[This piece won Second Prize in The Diversity Story Cultural Writing Competition - High School]
BY TEMILOLUWA OGUNADE
I am a wallflower, a misfit, someone out of the ordinary.
Time and time again, I dreaded high school attendance. It always went like this:
I hated that my name caused such a wide disparity and interrupted the flow of “normal” white names, but I am a wallflower so I could do nothing but listen; either to understand my place or to find where I belong.
Instead of choosing one or the other, I ran away from who I genuinely was because I could not escape the box. I was trapped. The box hovered over my line of vision and prevented me from knowing where I belonged. So, I kept running. Shifting between my culture and not embodying the stereotypical black girl, I neither got the references nor slang that made one “black” or “white.” I poked two holes in the box, eager to see the world around me and who I could be one day.
As I held my gaze, I observed my surroundings, mirrored what worked, and discarded what didn’t. I took and took until I realized I couldn’t do anything else but take. I was like clay, easily groomed as I absorbed more than I could withstand. Thus, I soaked up the perfect American accent, how the perfect Instagram body should look, what clothes I should wear, or which hairstyles would bring more attention to me. I felt it was wrong to be me. People would come up to me and say, “Wow, I love your accent,” and would never talk to me again. Immediately, I thought to myself, “Dang it! I failed…”
Why was I different?
With each step, it was the clink of my heels that sent out signals, welcoming my presence before I even uttered a word. I was like an empty can, and my culture was the sound that followed. People heard that sound before they saw me. Unlike others, I was ashamed of that sound because it was loud; I envied those without the clink. It was the little remarks like, “Did you live in the jungle?” or “Did you see lions every day?” that made me feel like I needed to mask my sound. I needed to cover every inclination of my African culture to be noticed by my peers and to prove to myself that I was worthy of reverence.
Layer after layer, my sound drowned under the padding. Hence, I shortened my name and put on my best American voice, but like the buzzing of a bee and the chirping of a bird; my sound still reminded me of its existence. As I walked, I was unsure of when my armor would rip, and the sound will reveal itself once more. Swiftly, I created a person who took on the souls of those around me and molded the personalities I observed as my own. I created a person that was one way at home, one way at school, and one way online.
Consequently, I surrounded myself with shallow friendships, joined organizations where I felt excluded, and overanalyzed how my actions would come across to strangers who didn’t even know how to pronounce my name. I wasn’t too surprised, after all I created a distorted version of myself. It only made sense that I attracted people who liked the false version of myself. I felt like a stray dog, cheerful and potent in one sense, but also one that is two faced and lacks direction. During the day, I am my happiest. Barking loudly and licking strangers with glee, but at night I cower in fear—missing the warmth of a real home. Like the stray dog, I longed for the sharp rays of the sun to chase the stillness of the night and my dark thoughts away.
Unlike the other days when my pain was postponed by the swiftness of the alarm, tonight was different. This time my thoughts pursued me with intent through the night. As I rolled over and counted down the hours until it was time to put on a merry face again, my mind spiralled into a frenzy of obscure emotions.
It was impossible to dream
Why does my mind scream?
I continually sink into the mattress without care
My hair is now a mess from tossing and turning
I sit up for air
My clothes long melted into skin
Drenched in a pool of my fears, all I can do is
Where do I begin, think
Maybe tomorrow I won’t feel this pain
Or am I just insane
No, I just need to obtain
In the meantime, the headaches intensified and made me wince as I consumed more and more water. The aching feeling in my stomach now metastasized towards my back, shoulders, and legs. Now laying on my stomach, something whispered to me repeatedly; “who are you?” Then louder, “WHO ARE YOU?”
I was so consumed by perfect American names and the unrealistic bodies around me, skipping one out of three meals a day and repressing my culture turned into having only one meal a day and hating the sound of my own name. As my mind faded to black, finally releasing me, I could only hear the faint sound of my mum’s singing:
Temiloluwa...Temiloluwa...ọmọ mi iyebiye
Temiloluwa, Temiloluwa my precious child
tio dara lopolopo ti o jẹ bi ore-ọfẹ bi apakan kan ti agbaye
a gem that is as precious as just a piece of the universe
I was brought up by the principles of this old Nigerian song my mother would sing to me before bedtime. I never understood what she was talking about, but my younger self liked the way my name sounded in the song, so I would always beg her to keep singing even when my bedtime had long disintegrated from the forefront of my mind. As time passed, it became utterly clear the difference in how my name sounded from those I loved versus how I viewed myself and those that tried to belittle me. It was extremely difficult for me to come to terms with the fact that I would never be like the manufactured bodies online. I would never sound like them or dress like them.
As a result, I was not okay.
Hating my name or starving myself was not going to raise my esteem from the depths of my overly critical gaze. It was the starry-eyed nature of the American Dream that blinded me from realizing that one country or that one concept of beauty does not hold all the treasures to life.
My mother saw the arrant pride in my existence and remembering her song became the catalyst.
Beneath all the lining, I was still a shy Nigerian girl who wanted to be accepted. I may not fit into the ample categories of life, but I am my own subset. I am Temiloluwa (TAY-ME-LOW-LU-WA). T’emi for short, which means mine in English.
Truly, I belonged to myself and no one else.