“Ah, my son is now a Federal School boy o!” Mother crowed with delight as she pulled me into an embrace, lifting her hand to run her fingers over my head. “Eh, nna, you are now a big boy o. Passing your common entrance exam with flying colours, ezigbo nwa m. And now, you will enter Federal School – hah! Nna, igbaliala! You have done well, my son.”
“Ah-ah, mummy, I’m also in a Federal School,” snapped my older sister, Ada. The twelve-year-old girl sat by herself in one of the sofas in the sitting room, her pretty features arranged in a pout. “Eze is just about to enter. Me, I entered last year, and will be graduating into JSS2 this coming term, and you are rejoicing as if he achieved a big thing.”
“Ewo!” Mother clapped a hand over her forehead theatrically. “Ada mummy, don’t be angry. Of course, you did well when you entered school. And we rejoiced with you that time. Let us rejoice for your brother this time, eh Ada m.”
Ada grumbled something, unwilling to be placated by Mother’s reasoning.
“Mummy, when I grow up,” Ola, my five-year-old sister piped up from where she was cradled in Father’s arms, “I want to take common entrance and enter Brother Eze’s Federal School. I don’t want to go to Sister Ada’s Federal School.”
As my parents chuckled at that, Ada glowered at her. Ola stuck her tongue out at her.
“So, nna,” Mother continued, “which of your school choices will you like to go to?”
“His first choice of course,” Father said. His voice was deep, a rumbling bass. It was the voice of a big man; Father was so tall and heftily built that he always seemed like if he settled too heavily on anything or held a thing too hard, he’d crumble it to pieces. Cuddled in his arms, Ola looked to me like a fragile doll that could break if he held her too closely. His height and build were two characteristics of his I hoped I would grow into.
“No, daddy,” I protested whiningly. “I told you I don’t want to go to that school when I pass my common entrance exam.”
“Why?” He lifted his bushy brows at me. “It’s a good school. My good friend, Mike Onwubiko, is one of the vice principals there.”
“Yes, daddy, but I still don’t want to go. And I hear it’s a bad school, that seniors beat juniors a lot there.”
“Oh nonsense, Eze.” He waved a hand, dismissing my fears with the simple gesture. “Discipline is a necessary part of the boarding school life. I’m sure the seniors have to flog every now and then to teach the junior students to behave.”
“No, daddy, no…” I was close to tears now, and had to resist the temptation to stamp my foot in my petulance. “I don’t want to go there… I don’t! The school is bad. I want to go to my second choice!”
“All the way in Port Harcourt? Where I don’t even know any teacher or staff? That’s out of the question. You’re going to your first choice school.” The declaration sounded like a bolt shot home. Such finality.
“No, I won’t go! I don’t want to! Daddy, please now!” I cried, my panic emboldening me and driving away my fearful respect for Father.
This wasn’t a battle I’d win, I could see that. But the recollection of all the horror stories Ebuka, my classmate in Primary 6B had told us his friends, experiences related to him by his older brother who was a junior student in the school, fueled my dissent. Indiscriminate punishments, merciless beatings, demon possessions – Ebuka had told us these stories with relish, effectively turning every boy in our class off the idea of applying for attendance to the school. All my friends had even managed to convince their parents not to make them include the school in any of their common entrance examination choices.
And now, I’ll be the only boy in my class who will go to that school? No nau!
Even though Father had overruled my objections and I agreed (not like I had any choice on the matter) to make the school my first choice, I’d hoped that when the time came to actually choose which school I’d go to, I could have my way.
“Daddy, please… I don’t want to go there… Please, daddy…” My eyes clouded and the tears slid down my cheeks. My terror was stark.
And infectious too, at least for Ola. Her features rumpled with genuine distress, and she began to sob loudly. “Mummy… daddy, I don’t want to go to Brother Eze’s Federal School when I grow… and please, don’t take Brother Eze to his Federal School… Please, daddy, please…”
“No, you will go there, you must,” Ada cut in tauntingly.
