Shirin, a sixteen-year-old high school sophomore, feels angry about changing schools so often. As she begins her first day at her third high school in two years, she keeps to herself and avoids eye contact in the hallways. When a teacher mispronounces her name and suggests she belongs in an ESL class, despite the fact that she can clearly speak perfect English, Shirin corrects him with an expletive and gets detention. Her older brother, Navid, is handsome and makes friends easily. He tries to help Shirin feel comfortable on her first day by inviting her to lunch, which she refuses. After 9/11, a year ago, two men violently attacked Shirin and choked her with her hijab. Now she hides earbuds in her headscarf and listens to music all day as a way to deal with her anger toward people and their racism.
The family frequently moves because Shirin and Navid’s immigrant parents are continually striving to live in a bigger house in a better neighborhood in an effort to provide better opportunities for the future. Shirin describes how her parents have survived war and revolution, so they are not very sympathetic to her pain. Shirin’s interests include Matlock reruns on TV, and high fashion. One day, Navid brings home three friends named Jacobi, Carlos, and Bijan. He tells her that they are starting a breakdancing crew and invites her to join. Navid has been learning and practicing, so he will be the teacher.
In biology class, Shirin is assigned a lab partner named Ocean. Their first project together is to dissect a cat. When Ocean asks if they can finish their report together after school, Shirin gives him her phone number instead. At first, Ocean thinks Shirin can’t work on the report because she is not allowed to stay out after school, an idea she knows arises from the fact that she wears a hijab. However, she tells Ocean she can’t work with him after school because the breakdancing group has its first session. While with the other breakdancers in an unoccupied room in the school, Shirin wonders if Navid, who struggles with dyslexia, included her in the group as a way to thank her for helping him through his classes. When Carlos questions if Shirin can breakdance in her hijab, Shirin becomes immediately offended, but then Carlos apologizes. Shirin is not yet a good dancer, but Navid promises to teach her the crab walk as her signature move.
Shirin joins her family for dinner. Persian foods are a fixture in their home. Afterward, she receives several panicky text messages from Ocean about their project. They take their conversation to AOL Instant Messenger, and Ocean apologizes again for thinking she wasn’t allowed to stay out after school. Shirin wants to resist being attracted to Ocean and doesn’t trust his friendliness. After they awkwardly work through the topic of her hijab, they are able to finish their homework together.
Navid comments on Shirin’s tight jeans and says their mom probably won’t approve. Shirin admits that her hijab makes her feel less vulnerable, as if she is wearing armor. At school, Ocean is talkative in biology class. At breakdancing practice, Jacobi helps Shirin master a move called a CC. Ocean comes by and stands at the door watching them dance, which perplexes Shirin.
At school, kids continue to harass Shirin, but she starts to settle in. She holds no real interest in school, but breakdancing is now her favorite activity. When Ocean asks Shirin about a bandage on her hand, she explains that it was a sewing accident and that she makes most of her clothes. Ocean then compliments the graffiti Shirin draws on her shoes.
Ocean returns Shirin’s dropped phone and stares at her a little too long. One night, Shirin powers up her computer and messages Ocean. He asks what her screen name, jujehpolo, means. Shirin explains it’s a Persian nickname: jujeh means “small” as well as “baby chicken,” and polo means “rice.” As they chat, Ocean asks Shirin about Persian food and invites himself to her house for dinner.
Shirin and her breakdancing friends are part of a diverse audience at a breakdancing battle, and Shirin feels exhilarated.
In Global Perspectives class, the teacher, Mr. Jordan, asks Shirin and a jock named Travis to stand and stare at each other. When Mr. Jordan asks Travis what he sees, he stammers that he sees nothing. The exercise leaves Shirin feeling unnerved, and she leaves school, followed by Ocean, who is upset by Mr. Jordan’s experiment.
After leaving school, Shirin and Ocean go to a local IHOP. There, Shirin asks Ocean why he is so nice to her. He explains that she is beautiful, and then they order pancakes.
As they walk back to school, Shirin asks how long Ocean has lived here, and he answers since he was six. She reveals that she’s attended twelve schools and then describes the year her family tried to live in Iran, first in Tehran and then in the rural north. Shirin then tells Ocean that she likes her hijab because it makes her feel in control. Ocean tells Shirin that she is “crazy intimidating” and that people stare at her for reasons other than what she thinks.
At lunch back at school, Shirin goes to her favorite tree and meets a handsome Lebanese boy named Yusef. At breakdancing practice, Navid questions Shirin about leaving school and asks who she was with. She tells him about Ocean and then asks Navid if she is pretty. Navid turns the question over to the other boys, who tell Shirin that while she is pretty, she’s also very scary. Jacobi warns that being angry all the time isn’t good for her.
Shirin reflects on Jacobi’s warning about being angry all the time. She considers her own stereotypes and defenses. Shirin exchanges messages with Ocean, and he asks if they can talk on the phone because he wants to hear her voice. During their phone call, Ocean asks Shirin if she’s ever had a boyfriend. After the call, Shirin feels unnerved and determines she will stop talking to Ocean.
