There was a divide that existed in my school between the boarding students and the day students. The boarders, by far, outnumbered the day students, and there was a certain air of superiority every boarder exhibited towards the day students. We thought we were better than them. After all, we were the ones who toughed it out in school, catering for ourselves, without any parent to coddle us or any mummy’s food to get home to at the end of a school day. We braved several adverse circumstances – wicked seniors, thieving hostel mates, nightmarish punishments, Lady Koikoi, Bush Baby, cold water baths on Harmattan mornings, snakes. . .
“Haba! After all this,” I was saying, “I put it to you that boarders are better than day students.”
“It’s a lie!” Christopher Emeh declared, stamping a foot to punctuate his indignation. He was the most intelligent student in my class, always in the first position, the Ibuka of JSS3B. This singular fact was what made him the one boy Ibuka could never be friends with. After he made the mistake of outshining Ibuka with the answers to Mrs. Ezuruonye’s questions during our joint Integrated Science class in JSS2 first term, Ibuka had taken an instant and unreasonable dislike of the boy, one he struggled to conceal beneath an exterior pleasantness. Joseph and I, however, did not share his sentiment. I liked Christopher; he had that freshly-scrubbed look and ready smile that made him likeable, and in spite of his brightness, he wasn’t an obnoxious know-it-all like Ebenezer.
“You people are always acting like you’re better than us day students, but the real truth is that you’re really not all that,” he said, addressing the very small gathering of JSS3 students sitting and standing around him in our class. Around us, the noisy chatter of other classmates raged on. It was Thursday afternoon, some minutes to the close of school, and most of the classrooms had no teachers in them. As a result, the entire block was inundated with the din of students chattering loudly, playing and strolling from one class to the other.
“Abeg, we are all that joor,” Nkeiru said. She’d come from her class, 3C, and was seated beside Anulika, who was working her fingers through her hair as she loosened her friend’s plaits. “You people are just mummy’s children.”
“And you’re not?” Christopher lived in town with his parents.
“No, we are not,” I interjected. “At least, not during the times we are here in school. But you day students, you are mummy’s children day in, day out.”
“As in eh, tufiakwa!” Amaka jeered, snapping her fingers for good measure, as though being a day student was a plague she was rejecting.
Everyone laughed at her theatric.
“You people are just jealous,” Christopher countered good-naturedly.
“We’re jealous?” Joseph said.
“Yes, you’re jealous because as day students, we get to enjoy all the time all the things you cannot enjoy. And so, you use boarding life as a way to console yourselves that you are better.”
“Who’s better than what?” Ibuka said as he walked into the classroom. His face tightened when he saw who was holding court, as he came to my side to sit. “What are you people gisting about?”
“That boarders are better than day students,” I supplied.
“Who is even arguing that one?” he said.
“Me, I’m arguing it.” Christopher was pointing his thumb at his chest. “I think boarders are just a bunch of empty vessels that make too much noise.”
“I beg your pardon?” Ibuka said with an affronted glare. “We are not empty vessels. As a matter of fact, boarders are people who are developing faster than you day students.”
“Please,” scoffed Christopher. “That’s rubbish –”
“It’s not. Let me tell –”
“How can you even say –”
“Will you please let me finish?” Ibuka demanded with no small amount of irritation.
Christopher made a spectacle of spreading his hands widely, giving Ibuka free rein to say what he wanted. Ibuka scowled. Everyone else chuckled.
“The thing is,” Ibuka started, “with the life we are living now, we are being developed for the life of university students and after that. We are getting to know now, this early, what it’s like not to have our mummies and daddies around to protect us all the time, and how to look out for ourselves.”
In one accord, we turned our faces to Christopher to hear his rebuttal.
“It’s never too late to learn something about life. Besides, what is the big thing about boarding life that the rest of us can’t hear word?”
We turned to Ibuka.
“You really think that what we pass through in the hands of seniors, the times they beat us and punish us, sometimes for no just cause, is the same thing as your mummy flogging you for not having siesta?” Ibuka couldn’t have been more condescending if he’d tried.
The barb however bounced off Christopher as he said, “Whether it’s a senior or my mother, beating is beating. There’s nothing about being a boarder that I can’t tackle. You people need to stop acting like you’re in a Members Only club.”
“Oh really? Boarding life is not a big deal for you, right?” Ibuka’s eyes had ignited. He pursed his lips and looked a dare at the other boy.
“No, it’s not,” Christopher insisted.
“What House are you in?”
“Why don’t you spend this weekend as a boarder, in the hostel, and live like us. And then, by Sunday, you can tell us if you still think boarding life is not a big deal.”
All heads turned to Christopher and our stares pinned him down, daring him to back out on Ibuka’s challenge. He stared hesitantly back at us, his eyes darting this way and that, and his expression betraying his bewilderment at how the situation had come to this.
