By Saad Qureshi, Act to Change Board Member
Growing up in Pakistan, I attended an all-boys Catholic school. There, corporal punishment was encouraged. When one of us wasn’t listening or paying attention, my teacher would come around and tell us to hold out our knuckles which he would then slam with a thick ruler. I, of course, was the subject of this punishment several times over the years.
I was the smallest and youngest kid in my first-grade class. Every day my mom would pack my tiny red lunchbox, which had multiple sections. I would have a sandwich in the large section and my favorite snacks in the little sections.
Every day when I pulled out my lunch, a boy named Akeel would hover over me and demand that I give him my lunch, or else I would get hit. He also said he would hit me if I told anyone. Sometimes he would eat my lunch and throw out what he didn’t want. Sometimes I would get hit anyway. This went on for months, but it reached a breaking point when Akeel pushed me down on the ground one day, resulting in stitches on my forehead — scars I have to this today.
Flint, Michigan: “Uncle Osama” and David
When I was 10, my family immigrated to the United States. Though I was sad to leave my extended family and friends, I was glad to leave that awful school in Pakistan.
My uncle at the time was working at General Motors, so the natural place for my family to move to was Flint, Michigan. My family moved into a small house and I attended public school. I have a lot of great memories, but some not-so-nice ones that carry with me to this day.
I was in the sixth grade when the September 11th attacks happened. My least favorite class was gym, where I would wander aimlessly pretending to do some physical activity. That day, I was playing with a basketball when an eighth-grader came over to me and asked why my uncle had attacked his country. I was very confused. He clarified, “Tell your Uncle Osama we’re gonna find him and kill him,” as he snatched the ball out of my hand. I did nothing. I didn’t know his name, just that he was older, bigger and taller than me.
High school was a blur. My school was fairly diverse, from race and ethnicity to class and socioeconomic status. I came from a low-income household and started my first job at 14 at my family’s gas station. The little money I would make, I saved for college.
Embarrassed to use my free/reduced lunch card in front of my friends, I would spend a lot of my lunchtime in the library.
A boy named David and his friends would also hang out there.
One day, I walked in wearing my favorite red and white sweatshirt and jeans. “What the f*** are you wearing?” asked David laughing. “Do you shop at the Goodwill?” (In all honesty, I did buy that sweatshirt at the Goodwill, but how could he tell?) I saw that David was wearing a blue hoodie with an Abercrombie & Fitch logo inscribed on the front. I stopped wearing my red and white hoodie after that day. I stopped hanging out in the library during lunch. I would instead sit with my friends in a distant hallway and eat Combos, pretending I was too cool for real lunch.
Connecticut: “The Gay Test”
I stayed home for college. My parents told me it would be the cheapest option. I graduated with high honors and made my way to Connecticut to teach. Suddenly, I was not only dealing with lesson plans and grading but everyday student problems. The thing that I was having a hard time defining suddenly became a part of my everyday life. My kids were constantly calling each other names and shouting out threats. I also became a target of this name-calling. My own students began laughing at the way I dressed and walked and talked. I recall a particular moment in advisory period when my students did a “test” to see if I was gay. One student asked me to look at my nails. When I followed through, I began being laughed at. “Mr. you have to face them towards you, if you hold out your hand, that means you’re gay.” You see, bullying does not have an age limit. Eventually, I stopped wearing bowties and bright colors. I’ve even worked to correct my “gay walk” and not look at my nails a certain way.
Bullying does not have geographical boundaries or age limits. The repeated experiences followed me through my youth in Pakistan to Michigan, and to Connecticut as an educator.
I thought to myself, I couldn’t do it. There were so many days that I just wanted to give up. I wish I had told someone. I wish I had reached out. I’m glad I kept pushing through. I made my way out. I now work for an organization that welcomes every part of my identity. I live in a city where I don’t have to think twice about the way I dress or walk. I surround myself with friends that are supportive. I block people on social media that leave rude comments on my photos. I do yoga to relax my mind and body. I encourage others as well to avoid spaces that make you feel unsafe and avoid people that make you feel unwelcome. If you’re being bullied or witnessing someone else being bullied, please tell someone. We can only break the cycle of bullying by calling it out and reporting it.