One day in December, almost two hundred months ago, my mother came home early. About three o’clock in the afternoon. It was an odd time for her to come back. And I could tell something different was afoot. It must have been a Monday or a Tuesday. I was outside playing a game of cards with ‘Bobo’, and Pauline, and Felix Otis, and his brother Ben Omosh. She greeted us jovially and walked into the house. A few minutes later she sent my playmates away and then summoned me into the house. I felt my heart dip. Because with her you could always tell when you were in trouble. She preferred the torture tactic of isolation. And this was a classic example of that.
So I sneaked into the house expecting a whipping or a slap, or a knock on the head – because we are Black. And Blacks have had no qualms hitting their children since Cain and Abel. She sat me down and gave me some books to read. It was December and the school year had just ended so I found it strange being asked to read. Later, after supper, she would tell me that I had an interview for the following day. I was going to boarding school – that is if I managed to hammer the interview.
I was so nervous. I can still feel the restlessness that took half the space in my bed that night. The sleep that evaded me, and the thoughts that tormented me. Just four months earlier, a child in our estate had died in boarding school. So for me, boarding school was a place parents sent their children to die. Children that were deemed too stubborn or annoying or just plain defective. And I felt, in the dead of the night as I worried about my young life, that I was all three. I was convinced then that I would come back home in a coffin like that young boy had. But I come from a place where the opinions and feelings of children don’t really count for much. If your parents feed you, and clothe you, and give you a place to sleep, then you are deemed to be loved and cared for. Mental health is not much of a concern. Because life is hard for everyone. And things like trauma are seen as a motivation to work hard, not issues to be addressed.
Anyway, morning did come. And I was served hot tea with sweet potatoes. It was six thirty. And my little sister, Betty, came to watch as I took tiny sips of the hot tea. Dressed in my blue and white school uniform. I was so nervous. And the hot mug of tea did a good job scathing all the joy out of my tongue. I can still recall the look of sorrow on Betty’s face and the pain I felt having to leave home to go die in a boarding school. The look of determination on Mama’s face all but sealed my fate. Her naggings and prodding when I hesitated for a second in between sips – to answer a question Betty asked– all but told me that I was surely being punished. For me, my young life was on the homestretch. A journey to a place of no return.
Whenever I bring back that feeling (which I tend to do so very often these days), I like to imagine it must be what cattle feel when they are driven into slaughter houses.
To this day I can still remember the choking smell of the exhaust fumes that the matatu spewed on me when we alighted at the gate of the school. The stale smell of Fr. Schaeffer’s Boys Boarding Primary School only served to remind me that I was here to learn a lesson.
A lesson that I now appreciate so much.
But at the time, it was a lesson I did not want to learn. I was just a young kid, not even in his teenage yet, who wanted to go to school and come back home in the evening to tease his younger sister, and to play with Felix Otis, and Ben Omosh, and ‘Bobo’, and Pauline…
A lonely watchman ushered us into this cramped compound built on red soil, Fr. Schaeffer’s. It had this ugly four-storey building that housed the dormitories, the dining hall, offices, and classes seven and eight. There was also a row of buildings that had been built by missionaries in the early half of the twentieth century. To say the school was depressing would be an understatement. Mama looked at me and offered no reassurance. I felt hated, disliked, loathed, cursed, and worst of all unwanted. It still eats me up from time to time. All she told me was that I had grown too old to stay in a day primary school. Nothing like I would be fine. Or that all would be alright. But am grateful she never did say any of that because the separation anxiety would have been terrible.
I did pass the interview. Just barely. Thirteen marks over the cut-off point. And when January came I was shipped away to become a man. To get rid of the stupidities of boyhood. To mature up. And in my young mind, ‘to die in the process of all that.’ I felt like a defective equipment – sent to the repair shop. I was a young boy who would be molded into a properly educated and well-mannered gentleman. To be taught how to be disciplined because I had apparently grown too cheeky for my own good. My rough edges were to be trimmed so that I could fit into society. The verdict on that is still out.
It was the worst feeling I have ever had. Well, only second to the depression that nearly killed me early this year.
Though I would be hurriedly shipped away from Father Schaeffer’s Boys Boarding School because I actually almost died there, I would go on to St. Peter’s School and make a young man out of the boy I was. Through boarding school I was able to learn lessons so critical to my existence that am thankful for the horrors I faced all those years back. It is in boarding school that I learned that hard times never really last- and that all I need to pass through rough patches is a little decorum. I also learned to enjoy what I have when I have it, and to be stoic when I lack. I learnt to live within my means and to stay away from unnecessary jealousy and envy. Boarding school also taught me the value of being self-dependent and sufficient. I learnt how to be independent and not count on others. I learnt to be selfish and to love me more than I love anyone else – because selfish people live longer.
It is from boarding school that I learnt how to let go of grudges unless they really needed to be kept. I also learnt how to take initiative and to be my biggest fan, and supporter, and encourager-in-chief. Boarding school also taught me to keep to myself that which others need not know, and to avoid getting attached too easily to others. Because people ultimately let you down. In a sense, I honed my trust issues in boarding school. I also learned how to read sub-text in people’s statements and to trust whatever my gut told me about someone. It is also from boarding school that I learnt how to do my own chores and to avoid asking for help from anybody unless I really have no other option but to do so. I still love to do my own things, often with no help from people. Though am trying to unlearn that lesson the best way I can. I also learnt that I can be selfish and territorial: but I don’t always have to be, because sometimes vulnerability can be just as important as strength and composure.
You could probably say boarding school was where my abnormality begun, and you would somehow be right. But I still hold that it taught me the most important lessons of my life: that all I can count on in this world is me, and that while people are useful in my life, they can only be necessary to me as long as they add value to my life.
In my view therefore, I was a spoilt child –a defective child, if you will- and boarding school fixed me; Ironically, by first breaking me.
And there are times when am very thankful to Mama for all that fixing and repair.