“No, I won’t!” Ola screeched back.
“Yes, you will. Shebi you said you won’t go to my school. Well, if you don’t go to Eze’s own, which Federal School will you then go to?”
“I will go to my own Federal School… Daddy, please…” She turned her teary gaze to Father, sobbing and grinding a chubby fist against one eye. “Please, let Brother Eze go to my own Federal School, where they won’t beat him… Please…”
Ola was my unintended weapon against Father’s resolve. My second sister was the apple of his eye, the one child he didn’t know how to refuse anything. He appeared to thaw under the onslaught of her tears, and lifted his fingers to wipe at her moist face. “Alright, alright, oyiri nne daddy ya, stop crying. Nobody will make anybody do anything, okay?”
My heart lightened instantly. God bless you, Ola.
Father continued, “This is what will happen…”
My chest tightened a bit.
“I will go and visit the school first,” he continued, sweeping a gaze over his family before resting it on me. “I will go and check it out, investigate these claims you are making about it. I’ll ask Mike Onwubiko, and I will tell him to take me around. I will see things for myself. And if what I see tallies with the things you’ve said, then, my dear son, you can go to your second choice school.”
I stared uncertainly at the man, unsure how to feel about his proposition.
“You are not saying anything, Eze,” Father urged.
“Jonas,” Mother intoned then. I turned my head to look at her. Her eyes were on Father, eyes that were twinkling behind her glasses with odd amusement. “Jonas,” she called Father’s name again, “idikwa sure?”
Father chuckled. “Of course, I’m sure. Look, once I observe anything I don’t like, that’s it. First choice is out. I can’t see a bad school and send our son over there nau.”
“Okay o.” Mother shrugged and turned to me. “Nna, you have heard your father. Is what he’s saying okay with you?”
I was positive that the malignance of that school would be evident on it, hanging over every structure, every plant, and every person in it like a thick fog on a frosty Harmattan morning. It couldn’t be hidden. Such evil rarely was. Father would go there, see it, and come hurrying home, validating everything I’d been saying.
So I nodded, consenting to his proposition.
The day Father was scheduled to go on his trip to the school was a Wednesday. The school, like most other Federal colleges, had opened for a new session on the Friday of the previous week. Incoming JSS1 students still had up to a month to be at home and prepare for their new lives before resuming in their chosen schools. So I still had time. My parents had purchased everything I needed for the life of a boarding student, everything except school uniforms. What uniform would be sewn for me would depend on Father’s findings.
All day, I was at home, worrying about how his trip was going. I was home alone. Ada had gone back to school; she was also a boarding student in a Federal Girls’ College that was about a twenty-minute drive away from the house. Ola was also in school, and Mother was at work. So I was on my own, constantly vacillating between anxiety that Father would still insist I go to that dreadful school in spite of his observations and complacency from my belief that he would never go back on his word.
In the afternoon, I went to pick Ola up. The nursery school she attended wasn’t far from the house. As we walked home, she skipped gaily beside me, chanting some rhyme they’d apparently just been taught that day. When she noticed my preoccupation, she took my hand in hers and said, “Brother Eze, stop boning your face. Don’t worry, when I go to my own Federal School, you will follow me and go, you hear?”
A burst of laughter escaped my mouth at that. It was only in the world of a five-year-old that everyone else could wait and follow her lead.
Yes, my dear, sweet sister, I’ll just put my secondary school education on hold until you are ready to begin yours.
Father returned in the evening, as the dusk that usually preceded the fall of the night settled. He walked in through the door, and Ola hopped laughingly into his arms, squealing with extreme delight as he lifted her into the air. He kissed Mother on her cheek, and ran his fingers affectionately over my head. Those were his rituals every time he returned at the close of his day.
But I was too wound up to appreciate his warmth this evening. I simply had to know what he knew. My tension was lightened considerably when I noticed he was in a boisterous mood.
I mean, the news had to be good for him to be in such a good mood, right?
The question is, good news for who – him or me?
