But for now...Dance from Deep Within
Four years’ worth of anticipation gathered in her chest. A pounding she must quiet before stepping through that doorway. It’s just a door. Layla Al-Rai glanced at the handle, and then back to her Old Dominion University schedule to review it yet again. English 101 MWF 10:00 a.m. Batten Arts 205.
Yes, this was the place. She had circled the hallway several times to be punctual but not early. It’s just a door, she told herself more firmly this time. And the people beyond it were just students, like her. She could barely believe she was standing here—that her Middle Eastern mother had relented at long last. But years of patient persistence won her over.
Allah willing, her parents might even let her stay long enough to finish the engineering degree she dreamed of before insisting Layla marry. Surely stranger things had happened. She was only twenty-two years old. She should be enjoying her youth. And maybe she’d finally make friends with some regular Americans. Growing up in the Islamic section of Detroit had made it all too easy to stay immersed in her Muslim bubble.
If only her best friend Fatima were here, the day would be complete. She and Fatima had dreamed of this moment together, imagined choosing classes and buying textbooks. But for her devout Saudi Arabian neighbor, college could never be more than a bittersweet fantasy. For Fatima’s sake, she determined to enjoy the experience all the more and to e-mail her every last detail.
Layla straightened her spine and smoothed her red knit mini-dress over her modest black leggings and long-sleeved shirt. Reaching up, she adjusted her silky veil. The elegant crimson fabric draped about her head, covering her hair and neck but leaving her face exposed for all to see. She took a deep breath and attempted to relax her features into a casual expression. Then she willed her feet to move forward. Time to step into a new experience.
Entering the classroom, the pounding in her chest quickened. But she would not let the dingy walls and faint smell of mold dampen her spirits. Instead she focused upon the windows across the back displaying a bright golden sun, blue sky, and swaying green leaves.
As she gathered her courage and scanned the room for empty seats, she noticed that most of the hyperactive freshmen looked like they had mistaken the class for a keg party. But she spied one blond woman in the corner, her nose buried in a novel, quietly waiting for the lesson to begin. Almost the same image that met Layla every time she entered Fatima’s bedroom. The sight comforted her, and she headed in that direction.
She drew stares as she crossed the room and hid deeper in the folds of her veil. In general, Americans were politically correct enough to be respectful of, although curious about, a Muslim female in their midst. But she’d learned the hard way that a few sick guys harbored twisted fantasies involving veiled women. Her uncle blamed the evil porn sites of the “infidels,” but Layla chose not to use that close-minded term.
As she reached the desk in the back, the novel-wielding student looked up with a warm smile.
Layla smiled back. “Is this seat taken?”
“No, please.” She pointed to the chair, and Layla lowered herself into it.
The blond returned to her book, but when a flying paper airplane came sailing onto her desk, she picked it up and smashed it, shooting a sassy grin to the perpetrators. Layla wished she could be so confident around men.
“Ugh,” she said to Layla. “It’s like going back to high school. Maybe worse. Probably wasn’t such a bright idea to take eight years off before starting college.”
“Me too. Well, only four, but it’s been awhile.”
“I’m sure you’ll do fine. I’m Allie.” She tossed the smashed plane to Layla. “Cute outfit.”
If Layla’s old-fashioned auntie had her way this morning, Layla would have left the house camouflaged from head to toe in an ugly gray overcoat. She grinned. With Auntie, she had to pick her battles, but this one had been so worth it. The red mini-dress ensemble was a success!
She tipped the crumpled paper in salute. “Thanks. I’m Layla.” Placing the unusual gift on her desk for additional courage, she turned her attention to organizing her notebooks and supplies. She needed this class to go well and give her strength to face the rest of the week.
The instructor entered the classroom and situated himself at the ‘70s style teacher’s desk. The middle-aged professor with his wool suit jacket and wire-rimmed glasses fit the role so perfectly, he could have walked straight out of her television set. He pulled a stack of papers from his briefcase and began a weaving journey about the room.
Layla examined Allie as the teacher handed out syllabi. The young woman’s hair was pulled atop her head in a casual bun with tendrils escaping. Her slim lavender T-shirt flattered her slender, graceful figure and blue-eyed, blond coloring. The creamy tank top worn underneath gave the shirt a more modest cut.
Looking closer, she attempted to decipher the words on Allie’s T-shirt. It was difficult from her angle until Allie shifted. Your beauty should not come from outward appearance…it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit. ~ I Peter 3:3-4.
Some sort of scripture? Christian, Layla guessed from the cross-like symbol substituting for the “T” on the logo. The verse resonated with her, and she loved the surrounding drawing of a young woman’s face half concealed by a tumble of modern art swirls in place of her hair. But Layla’s mind struggled to connect the sentiment to the brash girls from the Christian community in Lebanon.
The professor began the morning by introducing himself as Professor Robinson and giving the basic guidelines for the class. Then something in his demeanor altered. “This year I’ve decided to use a central theme for our writing assignments: Unity in Diversity.”
He pushed up his glasses and crossed his arms over his chest. “A favorite poem of mine by Harlem Renaissance author Langston Hughes begins, ‘I too, sing America.’ He goes on to explain that while he is the darker brother sent to the kitchen when company comes, someday things would change. ‘They’ll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed,’ he says, ‘I, too, am America.’”
The brief quote stirred Layla with hope, but with confusion as well. She too was America—sort of—not quite. Her passport claimed she was a U.S. citizen. But what did that really mean? A part of her longed to feel more connected to this land of her birth.
“This is the power of literature. It allows us to see the beauty in people around us. Gives us glimpses into their minds and their souls. Our readings will come from various societies and focus on multiculturalism. It seems like we have a nice mix of students here.” The professor gestured to the room.
