The Home Thing
The problem was that Mani had gotten used to a world where Iran was the home thing and America was everywhere else, the place he was part of as soon as he walked out his door, even though the boys he played with when he walked out the door were Mexican and Chinese, so when Mrs. Pardo had said that studying history in fifth grade was going to include learning about everybody's personal histories, it had been too much for him to think of having Iran out in the open like that in the classroom, like everybody would be looking inside his house, and so on the day that Mrs. Pardo was going to teach them about Iran, he woke up with a headache and a stomachache.
He told his mother that he couldn't go to school.
He liked the idea of them learning about Iran as long as he wasn't there. He even saw himself coming to school a little proudly after they did.
His mother looked at him and said he didn't have a fever and he wasn't sneezing.
"Did those older boys take your ball again?" she said.
"Then you have to go to school," his mother said.
She didn't understand, nobody understood, and his mother and father didn't care because nobody was going to talk about Iran at the hair salon or at his father's office, and even if they did, his mother and father didn't act different when Americans asked them about Iran, they just listened and smiled and acted like it was very natural to have a home thing and everywhere else.
And Mani felt bad when he thought it because sometimes it was very natural to have a home thing and everywhere else, like when they were playing in the street and Carlos's grandfather or Dustin's mother came out and yelled in Spanish or Chinese for them to come inside. That felt good to hear.
On the school bus he tried not to think about it. Maybe it would just be very general. Maybe she would just say that the capital of Iran is Tehran. That would be all right. That was the kind of thing that anybody could find in a book. Maybe she would just stick to the facts. Every place had a lot of facts. That would be okay. He wouldn't feel so much like they were seeing inside him then.
But when he got to school, he felt even worse, because he saw his classmates and they all looked like they'd woken up in the morning with so many other things on their mind, and what if they thought that learning about Iran just got in the way of those things? What if they didn't like it? What if Nelson tried to pass a note while Mrs. Pardo was turned around? What if Jessica rolled her eyes? He didn't know what was worse, the feeling that they would all be looking inside his house, or the feeling that they would be doing that and still be bored.
He had never felt so nervous at school. He didn't know if he could make it up the stairs. He wondered if he should just go to the front desk and tell Mrs. Kanter that he was sick. She would probably be annoyed that he was sick before the school day had even begun.
He looked at all the American kids going up the stairs and he couldn't imagine how this was something they never had to worry about. They never had to worry about a home thing that was different from school and everywhere else, and it almost seemed ridiculous to him, because how would you ever have anything that was secret if your home life was the same as your school life? But it didn't help to think it was ridiculous, because he knew the American kids all thought it was perfectly natural for those two to be the same, and he felt bad to think it, but he wished that Mrs. Pardo would just stick to Christopher Columbus and how many original colonies there had been, because he was fine with all that stuff, he was fine with learning that stuff at school and with learning about Iran at home when he listened to his mother and father talking with the rest of his family, and anyway they talked about Iran in Farsi, which was the way you were supposed to do it, and it brought a whole new wave of nervousness over him to think of Iran being talked about in English, because that was the school language, and he just didn't know what would happen if the school language and the home thing got mixed up together like that, and in some distant part of himself he felt how he'd actually worked to build the wall between home things and school things, because it just made everything clearer that way, and even though it gave him a thrill to think of not having that wall, there was something that overwhelmed the thrill, which was that he hadn't had the realization that it was work until just now.
He slowly walked to his classroom and Mrs. Pardo saw the way he tiredly put his books down on his desk.
"Mani," she said. "What's wrong?"
The American kids in his class were talking and laughing and remembering each other, the way they always did in the mornings, the way he usually joined in with them to do, but he didn't feel like doing it today. He looked at the board and saw that Social Studies was at its usual time, right after first recess. He didn't think he 'd be able to play basketball or soccer or anything at recess today.
He didn't think about it in the morning when they had math, but at the end of math, it all came back to him again, only now it felt even worse, because he'd had a chance to see just how American his school life was. He couldn't imagine how the kids in his class could go from the way they'd been talking in the morning to something as distant as his home thing. It was too much to ask of them, he thought.
Mrs. Pardo saw his face look the way it had when he'd first come in and she asked him to stay in when the class went out to recess.
"Mani," she said. "Are you worried about Social Studies today?"
"Tell me what you're worried about."
"Everybody is still learning about America," he said. "Maybe they'll think it's too much to have to learn about Iran too."
