(Mourners holding pictures of family members gather around a reflecting pool in memory of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on September 11, 2010 in New York. (Photo by David Handschuh-Pool/Getty Images))

Reflections: My Friend Osama, And Me

When I was in high school I was friends with a boy named Osama. We sat next to each other in Biology class. We had the same guidance counselor. He happened to be Palestinian, and Muslim, but nobody really cared. There was the occasional Palestinian sitting next to a Jew joke (which was met with eye rolls), but there were no major conflicts between him and anyone. He was a nice kid.

Then 9/11 happened. Things got crazy. Some of my friends lost parents. Some teachers lost spouses. Staten Island was hit HARD by 9/11. Really hard. My father, who’s a photographer for the NYPD, started suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from being at Ground Zero every day taking pictures of stuff. I couldn’t vent my anxiety at school though. How can I complain about my dad to someone whose dad didn’t come home? But school kept going and the living kept living. Osama, despite the unfortunate name coincidence, still sat next to me in biology class and we remained friendly.

Later that year, there was some after-school event- I forget what it was exactly, a college fair or something, and a bunch of students and their parents were there. I was there with my mom. Osama was there with his mom. Our guidance counselor came over to say hello to everyone.

She walked up to my mother and said “Hello Mrs. Figueroa.” Then the she walked up to Osama’s mom and said “Hello Mrs. Bin Laden.”

This should go without saying but I’m going to say it anyway- Osama’s last name was not Bin Laden. I don’t remember Osama’s mother’s name but it was definitely not Mrs. Bin Laden.

My mother’s chin hit the floor. Osama’s mom looked like a deer caught in headlights. Osama, his hands full of college pamphlets, looked confused. Our guidance counselor’s face turned red and she immediately started apologizing.

The slip was understandable I guess, given where we were and how soon after 9/11 it was, but it was still pretty bad. It got even worse when she did it again. It got worse still when she did it another time. In their brief conversation, our guidance counselor called Osama’s mom Mrs. Bin Laden four times. Osama and his mom eventually left and our guidance counselor, tomato red from making a total ass of herself, retreated to her office.

The guidance counselor retired that year. I don’t know if it was because of that incident, or if Osama’s mother ever complained, but I can’t help but feel it was related. When does a slip become something else? Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but not when someone calls a perfectly nice woman Mrs. Bin Laden four times in a row.

Osama and I never spoke about the incident. What would we say? We were just two mildly traumatized kids in a sea of some severely traumatized kids. I’m sure German-American kids named Adolph had similar problems during World War II.

So after you’re done praying for all the families who lost loved ones, take a moment and recognize the hard-to-vent frustrations of people suffering from survivors guilt, and Muslims like Osama, and his mother, Mrs. Not-Bin-Laden. All New Yorkers had a hard time after 9/11. All of them.

Reflections: My Friend Osama, And Me rachel levin figueroa revised nbc parenting family NBC Latino News

Rachel Figueroa-Levin is a soapmaker, cofounder and educator at Urban Babywearing, a hyperlocal Inwood blogger and organizer, a political/life/religion/parenting satirist, and all around trouble maker.  She is also the creator of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Spanish-speaking alter ego @elbloombito.  You can reach her via twitter @Jewyorican

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