I soon found out when he settled behind the dining table for his dinner. He began regaling us with the events of the day.
“That school is perfect, just great!” he enthused. “You need to have been there, chim,” he said with a glance at Mother. “Everywhere is just tam-tam! Correct school! Come and see how fine and well-cut the green grasses are –”
“You mean like the fine grass we watched in that hotel on TV?” Ola queried, wide-eyed.
“Gbam! Exactly like that, and decorated with flowers too. Ihukwa fine gardens here and there. And the students I met, every one of them was just greeting me ‘Good morning sir, Good afternoon sir.’ So respectful and well-behaved – Umu oma. Everything there is so marvelously well-organized, and Mike told me that the meals they eat there eh, honestly, he said that Oliver Twist himself will go there and not want some more.”
Mother threw her head back and guffawed, and because she was laughing, Ola joined in as well. My lips twitched into a grudging smile.
Pleased by the reaction of his audience, Father continued, “I’ve not finished o. Mike took me to the hostels. Eze, my son, you won’t believe this, but the floors of these hostels have rugs on them –”
“You mean like this our own rug?” Ola said, pointing downward.
“Yes o, oyiri nne daddy, exactly like our own.”
My toes curled over the plush feel of the living room carpet, which stretched from wall to wall all over the parlour and the adjoining dining room. My smile became broader, and Hope, that flighty little bird, flapped her wings and cooed a gentle song in my heart.
“So, daddy, it’s a good school?” I asked, my stare wide and trusting.
He seemed to hedge, and then turned a quick look to Mother. Something brief and significant was exchanged in that look, and Mother lifted her shoulders in the most infinitesimal of shrugs. Then Father turned back to me and answered solemnly, “Yes, my son, it’s a school that I’m sure will be good for you.”
Somehow, that didn’t sound like the answer to my question. But my young mind didn’t have the patience to explore for the pitfalls in my father’s response. Pleasure had overrun my doubts. The school was not bad after all. Ebuka from my Primary School class didn’t know what he was saying; his brother probably lied to him. I could now finish my preparations for my first choice school. I was going to be in JSS1.
My giddiness stayed with me until the day of my resumption. It never once let up, not even when Ada came home for a weekend, and said sneeringly to me, “Look at you, feeling tech with yourself that you’re entering JSS1. You think you’re a big boy? Wait until you get there, and the real big boys will beat angels and demons out of your body.”
“They don’t beat in my school biko,” I sniffed dismissively. “That’s what daddy said.”
At that, her lips twisted into a fraction of a smile, and she turned away, nodding as though she was in on a joke I would soon get.
I left home on the day of my resumption amidst Mother’s affectionate goodbyes and Ola’s teary wails. It was Friday. Father and I were the only ones making the trip. The day was an unusual one for October – clear and sunny, completely devoid of the grayness that portended rainfall. I slept through most of the car journey, waking up occasionally to behold the vista of greenery, people and buildings that flashed by us, sights that I realized would get familiar the longer I remained a student in this new school.
“We’re almost there,” Father finally murmured after he took a turn into the highway and increased his speed on the broad expanse of the expressway.
Heart pounding, I looked up as he pointed toward the right. That side of the road rose gently from level ground into a plateau of red earth and lush vegetation. Peeking out at the crest and over the algal-riven cement walls were the tops of a number of buildings, none of them spectacular. It was an unimpressive sight, and I soon lost interest and slumped back into my seat.
Father soon veered off the expressway and the car began to jerk this way and that as he navigated the potholes that dotted the road which stretched to the school gates. There was a lot of activity surrounding the front of the school. Cars honked, people moved about and chattered and children screamed in excitement. Father reduced his speed as we joined the slowly-moving traffic, and we watched as uniformed men I suspected were the school’s security directed the traffic, some of them gesturing the cars forward at the gate, while others guided the drivers to parking spots on the vast grounds of the car park inside.
