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Monday, November 21, 2005

A story of quarantine

When I was in the fifth grade, we were required by state law to update our vaccinations in order to be allowed in school. Now, in America, we vaccinate our precious offspring against every possible unpleasantness no matter how un-lethal. Measles, mumps, rubella, you name it. (Actually, you probably can't, because you've never heard of them due to being vaccinated.) If there is a vaccine for it, it's probably swimming around in your bloodstream right now. In fact, the roommates inform me that these days, there is even a vaccine for chickenpox. To think--you could have avoided looking like the hapless prey of a swarm of killer mosquitos for a week.

However, this was not the case in Russia. My mother claims proudly to have had all those above-named diseases. In fact, I think they provided a welcome reprieve from attending school for her. Perhaps Soviet science had progressed somewhat by the time I arrived in the world (to much hearty applause, I might add), but I nevertheless did not get vaccinated against measles either. Instead, I contracted it at a most convenient moment--while my parents were staying in Vienna on the way to the States. I don't actually recall this episode since I was three and still primarily concerned with making funny noises and running around with my underwear on my head, but my parents tell me that they did not enjoy being quarantined in a foreign country without any money on my account. These are the risks of procreation, I suppose.

In any case, I recovered, and my parents eventually found their way to the US, and eight years later, my school was threatening to expel me for not having been vaccinated against the measles. My mother, who believes that the purpose of medicine is to kill people, refused to allow me get vaccinated because I was already carrying the antibodies, although my doctor assured her that it wouldn't cause a problem. (The ongoing and pitched battle between my mother and my pediatrician is a tale better left for another day.) The other option was to produce written verification that I had indeed had the measles, but since I had been seen by a random Austrian physician eight years earlier, that was not looking likely. So time passed and the vaccination deadline approached, and my mother stood her ground about not having me vaccinated.

That turned out to be a very bad idea. The law is a cold and disinterested master that does not pity ten-year-old girls with lopsided pigtails (another trauma for which my mother was responsible) and stubborn parents. One day, I was asked to report to the nurse's office and told I could not leave until I produced either a confirmation that I had been vaccinated, or a verification that I had actually contracted measles. Actually, I was only imprisoned until my parents could come and pick me up, but they both worked until late afternoon so I was stuck for the entire school day.

Keeping me company in the nurse's office was another unfortunate victim of deluded immigrant parents--Ruquia. Ruquia (pronounced Roo-kee-yah) was Pakistani, and according to my friend Jessica (a fellow sufferer of deluded immigrant parent woes and Ruquia's next door neighbor), Ruquia's family raised chickens in their backyard. There were a lot of weird things going on in my town, including a gypsy crime ring, but I don't know of anyone else who used their home to raise poultry. Ruquia's parents had apparently also failed to have her vaccinated for something, or maybe they had failed to take her to the doctor at all. It was unclear, because Ruquia was the dumbest girl in our class (in a strictly non-retarded sense) and could not really figure out concepts like vaccination yet. Her brother was equally stupid, so it followed that perhaps her parents were not the brightest, and taken on top of the fact that they were immigrants, it was highly possible that the whole family might in fact have had no idea that their children were supposed to have medical records in the first place.

So Ruquia and I were trapped in a tiny room with the insufferably cheerful school nurse and a lot of posters featuring talking band-aids. Ruquia did not say much. I don't think she thought much either. She just colored. She was probably relieved not to have to be in class where everyone made fun of her for being dumb. I, on the other hand, was outraged, because even at 10, I had already cultivated a fondness for school as a place where I could most successfully kick ass, and I did not enjoy being forcibly removed from the only environment in which I could show everyone else up. The outrage lasted all through the morning, during which I frequently complained to the smiling nurse that, "This is totally UNFAIR!!! I'm not SICK!!!" However, at lunchtime, as I watched my friends file past the nurse's office on their way to recess, the outrage melted into a brooding melancholy. When were they going to let me out? I was bored and lonely, and Ruquia's lunch smelled gross and looked alive.

I asked to call my mother again at work in order to inform her of my miserable conditions. "Mommmmmmmmmmyyyyyyyyyyyy. Come pick me uppppppppppp. I'm borrrrrrrrredddddd." The response was unsatisfactory. I would have to wait until she was finished at work. I was sure this was some form of child abuse--extreme neglect and dereliction of parental duties. Could she not see how I was suffering here? I had to hang out with Ruquia. And color. What was I, a child? Even the nurse was a cold-hearted witch who would not even let me go out to recess with my friends. How about social studies, I begged? No. I was quarantined. Then, to keep things fair, Ruquia got a phone call to her parents. Now, I do not speak Urdu, but I'm pretty sure that what I overheard from the other end of line was not happiness. It was something like, "AHHHHHHHHHHHH! RUQUIA! AHHHHHHHHH!" Then there were some angry sounding words, and more shrieking. She said "ok" and hung up.

I do not consider my little Rita self to have been particularly wimpy. However, by 2 pm, I couldn't stand it anymore. Stupid Ruquia couldn't even color in the lines, and I was missing countless opportunities for academic glory and recognition, and I wanted to see my friends! Around this time, Ruquia's mother came and reclaimed her, and I was now alone. So I cried. Or rather, I sobbed. Actually, I believe that the appropriate term is "tantrum." I bawled as loudly and violently as I could so that not only the nurse, but the entire principal's office, which was attached to the nurse's office, would feel remorse for their heartlessness. And I kicked some things. And then bawled some more. Several secretaries rushed in to make sure the nurse had not killed one of the students. Conveniently for her, however, my nose took advantage of this opportune moment to start bleeding.

In case you have not had the experience, you should know that it is rather difficult to maintain character while simultaneously having to hold tissues and an ice pack to your face. I valiantly attempted to keep the tantrum energy going, but it inevitably flagged as I became less able to breathe now that I had tissues up my nose. Besides, the more you scream, the more it bleeds. So I curled up with my box of tissues and my ice pack and whimpered instead. A massive wave of pity seemed to wash over the principal's office at this course of events, and several secretaries took turns consoling me until my mother arrived.

I was allowed back into class after that, on a furlough-type arrangement, until my mother took me for a blood test to detect the measles antibodies. They were duly detected, and I was free.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Dinner table discussion at Rita's apartment

Alex: I don't know, I'm starting to like Summer.
Becky: Yeah, she's like---
Me: Wait, who's Summer?
Becky: Our friend from TV.