The chapter opens with Shirin admitting she’s skipped Mr. Jordan’s Global Perspectives class four days in a row and that she’s made steps to drop the class. When Mr. Jordan confronts her in the hallway about her absence, she fires back at him with her own truth and calls him out on his disrespectful teaching practices. As students gather to hear their confrontation, Mr. Jordan pleads with Shirin, asking if they can continue to talk privately in his classroom. She agrees. There, Mr. Jordan apologizes and asks her to return. Shirin explains her hurt feelings and the bigotry she confronts daily but decides to not drop the class. Mr. Jordan mentions that Navid has signed the breakdancing crew up for the school talent show, which upsets Shirin until she realizes that the others are willing to perform.
Shirin and the rest of the breakdancing crew meet for practice. Bijan teaches Shirin to do a backflip. As they leave the dance room, a cheerleader approaches Shirin and asks her about Carlos, so Shirin introduces them to each other. Suddenly, Shirin sees Ocean leaving the gym. She hasn’t talked to him in days, and she knows he doesn’t know why. Shirin just doesn’t want to lead him on, so she’s avoided him all together.
Students in Shirin’s group in Mr. Jordan’s Global Perspectives class ask about her departure, and she’s surprised they even noticed that she was gone. When Mr. Jordan starts class, he announces new groups. Ocean passes her a note with questions. Shirin finally accepts that even though she wants to ignore him, she cannot. As they start talking again, Ocean admits that he wants to pronounce her name correctly and later tells her that she is strong. Shirin then confides that she is afraid of many things. In biology class the next day, Ocean and Shirin accidentally collide, and the physical touch is exhilarating to both of them. At one point, Ocean asks Shirin if she is feeling the same way as he is, and although she can’t answer, he sees the response in her eyes.
A flustered Shirin finds it difficult to practice. When Navid takes her home because she is feverish, she sleeps for hours and then calls Ocean. They both admit their feelings, but Shirin warns Ocean that the world is extremely racist. She agrees to hang out with him but spends the next three days in bed.
Ocean tells Navid that he is worried about Shirin. Navid then urges Shirin to call Ocean, and he warns her to not string Ocean along because Navid thinks Ocean seems like a nice guy. Shirin, believing the relationship can only end badly, doesn’t call Ocean back.
The chapter opens on Monday, the day Shirin returns to school. There, Ocean catches her after Mr. Jordan’s class. He apologizes to her, not knowing why. Shirin agrees to talk to Ocean at lunch at the tree, but when she arrives, she finds Yusef there. Yusef invites her family to his house for an iftar, the meal that Muslims eat at sunset after a day of fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. When Ocean arrives, he thinks that perhaps Shirin is dating Yusef, but she assures him she is not. Shirin and Ocean go to Ocean’s car to talk, tell each other how they feel, and kiss. Shirin hears the school bell, and this jolts her back to reality. As Shirin leaves, Shirin feels euphoric yet confused. Afraid of such powerful feelings, Shirin suggests that they should just be friends. Ocean just stares at her, clearly confused.
To avoid Ocean, Shirin skips biology class. Later that day, while at breakdancing practice, Navid tells Shirin that he knows she kissed Ocean. When Shirin explodes and asks why anyone would care whom she kisses, Navid explains that Ocean plays on the varsity basketball team. He adds that Ocean is a junior and a star on the team.
Shirin recalls her assault after 9/11. Some kids at her school warned Navid that they had overheard the boys planning the attack, and Navid showed up in time to save Shirin’s life. She recalls how the ignorant cops questioned her hijab, asked if she spoke English, and let the perpetrators go with a warning. Shirin’s family moved a month later. Shirin admires her mother’s quiet strength, courage, and resilience. Later, Shirin reflects on the fact that since she never attended a pep rally, she never knew about Ocean’s star status. During a late-night call, he opens up about basketball. He tells the unhappy story of his parents’ divorce, his grandparents’ deaths, his mother’s inheritance, and his subsequent obsession with basketball. As they talk, Ocean calls her “baby,” and Shirin melts.
An Indian girl at school accuses Shirin of disrespecting Muslim women by kissing a boy, but Shirin passionately defends her right to make her own choices. That day, she and Ocean meet at the tree and agree to keep their relationship going.
Shirin reflects on the fact that she enjoys fasting for Ramadan while Navid hates it. Shirin invites Ocean to a Saturday night breakdancing battle. It is the biggest one she’s attended and full of older kids. As Shirin watches the other dancers, her mind is half there, and half focused on Ocean’s body pressed against hers.
After the dance battle, Navid gives Shirin and Ocean one hour alone after warning Ocean not to hurt his sister. Ocean takes Shirin to the park where he learned to play basketball, and they discuss his relationship to the sport. He explains how he doesn’t want to disappoint anyone: his mother, his coaches, their school, or the town. Shirin cares that his situation hurts him, and he is touched by her compassion. Later that night, during a 3:00 a.m. phone call, they express how much they miss each other and admit that they wish they had kissed.
