Monday, April 23, 2012

I Saw a Mirage in the Classroom

I always sat on the left side of the classroom for Intro to Sociology. It was the summer of 2000, and I was turning 19 that June.

A curious thing happens in America in the summers: people take most of their clothes off. At least on college campuses. It looks like someone has swapped the university students for beachgoing young people. Girls wear short-shorts - denim or otherwise - and tiny cotton shirts - with straps or otherwise. It was my first summer in America as a university student, and I had recently heard the word 'spaghetti straps' for the first time. That summer, it was fashionable for young ladies to cover their hair with a bandana, as if one were just about to step out to pick corn on a farm somewhere or put on a huge helmet before setting off on the road with one's other Harley-riding friends. The boys' fashion does not seem to have changed much over the years since then; that summer they wore t-shirts and long cargo-style shorts. Khakhis, I discovered they were called. Hey, that's an Urdu word! Hello, my name is Khadija, I'm from India but was raised in the Middle East.

I was very attached to my pair of blue jeans that I would often pair with a bright shirt and a blue denim fisherman's hat that had colourful flowers and butterflies (or was it dragonflies?) embroidered on it. In turqouise, blue, red, and yellow. Chunky dark brown unisex sandals were all the rage, and every young person the nation over had a pair that year. I remember I'd bought mine from Payless. They must've made a killing that year like they do every time a new fashion comes out in footwear.

The classroom that I took my sociology class in that summer was a small one. The floor at the back of the room was raised high and tilted down the closer it got to the front. The way an amphitheater's seats are arranged, I mean vertically and not horizontally, of course. The seats were arranged on either side of a narrow walkway that ran down the center of the room to where the instructor's area was. I don't remember the name of the professor who took that class, but he was a white American man in his late 50s or 60s. His hair was very white and the same colour as his skin. He was stout, not very tall, he was built like a kindly block. I can't remember if he wore glasses, but he did wear a hearing aid. He couldn't hear very well, which posed a problem for me a number of times and bumped me down from a sure A to a B. The professor, in his desire to instruct according to the Socratic method, had made class participation a large part of the grade. He'd unfortunately not be able to hear me if he was positioned at a certain angle from me when I'd raise my hand and call out to him with a question, insight, suggestion, or answer. Once he'd stood right in front of me with his back turned towards me, saying, "anyone? anyone?", looking for student participation. I'd raised my hand and called out his name a number of times, but he hadn't heard me and had gone on with the rest of his lecture. How embarassing! But it's not like anyone would have noticed in that class anyway. There were around 15 students in that class, most of them white Americans, all of them young and bored of the Socratic method and theories about social deviance and conformity. I remember them from where I used to sit on the left side of the classroom. I remember this one particular handsome young fellow. He was tall, white, a little pale, and with short dark brown hair. He had the bony build of so many young white American boys, and he wore dark brown sandals similar to mine.

Then there was this girl. White American too with a short straight blonde bob that behaved itself under the bandana she wore over it. She used to sit one row behind the tall brunette boy. I would often get distracted by her during the lectures of the kindly but hard-of-hearing professor. She usually wore a thin cotton shirt with spaghetti straps, and she seemed to favour light summery prints, the kind that have small flowers on light backgrounds. She was small and thin. Her back would often be exposed, and I'd be able to see her shoulder blades, small and razor-sharp like chicken bones, looking like they were about to tear out of her skin everytime they moved. She was a skeleton dipped in skin, a machine of metal and pins tightly covered with an empty balloon. She had small, very thin lips that she'd keep pursed very tightly. Her nose was small and very sharp. The skin on her face looked like it would tear any minute; you could see the malaised light blue veins lying lazily across her cheeks. Her arms were long bones and frightening. You could see her bare legs because of the short shorts she often wore. They were as thin as her arms and slightly curved. The dark brown sandals on her feet used to make me feel uncomfortable - what if their weight snapped her ankles?? She used to snack on dry Cheerios. She'd take them out of her backpack without moving too much - she never moved too much. I never saw her talking to anyone or participating in class. She'd sit in her chair, place her textbook and notebook out on her pulled-down flapdesk and sit very still and very properly for the duration of the class. Except when she'd snack on her Cheerios. She'd reach out for her backpack and slowly pull out a transparent Ziploc bag with the Cheerios in it. She'd then count out a certain number of Cheerios and arrange them on her desk. She'd then eat them very slowly one by one. One. By. One.

I would often find myself staring at this girl. It was hard not to. The young man who'd usually sit directly behind her in the topmost row would be looking at her chicken back as well. She was frightening to look at, like the pictures we've all grown up seeing of starving Somali children.

I've been thinking a lot about her these past few days, particularly since I recently started learning Photoshop. I've always known about Photoshop and the things it can do, but I didn't really understand the almost reality-molding extent of it until I actually saw it happening before my eyes or even by my own hands. It feels like everything I had ever been told about beauty and the way I was supposed to look has been undone. Like Ctrl+Z. Bam. I have suddenly stopped minding my flat hair days, skin outbreaks, new grey hairs, sometimes visible double chin, short legs, imperfect figure, back fat, cankles, muffin top, man hands, eyebrow regrowth, facial hair, body hair, fat, flab, one huge ugly walking-talking collection of flaws. A monstrosity. Flaws that they've now invented names for even. I don't care, you know? I don't see any of it now when I see myself in the mirror. I'm just having such a good time, I feel like I'm a kindergartener again. I don't know what all these grown-ups keep talking about - figures and diets and calories. I'm just having such a jolly good time rolling along in life. I just comb my hair and pin it back and dive right into the world with a new colour of nailpolish and fun costume jewellery. I am pretty again just like that, so now I don't have to worry about that anymore.

God, what about all those other young women? And those other young men? Generations of them who keep rejecting each other and even themselves because they don't know what real looks like? Cosmetic surgeries and compulsive exercising and not eating? To become like other people who don't even look like that themselves? I'd seen it in America, but now I saw it in India too. Is the whole world chasing mirages now? You can't ever catch a mirage because it isn't really there, but what happens to you while you're chasing it? Do you become a mirage too?

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide,
No escape from reality.

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