By Kulsum Tasnif
“Hi, I’m Cricket–and welcome to my world! Let’s be friends, we’ll do things together, we’ll have a great old time…Let’s be friends, just you and I–I’ll be talkin’ to ya!”
Cricket Doll commercial, 1987
It’s the song that still pops into my head sometimes while driving my kids to school. I don’t tune it out any more like I used to. I’m a mother of three. I’m in my 40’s. But I still feel like the bullied 13 year old when I look back at my 8th grade experience. That sound brings it all back.
“Lez” Be Friends
Her name is Shawna. She is an animated blond, blue-eyed tomboy who smells of stale cigarettes and BubbleYum. I am a short, brown, scrawny introvert with a
“flat chest” she whispers. We’re in homeroom and everyone laughs. I fold my arms across my flat chest and retreat to the safe place in my head. Shawna sits behind me with her legs propped up on the creaky desk. She has full access to the back of my head–which she taps with her Payless wing-tipped shoe.
“Does my shoe smell like dog shit?” she asks with a baby voice.
I sit still. She then calls Ms. Hollander a “bitch” and gets sent to the principal’s office. I can rest at ease until P.E. My mind calculates the steps I would need to take to avoid Shawna today.
P.E is always terrifying, especially in the locker room. I attempt to cover myself amidst uninhibited, white, hairless bodies. I scramble. Shawna will be here soon.
“Look, it’s Lesbian!” she yells at Leslie from the door. Poor, nervous, Leslie has her back turned and says nothing. Shawna leaves us for now and runs out with the others.
Leslie and I are alone. We take a minute to appreciate momentary silence before our next round of humiliation. We hurry to the gym together, catching Shawna’s eye. She whispers something to the girl stretching next to her.
And that was our first introduction to “the song.” To the very popular tune of the Cricket doll commercial, Shawna sings to Leslie and me:
“Hi, I’m Coulsam (Kulsum)–and welcome to my world! LEZ be friends, we’ll DO things together, we’ll have a GREAT old time…LEZ be friends, just you and I–I’ll be talkin’ to ya!”
Shawna is relentless. I endure her cringe inducing words for weeks. Sometimes it’s in the hallway. On occasion, it’s in French class. She sings as she shoves me against lockers. While waiting for the bus. In the bus.
“LEZ be friends…”
Before I go to bed. Her voice dominates my nightmares. As I brush my teeth.
“We’ll DO things together…”
While my parents ask me what’s wrong. When I stare at my food.
“We’ll have a great old time…”
When I refuse to go to school. When mom hugs me tight and tells me to be brave.
“I’ll be talkin’ to ya!”
And finally, when I break down crying, telling her everything.
Reflecting on my Past while Facing the Present
Today, I struggle with separating my childhood experiences from those of my children. My body goes through a painful physical reaction if I happen to stumble upon a headline related to bullying.
Looking back, my experience with Shawna taught a valuable life lesson: I could trust the adults in my life to do the right thing; my parents, principal, even Shawna’s parents stepped up.
I told on Shawna. She bawled like a baby in the principal’s office. My mother was there. Her thick Pakistani accent that once embarrassed me, now commanded the room. She wore her dark brown skin with ease. Even her bright dupatta carried dignified strength. I have no recollection of the words spoken in the principal’s office, but I can say this: Mom’s presence saved me. That day, my mother was a force to be reckoned with.
In the evening my parents took me to Pizza Hut. I felt safe again. My life became considerably better because the adults in my life were trusted to do the right thing.
But we’re living in a different time now. My mother is no longer with me. As a parent, I often feel lost. As a Muslim parent, I am confronted with a new reality.
It’s Election Day and the kids are nervous. Emboldened others roam the streets in their Trump-Pence t-shirts. I fear backlash from them when he loses. My middle son asks me if he will be deported if Donald Trump becomes president. He’s a lot like me when I was his age: sensitive, non-confrontational, a little insecure; he has a forgive-and-forget attitude—and I realize that it’s time for an honest conversation.
I’ve never been the kind of parent who shields my children from real life emotions. I have cried in front of them; I explain it’s because I miss their grandmother. I fight with their dad; then they see us resolve our issues. I’m afraid for them. I fear the recent rhetoric of hate will lead to bullying in school. I am not convinced that Trump supporters can be trusted with children of color. I decide to confront my own demons head on—with my children’s help.
I search for the Cricket song on Youtube.
Let’s be friends, we’ll do things together, we’ll have a great old time…
I sit my kids down and tell them about Shawna. I give details. This makes me feel weak, vulnerable, exposed. They ask me questions I’m unable to provide answers for. But they don’t judge. My three healers comfort me with their hands, their words, their bodies. They offer solutions that would have helped my 13 year old self. I tell them the way to help me now is to stand up for themselves and others.
A few months later, my son gets called a “terrorist” by a boy in his class. My world stops for a fraction of a second. Then, I feel the power of my mother. Her kind surge thorough my entire body.
I walk into the principal’s office with my dark brown skin and floral hijab: a force to be reckoned with.
Kulsum Tasnif is a visual artist residing in NC. Her solo exhibit about refugee struggles, “Journey to The Good Life,” was recently shown at The Carrack Modern Art, Page-walker Arts and History Center, and Skylight Gallery. Her essays and illustrations have been published in Patheos, Brown Girl Magazine, Creative Ummah, Arts Now NC, and The Muslim Vibe. To learn more, please visit www.instagram.com/kulsumts or www.kulsumtasnif.com.
The amazing artwork is that of the author, Kulsum Tasnif.
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This is beautiful. The power of a loving mother defending her child is universal.
Your words rang so clearly to me. You are such a powerful woman now, sharing your art in many forms. It calls to me to look more deeply into my beliefs, my fears, my community. It also gives me peace and hope. This piece of writing hit my heart like a ton of bricks. I relate to that young girl. You. I was bullied for being a flat-chested, not rich Jew in school. I was thrown off a school bus at a stop, by a Korean boy. I alwsys thought he would know what being a “one of a kind” at school felt like, but no. I haven’t thought of Bubble Gum in probably 35 years! I, dressed for P.E. while completely wrapped in a towel.
But, when I hear about what someone called your son I felt three thingsimmediately! One, I often felt embarrassed to be an American during the “reign of trump.” I felt so sad for your innocent child. I felt outrage at the people who behave like this against anyone. Thst means any color, race, religion. It is just so wrong! Why did my young son choose friends of all different shapes, colors, beliefs? Why are so many children and adults so blatantly hating others and not even ashamed enough to hide it? Why no shame? It can’t be be side so many years go by. It is an epidemic. I felt like I would have been paralyzed when yiur son told you about the other student! What can you say? Hit them back if they hit you? I dont believe violence is the answer. Tell on him? Teachers can’t change children, especially if they are hearing it in their home from their parent! I am not in the least bit surprised that yiur protective Mama Bear showed up at the school. Your Mama taught you just for that day! She modeled it perfectly. I wish she could have been here to hear how you dealt with it…and to hold you gently when the strong, brave woman may have collapsed in tears.
I am so sorry you went through such pain. I am sorry people hurt each other so carelessly., I am glad that your mother lives on in you…and now you have modeled how your son will handle things if his child is ever bullied. Great work!