Shirin and Ocean continue to play it cool at school so as not to draw too much attention to their relationship. However, when his basketball coach, Coach Hart, sees their hands intertwined, Shirin anticipates trouble.
Ocean attends Thanksgiving dinner at Shirin’s house. Her parents extol all things Persian and try to teach him some Farsi. Navid arranges fifteen minutes for Ocean to be in Shirin’s room, where they kiss until Navid knocks and Ocean leaves. During a call later that night, Ocean asks Shirin what her hair looks like and then asks her if he’d scare her away if he fell in love with her. Shirin assures him that no, he wouldn’t scare her away.
Shirin allows Ocean to drive her to school despite believing that it’s a really bad idea. The second day he drives her, someone calls her “Aladdin.” When a boy throws a cinnamon roll at her, which gets frosting all over her face and hijab, Ocean becomes infuriated and shoves him. Shirin rushes to the bathroom to take off and wash her hijab. Suddenly, a girl barges in, snaps a photo of her hair, and spreads it on social media. Ocean shoves a boy who makes a comment, and Shirin leaves school. Shirin returns to school after classes end for breakdancing practice. There, the boys sympathize with all that happened to Shirin that day, but when they realize that Ocean knows who threw the cinnamon roll, they abruptly leave, find the boy, and beat him up. Later that night the police arrive to talk to Navid, but he isn’t rattled, and the boy doesn’t press charges.
Someone sends an email to the entire school community accusing Ocean of being an un-American terrorist sympathizer. When Coach Hart tells Ocean to stay away from Shirin, Ocean tells the coach to go to hell. Coach Hart corners Shirin and screams that she is destroying Ocean’s life and he wants her to disappear. As Shirin walks home, Linda, Ocean’s mother, Linda, pulls her car over and asks Shirin if they can talk.
Linda tries to talk Shirin into ending the relationship with Ocean. She confides that she no longer has money for college because she spent it all, so he will need a scholarship. Linda argues that she is not a bigot, but Shirin hates her, feeling the enormous weight of her request.
When Shirin calls Ocean, he begs her not to break up with him, knowing that his mother has confronted her. She hangs up on him and ignores his repeated calls.
Over the two-week winter break, Ocean texts “I love you” to Shirin over and over, but she doesn’t respond. Shirin and Navid buy a roll of linoleum to practice breakdancing. During this time, Shirin struggles with the pain of losing Ocean, and after two weeks, Ocean stops texting.
Yusef joins the breakdancing crew and becomes good friends with Navid. Shirin, still struggling with her decision to break up with Ocean, asks her father how a person knows if he or she has done the right thing.
Back at school, Ocean is absent, and the students ignore Shirin. An Indian girl, Amna, reaches out to Shirin, apologizes for her past behavior towards Shirin, and invites Shirin to sit with her at lunch. One day in the breakdancing room, Shirin is talking to Yusef when Ocean suddenly appears at the door, but he leaves quickly. Shirin later learns that Ocean was suspended for fighting after the incidents involving Shirin. He returns to biology class but will not speak to her.
The day of the talent show arrives. Backstage, the boys are nervous, but Shirin seems cool because she doesn’t care. They perform so well that they win first prize. The other students change their attitudes toward Shirin as a result, and she finds the hypocrisy maddening. She wonders how students would have felt if she and Ocean started dating now, after they deemed her cool. One day, Ocean approaches her locker. He tells her she was great in the talent show, and she tells him how much she misses him, a statement that brings tears to Ocean’s eyes. When Shirin returns to her locker after practice, she realizes that she never locked it. After examining its contents, she sees that nothing is missing, but she notices that her journal, which she keeps at the bottom, has been moved to the top.
Shirin reads through her journal, mortified that Ocean may have read it but grateful that he might now know how she honestly feels.
Shirin is having lunch with Amna under the tree when they hear a fight break out. When they approach the crowd of students, Shirin sees Ocean being pulled back. She later learns that Ocean quit the team and was suspended from school again, this time for breaking Coach Hart’s nose.
While Shirin is getting ready for school, Ocean appears and asks her to skip school and spend the day with him. They go to his bedroom, and he apologizes for reading her journal and for all that has happened. Ocean explains that he just needed to know what his mother said to her, but then he discovered all of the things Shirin suffered at school, and he felt terrible about everything. Shirin assures him that none of it is his fault. They briefly discuss what Ocean might do about school. Then they kiss, and when they embrace, Shirin notes that it feels like they’ve been drowning in a very large expanse of sea.
Ocean’s mother hires a lawyer for his hearing. At the hearing, Ocean learns that he is not expelled, so he and Shirin spend a few happy months together as the school year wraps up. Ocean quits basketball, and Shirin realizes that Ocean has awakened hope in her heart. She reaches a deeper understanding about her own insecurities and those of the other students—and she realizes that she needs to let down her walls. Shirin’s father tells the family that they will be moving away again after Navid graduates. In July, Ocean stands in the street as Shirin and her family drive away. When she can no longer see him and she feels her heart will break, Ocean texts her, “Don’t give up on me.” The story ends with Shirin stating, “And I never did.”