As Father pulled up into his spot and we opened our doors to get out of the car, a male voice boomed, “Jonas! Ah, nna, welcome, welcome!” I turned to see a big, balding man with a genial, fleshy face approaching us, his hand outstretched. Father took it in an exuberant handshake and both men exchanged laughing pleasantries.
“So this is your son, eh Jonas?” the man said, turning to me and drawing me into a hug. “Look at this one I saw when he was blowing out the candle on his four-year-old birthday cake, you have now grown so big.”
“Imanu umu aka, you know children,” Father said, beaming. “The way they grow these days, before you know it, they will be the ones taking care of you in your old age.”
Both men laughed at that. I smiled thinly.
“Well, for now,” Mike Onwubiko, Father’s good friend and one of this school’s vice principals, said, “I will be the one to take care of you while you are here, have you heard, my son?” I nodded. He continued, “I will be what they call your guardian. That means you can keep your provisions and allowance with me, and come to my house whenever you need provisions or my office whenever you need some money. You can also come to me with any of your problems, okay?” His expression was kind and avuncular.
I nodded again. And then, as the men returned to their conversation, I looked away from them and turned my head to take in my surroundings.
Well-cut grass decorated with flowers everywhere…
The grasses I could see were shorn close to the ground, but they looked nothing like the fine spread of greenery that surrounded the magnificent houses I saw on TV. And there were no flowers. I craned my neck around, hoping to catch a glimpse of the pink-yellow wink of the Glory Lily or the snowy dewdrop of the White Roses.
Any flower at all! I hoped fervently. But my searching eyes saw nothing. I began to feel a trickle of disquiet dribble down my spine. There were no flowers. What about friends, would I have any friends? I wondered anxiously.
“Anulika, will you come out of that car and come and take your things out of the boot,” a woman chided three cars away from where I stood.
I turned to see a young girl clad in a blue chequered dress step daintily out of the parked Honda and began to make her way to the rear of the car. I couldn’t catch the sight of her face, but I could see she was light-skinned and her head was arched in a haughty angle.
Proud, probably from a well-to-do background, and most likely to be the class bitch. This one I would never talk to, of that I was already sure.
“Ah, Joseph! You are finally here!” I turned again to see a group of boys rush toward another boy, slimly-built and good looking, and clad in a green-chequered shirt tucked into brown shorts – the same apparel I was wearing. He broke away from his family gathered around a posh Mercedes and was swallowed by his friends in hugs and handshakes.
“Omo mehn, Justice,” the Joseph enthused, “when did you get here? I went to you people’s house in Lagos yesterday and your sister told me you have already left. Na so the school hungry you reach?”
There was boisterous laughter from the other boys at that, before the one he called Justice said, “My dad said he would be going on a business trip tomorrow, so they had to bring me here on Wednesday.”
“Me, my mum said I should chill to yesterday,” another boy piped up, “so she could buy me this” – he waved his right wrist – “as a going-to-school present.” Strapped to the wrist was an expensive-looking watch which winked in the afternoon light.
The boys oohed and aahed over the timepiece, and I shook my head. Rich brats. They always turned out to be obnoxious. I was sure I wouldn’t like these ones.
“Mummy! Chike didn’t put back that my novel he was reading!” a small shriek cut through the air, and I turned again to see a tubby boy scolding an equally plump woman standing before him. He stamped his foot in annoyance as he rifled through the school bag he had in his hand. “I told him, I told him! Put the book bag! And he said okay, but continued reading it! And now, he didn’t do as I said!”
“Ibuka, nna, calm down,” his mother cooed, casting a stern glance at the young girl who sat at one of the open doorways of the nearby car; she was sticking her tongue out at the boy. “You have to learn to share with your cousin.”
“Yes, I shared with him,” the Ibuka said crossly. “Was it not because I was sharing with him that he got to read the book in the first place and not return it? And I haven’t even finished reading it. And now, he will go back to their house and take it with him, the nincompoop!” He stamped his foot again.
“Which one is nincompoop now?” snapped the girl who’d been sticking her tongue out at him. “Why do you have to keep using okpokpo English every time you talk?”
