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What's a Hero?

The study room resembled a vault. With only a single exit and sound proof walls, it confined all those who dared to venture in. The only access they had to the outside world was through the thin window carved into the door. Every once in a while, a blurry silhouette would pass by, harmless phantoms on the outside. The room was as much as a sanctuary as it was a prison; it cut off all possible distractions. All except the distractions that had already infiltrated within.

Because to Samir’s acquaintances, that’s what the girls were: distractions.

After some thorough persuasion on Samir’s part, the concerns of the other young men subsided, and they agreed to study with the girls so long as they abided by their intentional purpose to study. However, their expectations were quickly exceeded when Maria took control of the board.

She took one glance at the bullet points scribbled onto the whiteboard and clicked her tongue in distasteful disapproval. “What the hell is this?”

Fatima and Nadia sat back in their chairs to watch the amusement unfold. A Vietnamese boy sitting at Samir’s right roused to attention. He was known as Nicholas Nguyen, a nineteen-year-old sophomore who had been accepted into U.C.B. on a soccer scholarship. To the average eye, he was a fairly handsome and tall individual who prided himself on his prowess on the field. He was convinced that one day he was going to play for the U.S. national soccer team; however, his abilities outside the bounds of balls and goals were average to say the least.

“We were recalling the facts,” Nicholas replied rather innocently.

“Yeah? Well if you have Civil War and James K. Polk on the same side of the board, you’re fucked. You’re forgetting that we have Pollock as a professor, who is, by the way, the same man who gave us a two-hundred question study guide and told us that only fifty of those questions were going to be on the exam.”

Maria grabbed the study guide sitting on Nicholas’s desk, skimmed through the questions, and bore into his self-conscious countenance with a smug look. “We would be wasting our time if we tried to answer all of it.”

“Not necessarily.”

Samir said as his eyes scoured the paper for connections. Fatima couldn’t help but notice his hyper attention to detail as he began marking through the pages, breaking off parts into sections with a deliberate stroke of his pencil. “Pollock may be a bit evil sometimes, but he’s certainly not a monster. Look how he listed the questions. They’re in order. You have Eli Whitney and three-fifths compromise on the first page, Polk and the Annexation of California somewhere in the middle, and Emancipation Proclamation at the very end.”

To his left, another boy, who appeared much younger than the rest of the group, thumbed his chin in wonder. The girls would later know him as Naveen Kumar, a seventeen-year-old college junior who had graduated high school two years early due to his immaculate SAT scores and 4.0 g.p.a. He had been sheltered by his family all his life and while he excelled in everything academic, he fared poorly in competition. He had yet to learn how to fight to get his voice heard and had much room for growth.

“In that case, we should start at the very beginning. Reserve the whiteboard for complex questions and jot down short answers for easy ones.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Samir said and began pushing the desks into two rows of three. “But let’s up the stakes…”

Fatima recognized the mischievous lilt in his voice and turned her attention his way. She had set a precedent because everyone else seemed to do the same.

“What if we turn this into a game?”

Samir pulled out twenty dollars from his wallet and slid it into the middle of the conjoined tables. Upon seeing the value of the bill, Nadia turned up her nose and scoffed.

“Only twenty-dollars? This is child’s play.”

“If twenty-dollars is of such little value to you, please feel free to up the stakes.”

Nadia smirked and slipped out two crisp bills onto the table. Her pride swelled as everyone’s eyes widened upon seeing the value inscribed in bold.

“Two-hundred.”

Maria was next. “One-fifty.”

Naveen placed his bet as well, putting in forty-dollars.

Too insecure about his slim chance at winning, Nicholas volunteered to referee by keeping track of scores and fact-checking.

That only left Fatima. With all eyes on her, she was torn between two responses. Gambling was haram. She had witnessed its devastating consequences with her family. She knew at first hand how a little fun quickly spun into greed. Fatima wanted to say ‘no’, but her pride stood in the way. The stares inflated her ego beyond salvaging, so she responded with another evident truth that might have saved her from a decision she might regret.

“I didn’t bring any money…” Fatima said so softly that it was hard to hear.

Samir didn’t think twice before stacking another twenty onto the table, stunning Fatima and her expectations.

“That’s okay. You can play with me,” he whispered under his breath. Before Fatima had time to contemplate his sudden change in temperament, Samir’s charisma had taken over.

“The rules are simple. Whoever answers the most questions correctly wins.”

“But what about the essay portion?” Naveen asked. “Pollock clearly said that the essay portion will be worth thirty percent of the exam grade. How are we supposed to include that in our game?”

