Living in Miami until the age of 10 was wonderful. From 1976 to 1986, Miami was not back then what it is today. We lived in a large, beautiful Spanish-style house in a quiet neighborhood near Miami Lakes, and we would go fishing in The Keys every other weekend. I have really happy memories of my first 10 years while in Miami. As far as I can remember, I didn’t have a problem making friends in school and never felt like an outsider for any reason.
In 1986, we moved to Great Neck, New York, and everything changed. My dad was in the real estate business and I guess things had taken a downturn. We moved up north in search of new opportunities. My parents chose to live in Great Neck based on the quality of the schools. The only problem was that the population of Great Neck was made up predominantly of wealthy, white, Jewish families. From the day I walked through the doors of the John F. Kennedy Elementary School, I felt ostracized. The social competition was a stark contrast from the inclusive experiences I had in Miami. The wealth among the kids in Great Neck bred a classist system even among 10 year olds in which the brand of pants or shoes that you wore, or the type of car your parents drive, defined where you fit in the hierarchical social pecking order. If I had arrived to school in a Ferrari every day, the fact that I was brown and not-Jewish would probably have been overlooked.
With each year this feeling of being an outsider grew stronger. In Middle School I became good friends with a girl named Judy whose family was quite conservative. We spent a lot of time together and spoke on the phone often, but her parents questioned her friendship with me because I wasn’t Jewish. In fact, I think Judy herself had a difficult time sometimes with it. I would often question her beliefs and some of the things they would teach her in Hebrew school and I made her think about what she believed and why rather than just absorbing whatever she was told. I remember that she was constantly surprised that I was so nice, even though I wasn’t Jewish. Clearly she had been told that anyone who wasn’t Jewish was dangerous.
In school, the topic of the holocaust was ever-present. The kids would always talk about famous people or leaders and were sure to highlight that they were Jewish. When I started dating Sara in 10th grade, I remember the first time I met her grandmother. She turned to Sara’s mom right in front of me and said “Keep her away from him.” I had never in my life experienced such an obvious level of elitism and racism.
Don’t get me wrong, the friends that I did have in school were also Jewish and my best friend Uval’s family, for example, or Gwen’s family, never once made me feel like I wasn’t accepted into their home and family. But they were the exception and not the rule.
Feeling so isolated and excluded can do serious damage to one’s sense of security and self-confidence, particularly between the age of 10 and 18. My academic performance started to suffer in 7th grade. Growing up in an Indian home where grades determine your privileges and standing in the family, I began to feel the same isolation at home. I was trapped in a vicious cycle for many years, unhappy at school and unhappy at home. Suicide seemed like a great idea and I thought about it often. I remember one day sitting at my desk in my room (I think I was in 9th grade). In the main drawer where I sat was a pair of scissors and I pressed the sharp edge onto my wrists. I started to move them along my wrists until it broke my skin and I had formed 2 lines of blood across my wrists. It’s hard to say what my intentions were at the time. I don’t think I really wanted to die, but I definitely wanted to escape my life somehow. I think part of me just wanted to see how hard it would be if things got worse and I really wanted to go through with it. I only told my friends Uval and Dana.
I started to involve myself in an insane amount of extra-curricular activities to keep me occupied and away from academics and my home. It was a survival tactic and had found things that I actually enjoyed. I was an editor of the high school yearbook, played the flute in the All-District Orchestra, Captain of the Swim Team, went to County Championships for springboard diving, President of Model Congress, President of Interact (High school division of Rotary International), High School Treasurer, and participated in high school musicals. I’m sure there was more but that’s all I can remember. My mom used to tell me that I should just focus on one thing… that I was a “Jack of all Trades and Master of None”. It really wasn’t her fault, and I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the harsh feelings I used to have for my parents. They were doing what they thought was best for me, and giving me advice on how to be successful. But they had no idea of the emotional and social difficulty that I was having for 8 years.
Actually, I should really say 7 years. During the summer between my junior and senior years, I went to Tenerife in the Canary Islands, Spain on an exchange program through Rotary International, and that changed everything. That summer marked the first step of a long journey to happiness and success (you can read about that here). Regardless of my parents’ ignorance about what I went through in Middle and High School, I cannot dispute that my experience in Spain in the Summer of 1993 was made possible by them. I have them to thank for allowing me to go, paying for it, and everything that came in the next 4 years as I went to the University of Rochester and studied abroad in Spain. That summer in Tenerife literally saved my life. It opened my eyes and made me realize that Great Neck was a little toxic bubble in an entire universe of wonderful and amazing people and experiences. Senior year was a breeze knowing that I had made it through what was by far the worst 7 years of my life. It could only go up from there.