(Re)Frame of Reference

By contributing writer Lizsandra Montiel for KidSpirit's The Stranger issue.

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I wasn't doing great in school. My parents always talked about switching me to a different school that I would not like. I never believed them, until I had to enroll in an Islamic school after several Catholic schools rejected my applications. I wasn't happy about it, but summer was coming to an end, and I had to enroll somewhere.

I sat in the lobby of the Islamic Leadership School with my parents and Sister Shireena, the principal. We spoke about the uniform and the rules. I wanted to say no to everything. I didn't want to wear a hijab (headscarf) or an abaya (long dress), pray the way they did, or read the Quran -- I wanted to cry.

They asked me if I was sure about starting at this school, but I didn't want to answer that question -- the truth was I just wanted to walk away. Everyone stared at me as if I had been asked a life-or-death question.

"Well, what's it going to be, Sandra?"

I panicked, but forced a smile.

"Yes. It's worth a try."

On the first day of school, I was getting ready to leave, and I was upset. I had to wear something that in my whole entire life I never imagined I would be wearing.

"I hate my life!" I yelled while I wrapped my head with a hijab and fixed my abaya.

My mom rushed me out of the house, into the car, and then I was in front of the school. On the ride there, I kept thinking about every possible situation that could go wrong. But there I was, 15 minutes early; I stepped out of the car feeling nervous and scared.

Inside the school I saw a lot of students wearing black scarves around their heads, just like me. Though we looked the same, I didn't feel like I belonged. I sat down next to a girl who didn't look so scary. Surprisingly, she was welcoming and made me feel like there was nothing to fear. We starting talking as we waited for school to officially start. I explained my situation to her but didn't expect her to laugh. She couldn't believe that a Catholic girl was enrolled in an Islamic school.

"Girl, you are crazy for this," she said, almost falling out of her seat.

"How does it feel to wear a hijab and abaya?" she asked.

To be honest, I felt weird. Like I was trying to be someone else.

"I feel ugly," I said.

After a few months passed, I didn't feel scared anymore. I realized these girls were just like me. I realized I had judged everybody too quickly and I felt bad about it.

One Friday, when we were allowed to go out for lunch, I walked to McDonald's, still wearing my school uniform. I ordered and waited for my food to arrive. A group of girls walked in and stood on line next to me. They looked at me and started giggling.

"Let's hit her with a Snapple bottle and take whatever she has. It's not like she's going to do anything," a girl from the group said.

"Nah, I'm scared of her. She might bomb our houses."

They laughed.

I couldn't believe the things they were saying. I wanted to take off my hijab; I felt upset, because they didn't know anything about me. Instead, I stared at them, realizing that I used to be one of them. It finally hit me: I should never judge anyone based on their looks. Even if it's not said directly, it still hurts. I understood the pain people go through when they get picked on. I realized you can't understand what someone feels until it's done to you.

When I was growing up my parents weren't as devout as most Catholic parents, but we did believe in God, go to church, and pray. My parents always told me to be nice to everyone. They taught me that I should always give people a chance and be open to many things.

They said, "Not everyone you come across will believe in the same things you do, Sandra, so be sure to always be polite."

Now I understand more about what my parents were trying to teach me. It took me a while to finally realize that my parents were just trying to raise me to be respectful and treat others the way I wanted to be treated. They thought by taking me to church classes I would learn something, but I was never interested. I could have learned more about my religion; instead I was stubborn and missed out on a good opportunity.

Even though I'm not Muslim, when I do wear the hijab and abaya, I wear them proudly. I learned that when you actually get to know a person, you realize not everyone is how they appear on television. Even though we hold some different beliefs, we are all practically the same. When I learned more about Islam, I realized that it is somewhat similar to Catholicism. We all believe that there is one God. Catholics pray, use a rosary and chant; Muslims chant, and pray on the ground.

Do you see how we are the same? Yes, Catholics may pray a little differently than Muslims, but we all pray to one God. From this experience I learned how to give people a chance; how to get to know someone before passing judging on them. I'm very happy that I decided to be part of an Islamic environment, even though it was scary at first. If I didn't have my parents, I would never have gotten through this experience on my own. They were there for me from the beginning and never left my side, even when I had trouble fitting in somewhere new.

We live in a world where we are judged based on our appearance, for what we believe in, even for what we have or don't have. I'm thankful I attended an Islamic school. I learned to understand many life situations and got to experience something unexpected.

Lizsandra Montiel is from New York City. She wrote this piece when she was 17 years old. She was raised in a Latino community in the Bronx and has two sisters. Lizsandra likes to spend time with friends and family and have fun. She loves writing because, when she writes, she feels free -- as if she can escape reality. When she gets older, she wants to become a therapist for adolescents to help with typical teenage problems.