Mrs. Pardo, whose first name was Jean, had been a teacher for six years. When she listened to Mani, she remembered graduate school and a professor she'd had named Ann Ruthstein. She remembered her saying how children from immigrant families can have all sorts of reactions to having their histories integrated into the curriculum. Even parents from immigrant families could have all sorts of reactions to that. Ann Ruthstein had said that some immigrant parents even thought that it was putting their children behind to learn about their home countries, and they should be learning about America as much as possible. Jean Pardo had felt broken-hearted to hear that. She remembered how she'd gone home and told her boyfriend about that and he hadn't shown much reaction to it one way or another, and that had been the first thing that had gotten her thinking about their eventual breakup.
"Well," she said. "Social Studies is about learning about the world. America and Iran are both part of the world."
Mani nodded. He knew that America and Iran were both part of the world, but it just made everything easier if America could be the school thing and Iran could be the home thing, and he felt sad and angry that he didn't know why.
"What do you think would help you feel more comfortable?" Mrs. Pardo said.
"I want to listen," Mani said. "But I don't want anybody to see me."
"Do you want to put your chair outside the room?" Mrs. Pardo said. "I'll leave the door open."
"Okay," Mrs. Pardo said.
Mani felt better. He went outside to the schoolyard and when a ball rolled over to him from the basketball court, he picked it up and took a shot that almost went in.
After recess, Mani took his chair and sat outside the classroom. Mrs. Pardo propped the door halfway open. She wondered how it would look if Mr. Willits, the principal, walked by, but she felt like she had a good explanation. She told the class that Mani needed a little space.
Mrs. Pardo showed the class where Iran was on the map. Mani looked through the doorway and felt very excited. There it was all right. How about that? His whole class was looking at it. He almost couldn't believe it.
Mrs. Pardo talked about how it used to be Persia and she showed pictures of the ruins. Mani had never seen them before. He felt just as proud of them as if he had known about them for a long time.
Inside the classroom Nelson raised his hand and asked to go to the bathroom. He saw Mani in the hallway.
"Hi, Mani," he said.
"We're learning about Iran."
"Were you born there?"
"Have you seen those statues?"
"Do you want to play pickle after lunch?"
After talking with Nelson, Mani moved his chair closer to the doorway. He looked inside. They were all listening. Jessica didn't look like she was going to roll her eyes. Mrs. Pardo was talking about Iran like it was somewhere close, not far away. Mani wondered how she knew that it was close. It was very close. It was even closer than he had realized.
"Are you in trouble, Mani?"
He turned around and saw Angela Rubey, coming out of Mr. Harkness's room next door.
"No," he said.
"What are you doing out here?"
"I just felt like being outside for a while."
"Mrs. Pardo lets you do that?"
"Mr. Harkness would never let us do that."
Nelson came back from the bathroom just then.
"Kids in your class can sit outside the classroom?" Angela Rubey asked Nelson.
"Only on the days that Mrs. Pardo is teaching about where you were born."
"I was born in Sacramento," Angela Rubey said.
"I was born here, at Children's Hospital," Nelson said.
Mani looked at them.
"I guess everybody was born somewhere," Nelson said.
He went inside the classroom and Angela Rubey went to get a book from her bag.
Mani looked in and saw that Mrs. Pardo was showing pictures of the haft seen. It sure was nice. He couldn't imagine how it must be for the kids whose home thing was always the same as the school thing. Life must be wonderful. They had this every day.
But somehow he thought that if they had this every day, they wouldn't really be seeing inside him as much as he thought. He hadn't been seeing inside them on all the other days, or if he had, it hadn't been in a rude way. Everybody's inside and outside were a lot closer than he had thought, and they were mixed up together. He had been seeing their inside by way of their outside. If anybody wanted to do that with him, that would be all right. Maybe he could have his inside and outside be mixed up together too.
He moved his chair right to the edge of the classroom.
Mrs. Pardo began to read The Little Black Fish. It was a book his parents had at home. At home his father was teaching him to read in Farsi, but Mani couldn't read it yet. Mrs. Pardo had an English version.
As the little black fish was deciding to set out to discover the end of the river, Mani picked up his chair and went back to his desk and sat down. Mrs. Pardo didn't look up or pause or anything, and he knew that she wouldn't look up or pause or anything, and she knew that he knew it, and that was a kind of love. Everybody saw him come in and sit down, but that was all right. They ought to know that he was nervous, because his home thing was special and important. His home thing happened to also be a world thing, but he didn't know how. He didn't remember, because it had just been a home thing for a long time now. But he felt how it was bigger than that, because it had a place in school, and he had always been told that school was the most important place for him to be concerned about. What all of them had—his mother and father and sister and himself—was a place in his school. He didn't know if they knew that. He felt very excited to go home and tell them.