Layla took in the faces staring back at him: mostly Caucasian, but interspersed with Asian, Hispanic, and African-American. Before moving here she’d been assured that, thanks to the local Navy bases, the Hampton Roads area had a better ethnic balance than the rest of Virginia. Although, Layla still appeared to be the only Islamic student in the bunch. Her nervous excitement reared again. What if she couldn’t do it? Couldn’t click with these people? Couldn’t connect?
“But let’s think further than skin deep about what defines our ‘cultures,’” continued the professor. “The surfer and the jock, the artist and the businessman, the Christian and the atheist, the New Yorker and the Alabaman. In a moment I’m going to give you all a chance to mingle. I want you to find two to three students who in some way come from a different culture than your own. Ideally, you will find both similarities and differences. These students will become your diversity group for the semester, so choose wisely.”
This was precisely what Layla desired, a chance to broaden her perspective. She tingled at the thought. But could she really do it? And what might it cost her if she did?
The professor turned on the overhead projector and pointed with his pen to a list of essays, creative writing exercises, and a final research paper. “Take a moment to glance over the assignments and then begin looking for your group members.” He put the cap back on the pen. “Remember, the purpose of this project is to see past people’s exteriors and get a peek at who they are deep within. I’ll be around to help.”
Oh, the class sounded too amazing to be true. Layla bit her lip to hold back a rare squeal and proceeded to skim the syllabus. Each lesson was designed to explore the beliefs of others. Their personalities. Their cultures. Contrasting viewpoints. The research paper tackled the subject of one aspect of your culture you would like to change. Her mind brimmed with ideas already.
As Layla reached the end of the list, the boy in front of her turned around and leered. “I’d sure be happy to get a peek at who you are deep inside, gorgeous.”
Layla recoiled. Her anticipation about the assignment fled, and her fingers began to tremble. Barely into her first class, and already her auntie’s worst fears were coming true. She had no idea how to handle such an uncouth male. What had she gotten herself into?
“Back off, scumbag. Layla’s my partner.”
Layla breathed a sigh of relief as Allie claimed her hand and held it firm in her own.
Allie whispered in her ear, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this.”
Layla’s shaking subsided. Why couldn’t she think of responses like Allie just delivered? But even if she could, would she dare speak so boldly to a man? Probably not. This was foreign territory for sure. More so than she had ever imagined.
The girls pushed their chairs together. Allie beckoned to another twenty-something woman who had arrived mid-lecture and slid into the desk closest to the door.
The young lady mirrored Layla’s relief as she came to join them. She appeared the Bohemian type in her Birkenstock sandals, raggedy pants, and loose tunic shirt with the strap of her patchwork bag cutting diagonally across the outfit. Her café-au-lait skin contrasted attractively with the ivory cotton of her hand-woven top. A tuft of golden-brown corkscrew curls framed her face.
Layla couldn’t contain a welcoming grin. This girl would be fun to get to know. So different than anyone she had met before.
“Hi, I’m Rain,” she said as she pulled up a third desk beside them. She settled in, eagerly leaning forward as Allie and Layla introduced themselves.
Allie peered at Rain. “You don’t have a boyfriend with dreadlocks, do you?”
Layla gasped at Allie’s audacity. Did she intend the comment to be derogatory? Hopefully Rain would not be offended. Layla so wanted this project to go well. Her college dreams flashed before her eyes, in peril already.
“Hey.” Rain wagged her finger at Allie. “I thought we were moving beyond our stereotypes.”
Allie smiled. “I saw you with him at McDonalds last night. You guys make an adorable couple. I remember because I was surprised that you ordered meat. Now that, I confess, was stereotypical. Hamburgers don’t fit my image of the whole Bohemian vibe.”
Rain laughed, and Layla restrained her sigh of relief.
“We lived on the streets for years,” Rain said. “We worked and ate in a lot of soup kitchens. You don’t get to be picky.”
Streets, soup kitchens? Layla never dreamed of enduring such horrors. Compassion welled in her heart, a pleasant respite from the tension of the morning. “Harum habibti.” The whispered Arabic phrase of sympathy escaped Layla’s mouth before she could stop it. “You poor thing. That’s terrible.”
Rain placed a warm hand on Layla’s. “No. We were just experiencing the plight of the homeless. Raising our social consciousness. Stuff like that. I’m writing a book about it. That’s why I’m here. To study writing. Virginia was the last place we established residency. Couldn’t resist those in-state tuition rates.”
“That’s what drew me back too.” Allie nodded. “I’m here for dance and business. What about you, Layla?”
“Engineering,” she said. “Well, I guess the three of us will have no problem proving our case for a culturally diverse group.” So much so that Layla’s head threatened to explode on the spot. She tried to be open-minded, really she did, but this was almost too much to take in at once.
Rain glanced around the small circle. “So we’ve got our Middle Eastern Muslim. Classic white chick. Let me guess. Anglo-Saxon Protestant?” Her fingers swirled about expressively as she spoke. “Then there’s me. Bi-racial, tree-hugging, social-activist raised by aging flower children. I guess my heritage is a little harder to pin down.”
Allie raised an eyebrow. “Since you seem to have us all figured out, do you mind if I ask about your religion?”
“Hmm, my mother went through her pagan Wicca phase,” Rain said. “It didn’t really stick, though. I’m a spiritual person, but I find religion restrictive. I suppose I would describe my faith as…imaginative.”
“Interesting.” Layla wrote that down, although she had no idea what it meant. She might as well buckle up her seat belt and try to enjoy the assignment. She was in for quite a ride with this group.