Maria answered Naveen’s question with an overconfident huff. “Easy. We make it a debate. The top two people with the highest scores will go head to head at answering the prompt.”

“Sounds fair to me.” Nadia grinned from cheek to cheek, too eager to start. “Hit us with the first question Nicholas.”

Nicholas stood at the whiteboard with an expo marker in hand and squinted at the first question. “What was the significance of the Stono Rebellion of 1739?”

Fatima immediately jumped in to answer. “It was the largest slave revolt in the thirteen colonies. The insurrection grew up to one hundred slaves, and they raided a warehouse, executing white owners and putting their heads on the store’s front steps for everyone to see. Even though the rebellion was eventually crushed, it spurred more uprisings, striking fear into the hearts of slave-owners and white people alike.”

Nicholas rummaged through his notes and produced a satisfactory grunt. “She’s right. Does anyone want to add to that?”

The silence spoke for itself. Nicholas marked a talley under Fatima’s name and started.

“Next question. Which device established slavery as a major southern institution?”

“Cotton gin.”

The answer escaped Fatima’s lips, a vengeful ghost that could not be contained. Her quick response earned a baffled look from Naveen and a spiteful remark from Maria.

“Geez, Fatima. Save us a few answers, would you?”

“Answer faster and she wouldn’t have to.”

Fatima turned to her defense and glowered at his reassuring countenance. In defiance of her coldness, Samir warmly smiled back.

“I don’t need you to defend me. I need you to step up your game.”

“I’m giving you a head start,” Samir retorted.

“Why? Because you think I need it?”

The pained look on Fatima’s face stung Samir, and he turned away to conceal his wounded pride. Fatima had found a way to turn Samir’s pure intentions into something corrupt, and she shifted her gaze to the board.

Nicholas continued.

“Provide an example of a factor that contributed to sectionalism.”

“Three-fifths compromise!”

To everyone’s utmost dismay, it was Nadia who had answered. She stood up in her seat, her head tilted back proudly as she elaborated, “The three-fifths compromise counted slaves as three fifths of a person. That meant that with more slaves, the higher the population, meaning that there would be more representatives needed to represent its people. More reps meant more power in decision making, especially when it came to slavery. The compromise acted as a bandaid to hide the ever growing power struggle between north and south.”

When Nicholas gave his nod of approval, Nadia sat down and gloated. “See? You guys aren’t the only smart ones around here.”

Nadia’s active participation burned a competitive wildfire amongst the five of them. Each person fought to get an answer in and by the one hour mark, Fatima found herself struggling. She became overwhelmed by the interjecting voices barking around her. People shouted answers left and right. She couldn’t hear herself think, so she immersed herself into the discord and became a watchful observer.

On the other end, Samir was much like a sleeping bear. When he decided that he had enough fun watching others compete, he picked up his pace halfway through the game, interjecting whenever someone provided a rash answer. Soon, he collected enough points to outnumber Maria and Naveen. He only needed to trump Nadia in order to second Fatima and make it to the final round.

“Last question before we head off to our debate! How did the acquisition of land from the Mexican-American War act as a cause of the Civil War?”

A long silence filled the room. Naveen’s forehead collapsed into his notebook, implicitly notifying everyone of his defeat. Maria absentmindedly played with her acrylic nails. Nadia was sketching a dress design on the back of her study guide. Meanwhile, Fatima and Samir were glaring at each other from their desks, each with an entirely different reasoning for their intensity.

“Seriously?” Nicholas practically threw his hands up in the air. “Is no one going to answer this question?”

Naveen lifted his head just enough to be heard. “Nick, in case you haven’t noticed, we’re kinda brain dead. Like, fuck man. I haven’t been this stressed since the SAT’s.”

“Maria?” Nicholas said with a ring of hope in his voice.

Maria continued to admire her nails. “There’s no point if I answer. An extra point won’t put me in the top two.”

Nicholas sighed. “Nadia. This is your chance to hold your place.”

“Not interested,” was all Nadia said in between sketches.

Each decline sank Nicholas’s hopes of scoring a passing grade lower and lower. He turned to the final two people that might save him and said, “Samir! Fatima! Quit flirting and answer the question!”

“Sorry!” Samir turned to the board and smiled sheepishly. “I was getting lost in her eyes.”

To which replied with an incredulous cry, “As IF I would flirt with the likes of him! His company is unbearable!”

“I think she likes me.” Samir said and batted his eye at Nicholas. The mere gesture and the chaotic arrangement of their plans had rendered poor Nicholas speechless which was surprising since he had always considered himself a tolerant man. The experience altogether made him doubt his own character.

