Around Midnight

Photo by Kevin Dooley/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.
Photo by Kevin Dooley/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

“Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality.” – Edgar Allan Poe

The fear of foreign culture is infectious, not only to the person entering the foreign culture, but also to those within the dominant culture. On June 28th, 2011, I was the foreigner entering American culture and I was not prepared. I gave into the fear, especially when school started that year in September. My family didn’t leave Brazil for a better education. We left because my mom got married to someone who lived in the U.S. She didn’t give us much notice, but I remember the look in her eyes when she asked me to come with her, the look that screamed, “I need my daughter, I need my family, I can’t go alone.” Our arrival in New York City tested my adaptability.

That test started in high school, where American kids had their verbal weapons cocked and ready to fire. At first I couldn’t understand the words they said, but I could understand their actions.

“Did you hear her stuh-stuh-stutter?” A girl would say, pointing at me and laughing as if I couldn’t see her overtly obvious face coming to a jerking pause every time she pronounced a syllable. I would ask my English teacher, Ms. G, not call on me to read aloud, but she wouldn’t listen.

“Paula, are you okay?” Ms. G would ask.

“They keep laughing at me.”

“Don’t listen to them, you’re fine just the way you are.”

Tears filled my eyes as I nodded. Mrs. G always supported me regardless of what I thought about myself or whatever narrative the other kids tried to instill in me.

“They don’t understand what it’s like to move to another country and learn a new language,” Mrs. G said. She put her arm around my shoulders and I tried to find comfort in her words.  

Coming to New York with my mom meant building a home with her new husband and his kids. His kids hadn’t encountered anything other than their own culture in their entire lives. They had the bittersweet shelter that kept their world free of foreign danger and free of foreign collaboration. When I came into the house, their shelter was shattered and fear crashed in.

“Why do you have your phone on Celsius?” my new step sister asked one morning at breakfast, with unmistakable snark.

“Why does that matter?” I replied.

“Because, we live in America, and we use Fahrenheit,” she said, clearly feeling superior.

“I’m from Brazil, and we use Celsiusjust like the rest of the world.”

She rolled her eyes. “Okay, but you’re not in Brazil anymore. Just change it to Fahrenheit.”

“I’ve already changed a lot for America. I don’t need to change temperature units on my phone.” I took another bite of toast. It was just like Mrs. G said, she would never understand what it was like to move to a new country and be forced to adapt. She’d never understand how easy it is to lose yourself within a new culture, or how painful it is to rediscover what you’ve lost.

My stepsister shot me a withering look and left the room. I picked up my book bag to get ready for school. Although I never intended to shake the foundation of her world, sure enough, I had done so, and now I would have to deal with the consequences.

I wasn’t a good student in Brazil. I didn’t study. I didn’t want to sit in class and listen to a teacher when I could be listening to music or hanging out with my friends. I never realized just how different it was to have friends. We used to hang out, laugh, and go on adventures. When I came here, everything flipped. I no longer had friends, but I became an amazing student. My old teachers in Brazil wouldn’t believe how well I’ve done.

“Paula, dê os fones de ouvido para fora agora!” My old teacher would yell, as I’d sit slouched in my seat in the back of the class.

“No,” I’d reply, with just enough rebellion in my voice to upset him even more.

“Você acha que você está fazendo é inteligente?” He would respond, but his words didn’t sting me. I didn’t understand then the disadvantage I brought on myself when I didn’t pay attention. In Brazil, I thought I knew better than my teachers, better than my parents, better than my friends.
Back home, I had a nice garden where I went to get away from stress, peer pressure, and negativity. It sat atop the 23-story apartment building where we lived. It was my sanctuary. I would rest on an old brown bench that overlooked the perfect orange hue of the sunset, and feel free in the quiet breeze that spread the smell of flowers. I would get lost in the noise of the birds chirping, and fall asleep surrounded by a sweet ambiance that one can only find in a holy garden.

In the U.S., without the garden, it was hard for me to find peace and to express my feelings. I had no friends with whom to share my feelings, and no familiar comforts. I felt engulfed in depression. At night, I would hear echoes of students laughing at me, and I couldn’t stop thinking about my bad grades. All I felt was self-pity for not being able to adjust.

That’s when I starting reading Edgar Allan Poe. There was a deep, dark artistic soul within his writing. I empathized with his characters and that enabled me to feel for myself. Poe was able to personify the perversion of death in an unexpected in a way that resonated with me. Around midnight, when everyone else was asleep, I read his words again and again. “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dare to dream before.”

Poe’s stories sparked my decision to apply myself to my studies, to be the best I could be, and to show people what they weren’t expecting.

“Take the hood off and the earphones out,” Mrs. G said as she passed out worksheets to the class. I rolled my eyes and took my headphones out of my ears.

“This is going to be on the exam, everyone. If you don’t pay attention, it’s your fault. There is also extra credit worth five points on the upcoming exam that is due by the end of the week.”

I never remembered any chances for extra credit back in Brazil. American students were given so many chances to raise their grades.

“You’re a fool if you don’t take advantage of extra credit, Paula. I want to see you succeed, I’m not here to annoy you or work against you,” she said, dropping a sheet of practice questions on my desk. I could see that she wanted me to excel, and I no longer felt conflicted between rebellion and reality. After I read Poe, Mrs. G’s words lit a fire in me.  

I started looking forward to every exam, studying day in and day out and perform to the best of my ability. I was no longer the weird girl with a stutter who was afraid to speak in class. No longer the girl who didn’t pay attention. I was now the girl who got aced every test, the foreign girl who beat the native students. I was now the girl who people came to for answers. I no longer felt like a victim.

Ms. G began calling on me even more to read out loud, and I wouldn’t hesitate to take the opportunity to show myself that I knew English and I could adapt to a different culture. I took my fear and my depression and did something unexpected, becoming the unexpected turn in the story that I continue to write everyday.

After that first big exam, when Ms. G handed the grades back at the end of the period, I heard groans throughout the classroom.

“Ah, a damn 72. That test was too hard. What did you think of it Paula?” a classmate asked.

“I got a 96,” I replied.

“Wow, you care too much about tests.”

”You care too little.” I zipped my backpack and walked away.

Sometime around midnight, Edgar Allan Poe saved me from myself. Saved me from a pit of darkness that was my failures and heartache. Saved me from the echoes of relentless screaming in silence.

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