The look he threw her was perfectly disdainful. “I speak the English because I know it. If you read novels like me, you will know them too.”
A know-it-all, just great! I thought sourly. Another boy I was sure I wouldn’t like.
Oh my God! I already don’t like anyone in this school.
“Eze,” Father called then, “come let us go. Mr. Onwubiko wants to show us your hostel.”
“Yes, Eze, you’re in Peace House, so you’ll be staying in the Peace House junior hostel,” the other man said as we began to trek. “The junior hostels are meant for JSS1s and JSS2s, until you enter JSS3 and then move to the senior hostel.”
I was simply not interested in his comments. Instead, I turned to Father and hissed, “Daddy, there are no flowers.”
His response to that was a lift of his thick brows.
“And I don’t like anybody here…”
He chuckled. “How can you say that? You haven’t even met anyone yet.” And he looked away from me and returned to his conversation with Mr. Onwubiko.
A sinking feeling began to well up inside me and my feet started feeling heavy the closer we got to the hostels. I watched Mr. Onwubiko gesture at every environment we walked past as he talked, explaining this and displaying that. And Father nodded intermittently, an expression of pleased surprise on his face.
Pleased surprise… As though this was his first experience of the school… Wasn’t he supposed to have already known all this information Mr. Onwubiko was now giving? The sinking feeling welled up faster.
Then we took a few turns, and were soon walking through the compound of what I presumed was going to be my home for the next term – the junior hostel. The sight of it horrified me. The grounds of the quadrangle were not tarred, and the rainy season had turned most of the earth muddy, with the gutters nearly overflowing with gunky aqueous material. The entire environment was rowdy, with boys darting about and yelling at each other, and the floors I could see as we approached one of the buildings was bare, totally uncarpeted.
I stopped moving and stared. I felt as though I was being transformed into stone, as had been the case of the luckless victims of the mythological serpent-haired Medusa when they had seen her snake-ringed face. It finally all came together for me, like the last bit of sand dropping through the middle of an hourglass.
I’d been conned to come to this school, which by all indications so far, was the realization of my nightmare. And the accomplished con-man was my father.
I turned my head to stare accusingly at him as he called my name. I didn’t have to say anything. He read the condemnation on my face and retraced his steps to where I was standing.
Then he leaned toward me and said in a tone that was both firm and kind, “Son, I’m sorry I lied to you. But I truly believe this school will be good for you. Give it a chance. You’re not supposed to shy from every situation that proves to be a difficult one, simply because you are too afraid of it. You have to face it head-on and tackle it. That’s what I pray coming here will teach you.” He grasped my shoulders gently when he saw the tears leak from my eyes. “Be strong, my son. Remember what mummy said, you’re a big boy now. Give the school a chance. Besides, it’s not forever. Mike said students can change schools after their JSS3. So, if by the time you are done with your JSS3, you still don’t like it here, then we will take you away from here and send you to whatever school you want to begin your SS1. Okay?”
I wasn’t supposed to trust him. He had lied to me once, and this could be another gambit. But his stare was frank and urging, eyes that would certainly turn stormy with anger if I proved to be difficult. So, again, recognizing that I didn’t have a choice, I nodded slowly and muttered, “Okay…”
“Deal?” He cocked his brows.
“So, we get to be in this school for three years guaranteed?”
“For three years guaranteed. And after my JSS3, I can change school, right?”
He nodded. “Right. If you still want to leave after your JSS3, you will. To any school you want, far, far away from here.”
Not far enough from me, Eze! a cold voice hissed, as a pair of amber eyes glared at me out of the darkness, glowing embers that burned into my soul. Not far enough from me!
And a snarling meow cut through the darkness moments before I saw a blur that was a paw streaking toward me, its gleaming claws winking dangerously the closer the paw came.
And just before it struck me, I woke up with a start and a gasp, and a heart that was palpitating in tandem with the cock crow that roused the morning around the classroom inside where my friends and I slept.