In 1982, when I was in fourth grade, I joined the Girl Scout troop at my elementary school in Lexington, Massachusetts. It was clear from the very first meeting that our troop leader, Mrs. Goodwright, had waited all her life to play the role of drill sergeant to a bunch of delinquents. "Get off your duffs, girls, and let's start this meeting by reciting the Girl Scout oath," she declared, raising her right arm at a right angle, holding her pinky down with her thumb, and sticking her middle three fingers into the air.
We would have done as instructed had any of us known what on earth the Girl Scout oath was. "You mean to tell me none of you girls memorized the oath?" Mrs. Goodwright demanded, her eyes jetting around the room where all us girls stood in a circle, eyes averted. Once it was clear that none of us was going to speak up, Mrs. Goodwright recited the oath to us herself, telling us to repeat each line after her:
On my honor, I will try
To serve God,
My country and mankind,
And to live by the Girl Scout law.
At the end of the meeting, I went up to Mrs. Goodwright and asked her to clarify a couple of questions I had about the Girl Scout oath. I told her I didn't know whose God or whose country I was supposed to serve, since my family was Muslim and our country was Iran, even though I lived in the United States where most everyone was Christian.
Mrs. Goodwright listened carefully, then bent down so that she was looking me straight in the eye. "Well, sweetheart," she said, "we need to get you to church."
I was thrilled.
Ever since I had started school in Lexington, I had been dying to be an American Christian girl, just like all the cool girls in my class. I thought Mrs. Goodwright just might be able to turn me into one. I was sick and tired of being Iranian, of being different, of being hated because I was Iranian and different.
I longed to be like the pretty girls at school. I wanted to have what they had – straight blond hair, blue eyes, simple names like Lisa Murphy or Jill Johnson that everybody could pronounce, parents who spoke English without accents. I wanted Christmas and white skin and great-grandparents who had moved here from Ireland.
That same year, I wore green to school on St. Patrick's Day and tried to convince the other kids that I was part Irish too. "My real last name is O'Abedinejad," I told them at recess, "but when my great-grandfather arrived at Ellis Island, he decided to drop the 'O' because it sounded too ethnic."
Nobody bought it. Desperate to make them believe me, I continued to dig myself deeper into a hole. "He didn't want to be discriminated against because of his Irish heritage," I explained with shaky conviction, and then continued, "You guys know what it was like for our people back then."
The kids stared at me silently. "How come you're wearing your Girl Scout pants?" Sean asked, eyeing my legs. "It's not Monday. There's no Girl Scout meeting today."
"They're not my Girl Scout pants," I lied. "They're other green pants that look a lot like my Girl Scout pants." The truth was that I didn't own any green clothing besides my Girl Scout uniform, and I was hoping that no one would notice if I wore the pants with a plain white shirt. Most of the other kids wore green on St. Patrick's Day, and I didn't want to feel left out.
"I thought you were from Iran," Marc piped in. He pronounced it "Eye-ran," and I was tempted to ask him where he ran to, but I stayed quiet because I wanted him to like me.
"Hostage-taker," Sean yelled, and he and Marc and the rest of the pack ran off screaming and laughing.
The Sunday following that Girl Scout meeting, I attended church with Mrs. Goodwright and her family. I had seen enough television shows to know how to dress for church. On the eve of what I viewed as my conversion to normal, I went through my closet and selected a pretty brown dress, one that my mother said matched the color of my eyes. The dress looked like it could use a good ironing, but I was too small to use an iron by myself, and I didn't want to ask my mother for help, lest she start asking too many questions about where I was headed the next day. I had managed to hide my conversion fever from my parents, who thought I would be attending a regular Girl Scout gathering that Sunday.
I was nervous as I rode in the Goodwrights' car that morning on the way to church. I didn't know anything about church besides what I had seen on TV, and from what I had seen, there was a lot of chanting and standing and kneeling going on, and I realized I had no idea what to chant, when to stand, or when to kneel.
That day, as I sat uncomfortably in the crowded pew, taking note of the fact that I was the darkest person in the room, it dawned on me that I didn't belong there. The adults sitting around me looked uptight and somber, as if God Himself were about to descend at any moment and strike them dead. The children, including a few of the popular kids from my school, looked bored and fidgety. I was surprised that they weren't off doing something cool or glamorous on a Sunday. On top of that, I had no idea what the minister was talking about. He used words I knew like God and Jesus and hell and sin, but his sentences was indecipherable to me. I couldn't even see him from where I was seated. All I could see when I looked toward the pulpit were the heads and backs of the adults sitting in the rows in front of me.
I sat there for a long time – bored, impatient, and anxious – afraid to say or do anything wrong, to be judged harshly by the nice white Christian folks sitting in earnest all around me. I wanted so much to be like them, but if it meant sitting through this every week, then I didn't think I could do it.
The best part of that day came once the church service was over. The Goodwrights and I and many of the churchgoers headed downstairs to the church basement, where plate after delectable plate of desserts had been set up on long, rectangular tables. I walked past heaps of neatly displayed brownies, cupcakes, pies, and cookies, wondering to myself if these people ate like this every Sunday. And suddenly, just like that, Christianity started to look good again.
Tissa Hami is an Iranian-American stand-up comic. She has been featured in numerous newspapers, radio, and television programs including the Washington Post, Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, BBC, PBS, NPR, and ABC. She will perform at Cobb's Comedy Club in San Francisco on Sunday, September 14th with "The Randomly Selected Comedy Tour." Visit Tissa's website at www.tissahami.com.
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