I woke up on the morning of my graduation with my cell phone parallel to my face, uncomfortably held between my fingertips. The house phone rang, and my grandmother who was visiting from India didn’t know better than to ignore calls that came to the house, so I reminded her not to pick it up. But then my cell phone rang, and the school was calling, and I rolled my eyes with a mixture of annoyance and gratefulness, thankful that I would be out of that horrible school officially, although I hadn’t gone for a week or two anyway.
The assistant principal was calling, asking for my mother, my father? Who was home? My parents were on their way to close on the home we had just bought. They would only be home that evening, before graduation. “What happened? On Twitter, last night?” she asked me. My mind raced through all of the different things she could’ve been referring to. The ridiculous Vine that had gone viral, the witty comments made by my peers about the things that they wouldn’t miss about high school, the unnecessary yet understandable tweets about “never getting that time back” and “high school only happens once” (thank God). The answer was lingering though, at the back of my mind, but I didn’t bother trying to tell her.
“What do you mean?” I asked her. “Could you be more specific?” Look, I loved my teachers. The friends that I had. The resilience I had built over the four years. But I didn’t like her. I had been bullied for all four years of high school – nude pictures that weren’t of me, but that everyone wanted to be me; mean and threatening Tweets made about me by people I didn’t even follow and didn’t talk to and that I had blocked; notes in my locker telling me to kill myself and that I was ugly and that I deserved to die; shoves and muttered insults on the staircase, one where my phone toppled over the steps and cracked; girls that had come up to my face at school wanting to hurt me for this or that (“Were you TALKING about me?” “You’re fake! No one likes you!” “You must think you’re the shit. I on’t like that.”). Nothing was done. For some reason, a simple apology was thought to be enough to pay for months of therapy, a call to the girls’ parents seemed to be sufficient even though their parents didn’t seem to care too much about their behavior, and “Please just ignore this? It would save us all the trouble” was a phrase pleaded far too much. And so, it surprised me when she replied, “What you said. What Levi* said on Twitter.”
My reaction wasn’t the speeded up beating of my heart, or clammy hands, or thoughts of excuses to make and lies to form. My reaction was the truth, because I didn’t think what happened was detrimental enough to receive a call from her. “Oh yeah. Levi put these screenshots of Lauren’s* and Brooke’s*- you know when you block someone, it says that they’ve been blocked on their profile? Yeah he tweeted that. And then he said that after graduation he was going to tell them off. Which is understandable. He kept his mouth shut for such a long time, and they taunted him and tested him quite a bit this year. Why?” Really, why? He hadn’t called them names. Made violent threats. Tweeted at them. He hadn’t done this on school premises. Also, people do things like this all the time – (“Upasna is a hoe! I’mma send her nudes to [insert university name here] so she won’t get in!”) and on a far worse, more threatening and intentional basis. They get away with, it too. No suspension, detention, prints on their record.
“Well, what did you say? In response to that?” she asked. She was getting on my nerves. “What did I say?” I asked her. My tone was firm, curt, different from the tears I had shed in her office begging for her to do something, to help me.
“You said, let me hop onto my favorite sushi chef, Margaret*.”
I held back laughter. Margaret didn’t make sushi. She mad morphed up versions of California Rolls that would make the Japanese shake their heads in disgust. This tweet was sarcastic, funny, even acknowledged by Margaret to Levi via text that same night with the sentence “I honestly don’t care.” So, who was telling the assistant principal this? And why?
“Oh yeah, I definitely did.” I said. “So, um, what exactly is the issue, Ms. Walters*?” She stammered for a bit, and this was how I knew she didn’t know why exactly she was doing this, either. “Well, you need to come down to the school before graduation practice. Can you do that?” she answered. “I don’t think so. My parents are out of town,” I told her. I was worried about my grandmother, what she would think of all this. She would probably roll her eyes, too, asking me why American High Schools took action on pettiness, and why nothing was done when I needed the help.
“Well, who is there with you?” she inquired. “My uncle. And my aunt. They came down here from New York. They’re staying in a suite in my apartment complex. I don’t want them to get involved,” I sputtered. I had started making my bed, and now my heartbeat was speeding up and my hands were clammy because I realized this woman was serious. “What’s your uncle’s name?” she continued. I told her. She said he was listed as an emergency contact, and therefore he could get involved.
“Well, don’t,” I snapped at her. I was surprised at myself. And I was thinking – four years of this mess, of this shit happening to me, of tears and hurt and scars and just breathe, please and this was happening. On the day of graduation. “Your graduation is at risk. You may not walk the stage today, because of this.” My jaw dropped, my eyebrows furrowed, my hand flew up to the side of my head as I dropped the edge of my duvet onto the floor.
“I’ll ask Levi to take me. That’s it. He’ll pick me up and bring me to school.” She hung up. I told my grandmother that everything was okay, ran to my mother’s closet and called Levi, and he was breathing hard and said, “Did you get called?” “Yes, I fucking did!” I told him. “I can’t believe this? What the fuck is this?” I reminded myself that I needed to stop swearing. “I think Brooke and Maddie* had something to do with this,” he replied, and I remembered that Maddie, who wasn’t even involved, had Tweeted about Levi, but we ignored her tweets since she was quite a bit of a loudspeaker, as my mother called her.
“We did something wrong, morally, perhaps, but we are graduating. We are adults now, and so why is this happening? Whose mom is crying to the administration? Look at the technicalities! We didn’t do it on school premises. We didn’t threaten them. We didn’t call them names – I mean Maddie said so many things about you! And you put up with it! And how she told everyone I was self-harming, that my father was a manic depressive, I – why?” I was breathing hard now, not on the verge of crying but on the verge of screaming at my school’s administration, asking them why they didn’t threaten those other girls, those girls who hurt me, with taking their diplomas away when they did what they did.
