- My family fled Iran and ended up in Canada, where we built our new life.
- I had difficulty making friends at school; one teacher told me I should change my wardrobe.
- I now wear whatever I want and am unapologetically myself.
“Class, this is our new student, Rebecca,” my teacher, Mr. Kerry, said.
As a 10-year-old Iranian immigrant, I stood frozen at the entrance of the classroom as my classmates’ blank faces stared back at me.
“Rebecca, grab a seat here and start working on this math worksheet.”
I squeezed into the metal chair, but had nothing to write with. After a few seconds, Mr. Kerry noticed.
“Do you have a pencil?”
“No,” I said, embarrassed. He came over and placed a pencil on my desk; getting me school supplies was not high on my parents’ to-do list. We had fled Iran two years earlier because of the 1979 revolution and the danger it presented to my family before bouncing from country to country and finally settling in Vancouver.
I was having a hard time connecting with people
My parents had rented a sparsely furnished one-level ranch-style house on a quiet street where they began making a life for me and my two younger brothers. My mother, with her broken English, struggled to make a home for her family in this unknown land. My father, who’d lost everything he’d built — including his business and his home — in Iran, strained to grow a real-estate company from the ground up. Their frustrations translated to constant fighting, with anger staining our daily lives.
My time at school was no better.
Every day, I walked the halls, desperately trying and failing to connect with people. My accented English, olive skin, thick unibrow, and clothes my mom thought were chic — shirts with animal prints, corduroy pants rolled up at the bottoms, French sailor-type scarves — amplified my otherness.
My teacher told me to change my wardrobe
One day, as we were finishing class, Mr. Kerry leaned down and whispered in my ear, “Would you please stay? I want to talk to you about something.” After the other kids had left, he sat across from me. “I know it’s hard being the new kid in school and trying to fit in, but you’re not doing yourself any favors by wearing these outfits.”
Humiliated, I looked down. “Try wearing jeans and T-shirts like the other kids, it might help,” he said with an encouraging smile. I nodded, too embarrassed to look at him, and said that I would try.
After getting over the sting of his comments, I dragged my mom to the mall and forced her to buy me Guess jeans and rock ‘n’ roll band T-shirts. I didn’t care that I barely knew anything about the bands or their music.
To my surprise, the kids started greeting me in the halls and letting me sit with them at lunch. Then girls from my class asked if I wanted to hang out at their houses after school. My mother didn’t like it; she thought I should be coming straight home. “You see your friends at school, that’s enough.” But after a few tearful pleas, she let me go.
It turned out that one critique from my kindhearted teacher not only changed the way I dressed, but also changed how I connected with the other kids.
Through the next four decades, I learned to love and accept myself the way I was. I became a lawyer, got married, had children, and figured out the importance of being true to oneself.
While I wear whatever I want now, looking back, I’m so grateful for Mr. Kerry. He changed the trajectory of my life and helped me survive those tumultuous school years when all I wanted and needed was to fit in.