Second Grade


Neda Toloui-Semnani

Art by Roya Farassat


Her father named her Zahra.

Her mother calls her Zazu.

Her momani calls her Zahnushka.

But it was the third day of second grade and the teacher has taken to calling her Zara. Zara.

“Zara? Like the store?” she asks.

The girl is standing at the front of the classroom, looking up at the woman’s face trying to figure out how to fix the way her name sounds coming out of the woman’s mouth.

She shakes her head.

“Say it again?” the woman asks. The girl doesn’t want to. She thinks she says her name too much at this school and still, no one seems to get it. It’s the h at the center that acts like a bump in people’s throats.

She doesn’t know how to fix that so she shakes her head to say, “No, thank you. I do not want to say my name again.” She gives her teacher a limp smile and—head down and arms down, straight as sticks—the girl walks back to her desk. Some of the kids titter and snort, though it isn’t clear if they’re laughing or if they’re embarrassed for the girl or for the teacher or if they’re all just relieved the moment is over.

The teacher snaps to attention. “Alright,” she says, “alright. Settle down. Let’s start.”

By the end of the week, the girl has given up. She’s Zara in the lunchroom, in music class, and on the playground. Everyone calls her Zara. Sitting in the middle seat of the bus, pushed up against the window, watching the others laugh together, the girl comes to a decision.

That night, as they are saying good night, she tells her mother what she’s decided. Her mother looks away.

The next morning, the girl tells her father who pushes his lips together tightly and then kisses the top of her head.

Her brother Ramin, who doesn’t care what anyone calls him, rolls his eyes and keeps eating his cereal.


The next Monday, the girl walks into the classroom holding a slip of paper. She hands it to the teacher.

Her teacher reads it and then she looks at her student, the child with dark brown eyes and tight curls pushed off her forehead with a red and blue plaid headband.

“Are you sure?” the teacher asks. The girl nods. “And your parents know?” The girl nods again.

“OK,” the teacher says, looking down. She then looks up, over the child’s head at the clock. “OK. Go put your things away and take your seat.”

When all thirty-two students are seated, the teacher clears her throat and starts the day, pointing to the schedule on the board. As the kids pull out their spelling workbooks, the teacher adds, almost as an afterthought. “And another thing: Zara’s going to go by Margerie now.”

The teacher is suddenly certain of one thing: years from now, this small girl would remember her. The teacher would be mentioned like a character in that child’s story, a story told to a therapist, a friend, a partner.

But that day, none of the children seem bothered. The girl seems relieved, even happy. The morning turns to afternoon, and the recess bell rings.

The girl runs out with the other kids; she looks around the playground and the blacktop. She decides she doesn’t much feel like four square or tag or whatever the kids were breaking off into groups to play.

It’s a cool day in September but the sun is still warm, so she walks towards the clump of trees at the far end of the yard. She circles one tree, then another tree. She checks that no one is looking and then lies down carefully at the foot of the old maple. Her head cradled by the roots. The tufts of grass pricking and tickling the backs of her legs. She adjusts her body. She pushes her nose upward as if to touch the clouds. Her arms are slightly stretched out like wings at rest.

It feels as if the ground is pressing against her back and pushing her up, up, up into the sky. The sun turns the insides of her eyelids yellow and orange and red. She slowly moves her hands in front of her face, so their shadows roll over her like waves.

Her only job, her only obligation in that moment, is to breathe—the tree exhales air for her; she exhales carbon dioxide for it. A circle. Logical, masterful, contained. She isn’t its center; she is just part of the whole.


She doesn’t have the words for what she’s feeling. She is just a part and apart; two parts is how she feels herself; she feels herself slide into place, a piece of a puzzle nestled against another piece of a puzzle. She is Zahra and she is Margerie. She blinks her eyes open and rolls to her side. She gets to her feet, shaking off the leaves and unpeels the helicopter seeds stuck to the back of her calves.

The kids are shouting, running up and down the blacktop. No one noticed her communion. No one really notices her very much unless they’re forced to try.

She skips down to the playground and, for the rest of recess, twirls round and round on one of the metal poles that hold up the swing set. When the bell rings, children rush like ants from the far four corners of the yard, jostling into a line, each taking their place in the alphabetical order, before marching neatly into the school.

Everyone smelling faintly like dirt; Zahra is tucked away, Margerie still warmed from the sun


Spring / Summer 2023
The Iran Issue

Neda Toloui-Semnani

Neda Toloui-Semnani is an Emmy award-winning journalist and author. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including This American Life, The Cut, VICE News, and the Washington Post. Her first book, They Said They Wanted Revolution: A Memoir of My Parents, was published in 2022.

Roya Farassat

Roya Farassat is an Iranian-American visual artist living in New York. Her abstract and figurative work includes drawings, paintings, and sculptures. She received her BFA from Parsons School of Design and has been widely exhibited at galleries and museums in the United States and abroad. Farassat was nominated for the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Jameel Prize and the MOP Foundation Contemporary Art Prize, and awarded residencies from Henry Street Settlement and the Makor/Steinhardt Center. Her work has been reviewed by the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Brooklyn Rail, the Boston Globe, Artcritical, Art Radar, Hyperallergic, W Magazine, and Flaunt.

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