“The thing is, eh . . . I will love to, but –”
“But what?” Joseph said.
“Well, my father. . .”
“Weekend starts tomorrow,” Ibuka said. “Surely you’re big enough for mummy and daddy to let you out of the house for three days.”
The taunt got the desired effect. Christopher straightened with ruffled indignation and said, “Of course I’m a big boy.”
“So we have a deal?”
“Starting tomorrow, you’ll be staying in Senior Hostel Unity House?”
Ibuka’s smile turned canine, more a show of teeth as he said, “Good. Very good.”
As though to underscore the significance of the agreement, the school bell clanged and a roar burst out throughout the classroom block as students welcomed the moment. Desk covers slammed as books and bags were lifted out, and a sea of bodies teemed from the classrooms, everyone talking and shouting at once as they moved either in the direction of the hostels or the school gate.
“Ibu, you’re a wicked boy o,” I was saying as my friends and I strolled toward our hostel.
“What? What did I do?” He was smiling.
“What did you do, eh? You’re talking as if you don’t know that this weekend you’re making Christopher to stay in the hostel is the beginning of duty week.”
With a mock-gasp, he said, “Is it? I forgot o.” His eyes were rounded in an expression of innocence that looked suspiciously fake.
“Yea right,” Joseph said with a laugh. “You this boy eh, you’re a very dangerous person. See as you were just provoking the boy. Now Christopher won’t know what hit him until . . . well, until Senior Ogbonna will land him one hot slap on Saturday morning in dining hall.”
We shared a laugh at the wicked thought, and increased our walk to a jog when the next ring of the bell announced lunchtime.
“Christopher,” Ememesi hailed the next morning as students walked into the classroom, “this one you’re carrying traveling bag. How far?”
“I’m staying in the hostel this weekend,” the boy announced gaily as he deposited the overnight bag beside his seat. His eyes sought out Joseph and I and he beamed at us. “My father came with me to school this morning to talk to Mr. Anaele, the housemaster for Unity House and Senior Chimezie, the House Captain. Senior Chimezie promised my father that I will be made very welcome.” His smile widened. “This is going to be very exciting.”
“You want to stay in the hostel?” Ememesi queried. At Christopher’s nod, he said, “Why?” He sounded like someone was forcing him to accept that two plus two was equal to five.
“What do you mean why? I can’t decide to stay in the hostel again?”
“Why now?” Obioma asked from another corner of the class. “Why this weekend? Don’t you know this weekend starts the prefects’ duty week?”
“Is it that bad?”
Sniggers broke out in the room.
“Ah, sorry for you, Chris, you hear?” Obioma said. “Ndo, o? The fact that you’re asking is enough reason for someone to start writing your obituary.”
There were more sniggers at that.
“Someone should tell me nah. How bad is it?”
Before anyone could explain the seriousness of the weekends that marked the beginning of the prefects’ duty week, there was a clap on a desk top.
Kpam! Kpam! Kpa-kpam-kpam!
“Good morning, ma!”
Mrs. Baliaba, the Cameroonian French teacher had just walked in to begin our first class for the day.
Christopher didn’t need anyone to enlighten him on what he needed to know. He found out for himself on Saturday. In the morning, by 5.30 am, as house prefects awakened their charges with shouted commands and the stinging swipes of leather belts for the Saturday hostel cleanup that usually commenced at that time, I imagined him yawning reluctantly into wakefulness, and probably wondering why anyone would choose to be anywhere but snuggled in his bed at this ungodly hour.
Then the bell for breakfast time tolled, and chaos descended. Panic-stricken students darted about helter-skelter, trying to escape the wrath of the prefects as they pounced. The lords and ladies of the school were in their element. Their fury unmatched by hell and the scorned woman put together. Gloried was their cruelty.
“Hey you! Frog-jump from there!”
“You’re walking when others are running, eh?! Slap!
“Ben down! Bend, bend!” Wham!
“Lie down flat there! Come on, will you lie down!”
Their voices reverberated with righteous rage, and their whips flew, lashing out horizontally, vertically and diagonally. As we formed a line before the dining hall to walk singly inside under the watchful gaze of some prefects in their mission to detect any student who didn’t have his complete dining materials – plate, cutlery, full cup of water – I spotted Christopher down the line, quivering on his feet and bending before Senior Moses, moments before the prefect brought down his palms on the boy’s back in a resounding blow. I winced as I watched him crumple to the ground. Senior Moses roared for him to get up. His face was shiny with tears as he did so.
Inside the hall, while we ate, I saw him whispering furiously to the boy beside him, four tables away from where I sat with my friends. The boy was studiously ignoring him, but Christopher was in a mood to vent, and punctuated his words with the occasional hand gesture.
