I rarely took note of the immigrants who lived in Nashville while I was growing up. Though there were large communities of immigrants from different African nations, my world consisted primarily of Southerners whose American heritage often stretched back several generations. Of the immigrants whose paths I did cross, I will always regret one specific opportunity I had to get to know someoneâ€™s story and chose not to.
In early middle school, there was a boy whose full name and nationality I never knew. He sat at his desk with his head down. He rarely responded when someone said his name, most likely because it was only said to tease him. The teacher was often frustrated with him for some reason or another. He sat on the other side of the room from me, and I donâ€™t remember ever talking to him.
Yet, I vividly remember him. He had darker skin than the African Americans I grew up with, and he acted differently than any other children I knew. Though he never told me personally, I knew he was an immigrant and did not fully understand American culture yet. He was teased for things that the rest of us had learned at an early age. The day he ate paste branded him for the rest of the year.
My memories of this classmate come back to me when I meet immigrants now with young children. While neither of us knew it at the time, he taught me what it means to be a young student struggling to adapt in a world of ignorant teachers and peers. I look back and regret that I did not understand how important it would have beenâ€”how valuable for meâ€”to ask him about his life before the United States. At the time, all I knew was that he was on the outside where no middle schooler wants to be. I realize now that despite the social faux pas he committed from time to time, he handled himself better than I would have if our roles were reversed.
I can no longer recall some of my best friends from middle school, but I will always remember and wonder what became of my immigrant classmate. I can only guess about the details of his story. His family, his past and his plans for the future are mysteries. The image of him sitting hunched at his desk will remain with me as a reminder of what we both missed by me not asking more.