I thought about how my grandmother traveled for over 24 hours and how my uncle, aunt and cousins had flown all the way from New York just to see me graduate. These girls and my assistant principal were more than ready to take that away from my family and I.
“Just – my mother and I are going to come pick you up. She says to just apologize and get out of there. To accept what we did as wrong,” Levi quavered. I agreed and hung up. I quickly brushed my teeth and showered, slipped on a nice black dress and a cardigan since I was going to go with my family to lunch after I went up to the school and finished graduation practice, and as soon as I got Levi’s text that he was downstairs, kissed my grandmother goodbye and told her I would call her when I was on my way to graduation practice. I sent my uncle a text telling him that I was going to school first, then practice, and that I would text him when and where to pick me up.
I sat in the car with Levi and his mother, and we were all rambling, wanting to cry and to yell and to tear our hair out all at the same time. “Maddie was definitely a part of this. And Brooke’s mother, most likely,” Levi explained to us. I wondered why Maddie would bother getting involved besides the fact that she couldn’t keep her nose out of other people’s business. It hit me, like figuring out a section of a puzzle that was the hardest.
“I want to speak at graduation! I want to be Class President! Or Student Government President! That’s all I want, to be on stage and to speak. Upasna, are you willing to bargain? How about I’ll ask Ms. Murray* to consider me as Class President so I can write my own speech, and you as Student Government President, so you can introduce the guest speaker? This is my dream!” She whined and yakked on and on our sophomore year to our Student Government Advisor at the time, to the other members. When our Advisor changed and she remained Treasurer our junior year, and dropped out of the club her senior year, I could tell that she was silently (surprisingly, silent) pissed that she wouldn’t be speaking at graduation and that we got a new Advisor who decided that Elections were a better way of choosing the Class President and the SG President than report cards and recommendations (not that she would get either of those positions based off of grades or praise, either. There was always someone with a higher GPA and always someone more quiet, organized, focused, and business-oriented).
One of my classmates had told me a few weeks before graduation, of course as a way to joke about Maddie’s obnoxiousness, that Maddie had made a comment along the lines of “The only way Upasna won’t speak at graduation is if she like, gets expelled or suspended or in trouble. That girl wants to speak as bad as me. There’s no way she’d willingly give her part to anyone.” Then she rambled on about me, of course.
Was this it? Did this solve one of the hardest parts of the 1,000 piece puzzle Why Will Upasna and Levi Not Walk The Stage Over Some Petty Shit? I think it did, but I didn’t want to overwhelm anyone with this realization.
We walked into the office. We sat down. It was Ms. Walters, of course, and Mr. Redding*, another administrator. He was a tough guy with a scary face when he was serious, and a whimsical one when he wasn’t. He looked at Levi. “We never expected this from you.” Ms. Walters looked at me. “Of course, you’ve had problems all year, all four years, actually,” she affirmed. Like it was my fault. For being me. For standing up for what I believed in at times. For telling people that they were wrong, when they were. Maybe I should have prepared for the reactions of my peers, but I was never over the way the administration handled all of it. Or, rather, the fact that they never really handled it at all.
And they went on and on. You won’t be able to graduate. We’ll be watching you till graduation this evening. Even after graduation until the last day of school was the teachers, yes. What you did was stupid. But never once, did they articulate why it was wrong for Levi to do this besides the fact that it was mean and that they didn’t want teen drama, and why this deserved the ultimate threat of holding our diplomas and not letting us walk the stage at graduation.
They did to me, though. Ms. Walters did when she said, “Well, we’re afraid you might retaliate. Hurt someone at graduation or cause something bad to happen. We don’t want anything bad to happen, do we?”
Once again, my jaw dropped, my brows furrowed, and my right hand flew from its grip around my left and onto the side of my head as I rested my elbow on the arm of the chair. What. Was. She. Trying. To. Say. They were afraid that I would hurt people, retaliate – words that I’ve heard associated with massacre and terrorism and other bad things that I couldn’t properly list out because all I felt like thinking about was how Ms. Walters saw me – as a mentally-ill, therapy drowned, South-East Asian girl who had been asked multiple times if she was Muslim and watched expressions of poisonous relief when she said no, I’m Hindu, but should it even matter, why would being a Muslim be bad, anyway? The girl who was called a dirty Paki, a terrorist, by people she didn’t know who passed her in the halls on her way to the bathroom or to the school office during her first two years of high school. The things she was assumed as when she was the new girl and nobody knew her. Not the strong, outspoken, smart, ranked fourth in her class, funny girl. I didn’t say anything, though.
I nodded and told her I understood, and tried to convince myself that hey, school shooters were bullied a lot, maybe that’s where her fear is arising from? But people taunted Levi too, and he knew it whether it was behind his back or to his face, yet he wasn’t slapped with the same sentence. I pushed race and religion out of my mind because hello, I was a girl, and most people had that awful stereotype of a white boy shooting up schools, right? But how fucked up was that? So, maybe Ms. Walters didn’t let that stereotype corrupt her mind, especially when I had been put on suicide watch by the school, and I had gone to therapy, and I was brown, and people joked that my father was a terrorist. I silently prayed that she wasn’t thinking that way, and told myself that I was dumb to think that way, even.
I graduated, of course, and so did Levi. The whole point is that I almost didn’t. There’s no moral to this story, maybe except that there are people out there who will tear you down because they don’t like you, because they don’t want you to succeed, because they’re bored, because they like drama, because they’re jealous, and because they’re ignorant. But, at the end of the day, the pen is mightier than the sword. Or swords, rather. * All names have been changed.