classes of the day without major incident, but I was still struggling to navigate the school itself. My next class seemed to be on the other side of campus, and I was trying to figure out where I was—cross-checking room numbers against my new class schedule—when the final bell rang. In the time it took my stunned self to glance up at the clock, the masses of students around me had disappeared. I was suddenly alone in a long, empty hallway, my printed schedule now crumpled in one fist. I squeezed my eyes shut and swore under my breath.
When I finally found my next class I was seven minutes late. I pushed open the door, the hinges slightly squeaking, and students turned around in their seats. The teacher stopped talking, his mouth still caught around a sound, his face frozen between expressions.
He blinked at me.
I averted my eyes, even as I felt the room contract around me. I slid into the nearest empty seat and said nothing. I took a notebook out of my bag. Grabbed a pen. I was hardly breathing, waiting for the moment to pass, waiting for people to turn away, waiting for my teacher to start talking again when he suddenly cleared his throat and said—
“Anyway, as I was saying: our syllabus includes quite a bit of required reading, and those of you who are new here”—he hesitated, glanced at the roster in his hands—“might be unaccustomed to our school’s intense and, ah, highly demanding curriculum.” He stopped. Hesitated again. Squinted at the paper in his hands.
And then, as if out of nowhere, he said, “Now—forgive me if I’m saying this incorrectly—but is it—Sharon?” He looked up, looked me directly in the eye.
I said, “It’s Shirin.”
Students turned to look at me again.
“Ah.” My teacher, Mr. Webber, didn’t try to pronounce my name again. “Welcome.”
I didn’t answer him.
“So.” He smiled. “You understand that this is an honors English class.”
I hesitated. I wasn’t sure what he was expecting me to say to such an obvious statement. Finally, I said, “Yes?”
He nodded, then laughed, and said, “Sweetheart, I think you might be in the wrong class.”
I wanted to tell him not to call me sweetheart. I wanted to tell him not to talk to me, ever, as a general rule. Instead, I said, “I’m in the right class,” and held up my crumpled schedule.
Mr. Webber shook his head, even as he kept smiling. “Don’t worry—this isn’t your fault. It happens sometimes with new students. But the ESL office is actually just down the—”
“I’m in the right class, okay?” I said the words more forcefully than I’d intended. “I’m in the right class.”
This shit was always happening to me.
It didn’t matter how unaccented my English was. It didn’t matter that I told people, over and over again, that I was born here, in America, that English was my first language, that my cousins in Iran made fun of me for speaking mediocre Farsi with an American accent—it didn’t matter. Everyone assumed