By Anna Merlan
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Farris sorely resented the column and claimed his trip to Iraq had nothing to do with his father's activities 20 years ago.
"What is Bob's problem?" Farris asks, his voice jumping an octave. "Certainly, he got that story ridiculously wrong. My father's anti-Saddam activities have been exaggerated. His involvement in anti-Saddam activities since he left Iraq in 1971 was mostly restricted to financial support of the Iraqi exile community, probably in the same way that a Cuban exile might engage in anti-Castro activities through the financial support of the Cuban-exile community."
Asked how his father's anti-Hussein past had affected his decision to go to Iraq, Hassan replies, "It didn't."
As the local media clamored for Hassan, the reaction at Pine Crest was mixed. Already something of a school celebrity for his taxi rides and other escapades, Hassan quickly learned that many were not amused by his new notoriety.
When he returned to economics class, for example, he found the following sentence scrawled on the blackboard: "Stupidity should not result in celebrity."
A well-respected teacher had written it.
Some students, such as senior Jason Baum, believe that the Iraq trip was a publicity stunt and that the summer's adventure is more of the same. And hiring the press agent, well, that's just disgusting, Baum says.
"That's the thing I don't respect. If he really cared about helping those people in Iraq, he wouldn't have tried to use it to his advantage."
Still, Hassan fascinates Baum.
"He's a really interesting kid," he says. "When I first met him, I would see him walking around the halls with history books and economics books in his hand for pleasure reading. There's just something different about him, and he's always got an interesting viewpoint. He has over-the-top ambition. He's just got this one little thing I'm not so fond of."
Some middle school students idolized Hassan and high-fived him on a daily basis. Other students took their complaints directly to the media.
"They were underclassmen speaking to the media and slandering me. Outright slandering me," Hassan says. "Saying awful things. Like they said I'm a brat. I'm a snob. The most painful thing was that I'm anti-Semitic. That's 110 percent untrue."
Hassan mentions his Jewish girlfriend who also happens to be Armenian royalty as proof.
He says he doesn't care about his high school reputation, and it's clear that he's far more concerned about how he comes off in the media. That could affect opinions of important people like college admissions directors or even Hassan's heroes.
He's especially fond of Ted Conover, whom he learned about from Robert Boynton's The New New Journalism, a collection of interviews with 20 nonfiction authors that inspired the Iraq trip. Conover also wrote Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails With America's Hoboes a work of immersion journalism that Hassan read right before his summer trip. He's also a big fan of John McPhee and Lawrence Weschler.
"Do you think they've heard of me?" Hassan asks.
Turns out Conover has.
"I admire the spirit of Farris Hassan, his willingness to meet the world face to face, his curiosity and lack of fear," Conover wrote in an e-mail. "He's only 17, but already he understands the power of venturing alone outside your own group, and of bearing witness. He seems able to judiciously question/ignore rules of various kinds, a fine trait. He's hungry for experience. I admire all those things." But Conover suggests that Hassan "forget the press agent, and instead read more good books and focus on college things that will help him to develop his own mind."
College is definitely on Hassan's mind. Although he's undecided and nervous about mentioning preferences in public, he admits that he's thinking Ivy League, perhaps Princeton.
"This may sound pompous, and I probably won't get in, but John McPhee teaches at Princeton," he says with enthusiasm. "He's one of the founding fathers of the New Journalism movement... It would be sort of like a dream of mine to sit in John McPhee's class."
While he prepares for college, Hassan says he looks to Thoreau for advice on how to live. When his uncle gave him an expensive 2005 Mercedes C230, for example, he rejected it for a more modest Honda Accord. And one of the reasons that he moved in with his uncle was that he didn't like living in his mother's opulent Fort Lauderdale house.
"It may sound ridiculous, but the house was just too big," he says. "It would take me two minutes to go from my bedroom to the kitchen. It's probably a $4 million house, with million-dollar houses all around."
Atiya confirms that her son often speaks of being disturbed by the size of the house and adds that he spends most of his time in his room. "For a 17-year-old, he's too much," she says.
Hassan uses all that time in his room to read and study, and he does extremely well in his classes. That's why his punishment for skipping school to go to Iraq was particularly agonizing.
For starters, five points were deducted off his final grades in every class, to match the five days of school he missed. "That destroyed my GPA," he says. "It probably lowered it by two-tenths of a point."