“What does he think he’s doing?” Joseph said in a low tone without moving his lips.
I shook my head. Chris, stop talking. Just stop –
“That boy talking!” the assistant head girl, Senior Janet screeched.
And Christopher suffered a stinging slap on his cheek.
Prep was next. As we crowded into the class, hurrying to our seats, Ememesi took one look at him and gasped, “Chris, what are you wearing?”
“What do you mean?”
Ememesi pointed. “You’re wearing chinos shorts.”
The entire class went still with shock. Junior students wearing shorts, trousers or skirts that were tailored with any fabric other than polyester wasn’t against any recognized school regulation. But it was an affront on the SS3s, who had reserved for themselves the right to own school wears sewn with any material but polyester. The fabric’s shiny and lubricious quality made it a no-no for the super-cool seniors, and woe betide any junior boy who didn’t know his place in the fashion hierarchy.
Woe caught up with Christopher when the prefects came calling. It was called Saturday morning prep, but we usually didn’t do any reading during the period, because it was an excuse for the prefects to keep us in one place while extending their reign of terror. The sports prefect, Senior Orizu walked in with his lists to cane those who didn’t attend the Friday morning jogging exercise. Christopher’s cotton shorts caught his attention, and the prefect thrashed him too.
The prep prefect, Senior Kingsley had a list of offenders too, one of those who didn’t attend the previous night’s prep. As he reeled out the names of the absentees, he spotted Christopher’s shorts, and the boy was flogged again.
By the time the Head boy, Senior Nkemka made his entrance, Christopher was sobbing and begging to be pardoned because he was a day student and wasn’t aware of the rules. Luckily, he got the Head boy’s compassion and was excused from that offence.
Then the bell rang, and the prep was over. We moved out of the classrooms and headed for the school field. It was time for labour. Boys wielded cutlasses and girls held brooms. It was another unwritten student rule: during labour, boys cut and girls sweep. Christopher, of course, didn’t know this. He had never cut grass in his life, and so, had with him a broom. Senior Adindu, the labour prefect gave him an instant re-education – with his cane, of course.
By the time the groundwork exercise was over, after watching him hack ineffectually at the grassy portion assigned to him, observing him grimace under the sweltering morning sun and at his blistered fingers, I began to feel sorry for Christopher Emeh. Certainly, Ibuka must have scored a point with him. However, I didn’t get the chance to commiserate with him, not then, not for the rest of the day. I didn’t see him throughout Sunday either.
And then Monday morning dawned. Breakfast was over, and the assembly had just ended with some words from the principal. The gathering of students had disintegrated into groups of boys and girls thronging to the classrooms.
“Is that not Chris?” Joseph said, pointing.
Ibuka and I looked. The boy was conversing with two fellow JSS3 boys as they walked in the direction of our block.
“Where has he been since?” I wondered aloud.
“Let’s go and find out,” Ibuka said and we hurried forward.
“Chris!” we called. “Chris!” His back stiffened with the recognition of our voices. His friends turned to stare at us as we trotted to a stop before them. He turned too, and faced us, his features carefully schooled to a blankness.
“Ah, Chris,” I said. “We have been looking for you since Saturday. What happened? Where have you been?”
“I went back home,” he said woodenly.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“I said I went back home on Saturday, after groundwork.”
The three of us could not hold back the smug laughter that threatened. As we gave in to our mirth, the other two boys looked on with quizzical expressions. Christopher scowled.
“You guys are laughing, abi?”
“Why won’t we laugh?” Joseph said. “You didn’t even last one day and you ran back home to mommy.”
“Eiyaa,” I added consolingly. “Was boarding life that hard? You should have stayed till Sunday. Sunday rice-and-stew is always very delicious.” My voice dripped so much sarcasm that my friends started laughing again. Even Christopher’s glare thawed and his lips twitched with grudging amusement.
“You people are trying o,” he said. “Men, I can’t handle the stress of boarding life at all.”
“I’m sorry, what did you say?” Ibuka made a production of using an index finger to clear nonexistent wax from his ear. “I didn’t hear you.”
Christopher grinned. “Yes, you’re right. Boarding life is not easy. It’s a big deal. But you’re wrong too. What you pass through doesn’t make you better than day students.”
“That may be so, Chris,” Ibuka replied, placing a hand over the other boy’s shoulder in an amiable gesture that had Joseph and I momentarily stunned. “That may be so. But at least, now you know why boarders have to believe that there’s so much about our life that day students are missing out on.”
Christopher nodded in acquiescence.
“RUN TO YOUR CLASSROOMS!” a prefect’s voice tore through the atmosphere. “I DON’T WANT TO SEE ANYONE WALKING! RUN!”
Duty week was still on. The six of us joined other students in a scattered rush for the classroom blocks.