My family moved three times during my middle school career, and I quickly figured out starting a new school in real life is not like it is the movies. A cute boy didn’t show me around; I wasn’t given a lunch table diagram showing me where to sit in the cafeteria; and nobody cared who I was or where I was from.
Except for one person, and her name was Leanne.
Leanne sat next to me in one of my classes on my first day at Wilson Middle School. Later that day, she waved at me to sit next to her in the bustling cafeteria. I’ll never forget the feeling of acceptance I felt from one smile.
Soon after our pivotal lunch together, Leanne and I became best friends. We walked to our classes together, we continued eating lunch together, and we hung out on the weekends. We even discovered we rode matching purple bikes complete with a button on the handlebars that, when pressed, lit up a series of plastic stars near the seat.
It wasn’t until one day during history class that I learned she was Muslim. Our geography teacher asked her to talk about Ramadan because we were studying the Middle East, and it was around that time of year.
I’d noticed that she looked different than me, but I never really thought anything of it until that day and everything clicked.
After class, I asked her about Ramadan, and I asked her about being a Muslim. She told me her family would fast during the day for a week as part of their Muslim faith.
Then we went to P.E.
That was the only time we ever talked about religion. It just didn’t matter. It didn’t change the fact we had the same bike. It didn’t change the fact we had fun laughing together. And it didn’t change the fact we complained about our oh-so-important-middle-school dramas through perfectly folded notes written in sparkly gel pens.
It wasn’t until years later – and a few more schools – that I really understood what it meant to be Muslim. I remember thinking what a unique experience it was that we were friends and how I haven’t met anyone like Leanne since I left WMS.
Too often, we are quick to judge people by their clothes, race, gender, social club, job or a plethora of other factors that just don’t matter. Being friends with Leanne kept me happy during middle school, and it taught me a lesson on our obligation to love all people – especially the ones who reach out to you when nobody else does.