“You know what? Fine. Scrap the question entirely. Can someone please volunteer to do the debate so we can all go home and never see each other ever again?”

“Well if you really have to beg…” Fatima stood up and went to the board. Nicholas’s hopes soared as Samir followed suit.

“This should be fun.” Samir said as he took his place at the board. Fatima and Samir stood head to head, each with their own heightened swagger fueled by the sole intention to outperform the other.

“Alright then. The prompt is, “Was Nat Turner a Hero? Why or why not?”

“He––”

“Is!”

“Is not!”

The clash of their replies ricocheted, sparking confusion and tension between them both.

“He’s a hero…” Samir said.

“He absolutely is not!”

Nadia elbowed Maria and they snickered from their seats. Only Naveen did not share the girls’ pleasure. He interjected cautiously with a raised hand and asked, “Hold on...we’re talking about the same Nat Turner who led a slave rebellion, right? The one in Virginia in 1831? Brutally murdered his master and his master’s family and a bunch of other white people before he was captured and hung?”

Fatima stepped forward. Her eyes turned black as she withdrew into a state of pure pragmatism. She added, “Yeah. Don’t forget that it directly resulted in the massacre of up to 200 black people, some who had no part in the rebellion because it was to teach slaves ‘a lesson’. His uprising made it worse for black people by scaring whites into making waves of oppressive legislation for slaves all across the south. You want to call that man a hero?”

“He was trying to end slavery.” Samir argued with a tempered mind. It was then that he saw a side of Fatima he hadn’t seen before, a side that was devoid of emotion and consumed by rational thought. She strutted towards him and bared her pearly whites in his face.

“He was a vengeful man with a taste for blood.”

“He was an educated minister who was literate, intelligent, and believed he was doing something right.”

“He was a mad man who caved into the voices inside his head.”

“He thought he was receiving messages from God...because that was the only thing holding him together.”

Samir paused before holding Fatima’s gaze, the cold gaze he had grown infatuated with. He watched as the dark clouds in her eyes dissipate, allowing light and humanity to penetrate her closed gates. For once, it seemed like she was willing to listen.

“As children, we have been taught that the Civil war, a bloody war that waged for four years and reaped over six-hundred-thousand-lives, was good. It was fought on the righteous intention to end a sinful institution that abused and exploited a race of people...that the bloodshed and death was a necessary sacrifice in order to make things right. Wasn’t Nat Turner doing the same thing? Yes, he killed innocent women and children and there’s no way any of that can be fully justified, but you, Fatima, you would be a hypocrite if you deny that there is a difference between a war waged by white men and a slave insurrection built on the same premise.”

Fatima took a long moment to respond. In fact, it was so long that Nicholas was indecisive of whether to call Samir’s defense a win. But Fatima recollected her thoughts, organized her mind, and came to her final conclusion.

“I believe that you justify the reasons behind Nat Turner’s insurrection well, and it would be hypocritical of me to condemn him if I withhold the belief that the premise behind the Civil War was justified…”

Before Samir could relish in his triumph, Fatima hit him with a final whip of her tongue.

“...which I do not. Your defense of Nat Turner’s actions is moving. You have depicted him as a man of good intentions but terrible execution, yet your claim that such a man is a hero is problematic at most. You see, Samir. Our heroes say a lot about us. Who we look up to is a reflection of our own character and if your hero is Nat Turner...then I truly fear for your soul.”

“And what is it that you are implying?” Samir said in a voice the crept dangerously to the edge of no return.

“Your choice to look up to a man who so easily turns to murder, who jumps to extremes, who believes that he is doing the work of the divine shows that you are just as dangerous as the man you admire and gives me all the more reason to denounce you as a base man.

Fatima’s fingertips found their way to Samir’s neck, tracing an invisible line across his throat to form a slit.

“Men like you are better off dead.”

Fatima flashed Samir a cruel smirk before snatching a pile of cash on the table in her hand. “I’ll be taking this. Great game, ladies. Gents.”

Everyone watched as Fatima’s hijab disappeared out of the door’s frame with their cash. The debate had left everyone in different states of mind: some flustered, others thoughtful.

Nadia decided that it was time for her to leave next but not before leaving everyone with something to think about.

“You want to know what’s backwards about the discourse of this country? Black people are worth more dead than alive. Who knew?”

To which Nicholas replied, “And I don’t exist within the curriculum. Fuck U.S. history.”

Samir and Naveen agreed, and everyone else departed in their own separate ways.

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