- FUN FEATURES
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Mansoor Alam had a doctor's appointment and was not with his classmates at Highland School.
On the way to the doctor, Alam recalled his mother switching between all the different AM radio stations, something he found strange because "who listens to that much AM band?" When they arrived at the office, the normal anxiety in the doctor's waiting room was "multiplied by 100" and the television was tuned to the news.
As an eight-year-old, Alam couldn't really process what was happening, but as he grew older, it became more clear. When they left the doctor's office, Alam was prepared to go to Highland, but his mother kept driving and, instead, they went home. He was secluded from his friends on 9/11, and it's something, he explained, happened more and more as American tolerance and acceptance of Muslims and the Islam religion seemingly vanished.
"Things changed sharply following 9/11," he said.
Those changes impacted Alam in a profound way. Now 18, the Pakistani-American has written his first book, "10 Years Older," which is a recollection of stories of the past 10 years growing up in Cheshire as a Muslim. The book begins, "If you will not write this story, who will?" It's a story Alam wanted to share.
Alam had friends growing up, but described himself as being on the scrawny side. Every day after school, the boys in the neighborhood would play baseball at this nearby grass field that was just "perfect" for the sport. One of his friends, whom he did not want to mention by name, was a successful athlete, made the honor roll, and Alam "looked up to him." Before 9/11, he would get picked on or bullied, usually on the bus ride to school, and his friend, the "All-American," would come to his side and stand up for him. But Alam soon learned that things can change. Maybe it was the color of his skin, his last name, or his religious beliefs, he isn't quite sure, but people whom he thought were friends no longer were there. The bullying he had previously experienced intensified.
He recounts a story, which is described in more detail in his book, about a time when he was playing baseball in the grass field by his house. It was maybe two weeks after 9/11, and two bullies came up behind him and picked him up. They proceeded to spin him around in circles and eventually threw him to the earth. They then shoved his face into the grass and told him something he will never forget.
"They said 'eat the grass, terrorist,'" Alam said.
And he did, only to get the bullies off of him. The older student he looked up to, the "All-American" as he liked to call him, stood by and watched.
"My friend never said anything or did anything," Alam said. "I began to realize that things were changing."
Over the last few years, Alam has become a well-known speaker for his efforts with the non-profit ENOUGH, and many people have told him how much they enjoy his stories. As a teenager, he always thought the elders in the room, like when he attended a conference in Washington, D.C. or testified in Hartford about bullying, were just being nice to him, but over time he noticed that his stories seemed to resonate with crowds.
"So I sat down and just started writing," Alam said. "I did it for myself. It was therapeutic in a way. I never really went back to that place before, but I think it was important to reflect on that."
Alam said he "turned into a different person" as the bullying progressed through his childhood. Before he was a teenager, he said he "couldn't really connect the dots" as to what was happening to him. Right after 9/11, he felt that Americans gave Muslims "the benefit of the doubt" as the terrorist attacks were just an isolated incident by a group of radicals. However, as time marched on, Americans became "more skeptical about our religions and our motives," but that's not what he saw as a kid in Cheshire.
"It was around 6th grade I realized that some of the bullying was about my religion," he said. "I was starting to get singled out because of my religion."
During his middle school and high school years, Alam said he "faded away" and lost interest in his religion and ethnicity. He was out of school the entire 10th grade because of chronic Lyme disease and he wasn't even sure if he'd survive. He described the time of being homebound as "sobering," as he spent time learning about world news and events, and became "more aware of what was happening."
"It was at that point that I made a promise to myself to do something positive for myself and others, if I ever came back," Alam said.
So, when he returned to school as a junior, he founded ENOUGH.
He is now heading to college in a matter of days, and the group will continue on at CHS, with chapters having been founded at schools across the region. He isn't experiencing as much racism today as he has in recent years. "It's definitely getting better," he said.
Yet, it was within the last year, speaking in Hartford, that he heard another student speak, and share a story about being beaten up and concussed because of his religious beliefs. The intolerance is still there and children are living it, so Alam hopes his book, his memories, and how he made it through and did something positive with his life, will help someone going through the same thing.
"I wish I had a book to read when I was going through it," he said. "I could have kept it to myself, but I felt it needed to be shared."
For more information, or to purchase the book, visit www.10yearsolder.com.