That morning, Mr Philip, the Geography master walked into our class. We were new to the class but not new to him or to ourselves. It was the beginning of a new school year and we had just been promoted to Senior Class Two. He looked round for a moment and remained where he had stood since he came into the class. He was a tall man with a chest that looked bigger than the rest of his body; his shoulders seemed to move towards his head so that his neck looked rather short. When he walked, his arms stood aloof like those of a toad when it is on high alert, ready for a jump. His head never grew hair, or maybe he just did not let the hair stay. We could tell from his posture that he was thinking – hands akimbo, head straight and eyes looking at us but certainly not seeing us.
“Why are you sitting like that?” he queried. “I don’t like this arrangement. It is unfair to have boys on one side and girls on the other. It divides the class, but more importantly, it also divides the teacher,” he said and proceeded to arrange us the way he liked. It was one of the rituals of the beginning of a new school year. Every master that came to our class said something about the arrangement: how the taller ones were sitting in front; how the brilliant ones were crowded in one spot, or how the arrogant ones were sitting together.
Following the new arrangement, two girls came to my desk, which I shared with one of the boys. There were not total strangers, but yes, they were. Ours was a big school where you did not always know all your classmates. While in Senior Class One, we had been grouped into five classes. In our new class, we were mixed up; our new classmates were drawn from all the five subclasses in Senior Class One. So it was not a very familiar gathering, though we must have heard about some of our classmates before. I busied myself with class work, since I did not know whom to talk to or rather, what to talk about.
“Good morning,” a soft, still voice greeted or rather announced. The class was warm. Everyone was talking about everything – holidays, football, continuous assessment and many other things.
“Good morning,” I murmured a return in a broken voice without looking up. I was not sure the greeting was mine. If anything, the owner of that voice did not sit next to me. There was a girl between her and me. I thought we had greeted each other before; or hadn’t we? I was not sure.
She was working and talking as well. I thought she said something I did not hear and was not keen on hearing. Yet somehow, I knew it was something about me. Now though I kept my eyes in my book, I realized I was only pretending; I was actually reading no more. I read a full page only to start all over again when I should have gone to the next. For a moment, I had difficulty where to put my eyes. It disturbed me that I did not know what role I could play in this conversation.
“What’s your name?” the voice came again. I could not pretend this time: the question was for me. It was more difficult for me then as the girls had their four eyes on me. What was my response going to be? I knew my name of course; but why? Brought up in a conservative background where culture restricted interaction between males and females, I thought it was not proper for a girl to ask me my name. It was a question to be asked by older people, not someone of about the same age as me. In any case, she was not going to lead in the conversation or rather, I thought there was nothing we could talk about.
“His name is Robert Stanley,” the other girl answered on my behalf, probably thinking I had forgotten my name. It surprised me how she knew my name, but I was more surprised at myself. Here was I, sitting with two ladies who seemed interested in talking with me and suddenly, I had no voice. Ah! No, I had a voice, but their confidence had just made me speechless. With my face buried in a book I was not reading, I thought about her. Who was she and what did she want? I felt heavy and chained to my seat. I felt like a convicted sinner trapped in a church sermon on the very sins he committed. It was embarrassing and I wondered whether she could read the struggle within me.
She communicated with everyone so easily that I wondered whether she had been in the class with the other members longer than I had. Of course, Candy Jones had. She was known to almost everyone and her presence filled the class. From little snatches I had from some of her conversations, I knew she had many engagements – campus fellowship, school clubs and many others.
That night, I fought myself hard to dismiss her from my thoughts. Two voices spoke long and hotly inside me.
“You like Candy, don’t you?” one of the voices asked me.
“No, he doesn’t,” the other countered.
“Yes, he does,” the first voice resumed. “Do you think the way he felt in class today was ordinary?” it asked.
“I can’t understand you,” the opposing voice continued. “It doesn’t happen like that. Remember he met her only today.”
“And so what? How long does it take to decide whom you like: five years?”
“Well, he may like her, but won’t he just be wasting his time? Who says she likes him too?”
“I know she does.”
“You saw the way she spoke to him in class today, didn’t you?”
“Yes, but in the same way, she spoke to the others.”
As the debate continued in me, I turned uneasily in bed, tired but unable to fall asleep. Candy Jones was the cause of all this. And there she was again. I could see her clearly: that beautiful smile reflected in her eyes. There was nothing harmful about her after all. But why had I behaved that way in class? What is my name? Simple! “Robert,” I should have said and added, “how are you and what’s your name?” This way, the conversation would have continued and I would have known her better. Well Candy was not going anywhere and if I got another opportunity, I could correct all the mess I had caused. I remembered she lived in the female hostel some yards away. If I walked up to her in her room, how would she react?
“You surprise me,” the second voice interrupted. “You met that girl just today and all these thoughts . . . Forget her man, she doesn’t belong to you.”
“She does,” the other voice opposed again. I was tired of the debate and attempted to close myself to it. But these voices were part of me. In fact, they were me. Candy had already found favor with part of me. Now she lived in me, and like anything inside a man’s heart, she could do anything to me. She had already divided me. “No, I won’t let it happen,” I told myself.
The first person I saw in class the next morning was Candy. While I walked to the class, I had an uneasy feeling. I still had not known how to respond to her, or rather, to the new feelings in me. Yet, somehow, my eyes appeared to look for her.
“Good morning,” she greeted and offered me her hand.
“Good morning,” I returned and we shook hands. Then, that was all. I did not know what else to say and the conversation died.
Much later, Candy and I became closer, something for which she must take the credit; for it was she who persisted even when I responded indifferently. Every morning, we made sure we greeted each other, and soon, my eyes became used to looking for her each time I came to class. Not long after, I discovered we had many things in common, so we began showing interest in what each other was doing. Sometimes, we discussed some lessons, but I was cold and almost devoid of feeling. I treated her the same way I would treat someone whose company bored me. On the contrary however, I enjoyed her company greatly. I was just too shy to say something; anything meaningful. I think Candy knew much about me from other sources and that was partly why she always had something we could talk about. In the actual truth, it was she who talked while I listened. Each time she talked to me, I found I had many things to say in return, but my lips were too heavy and most times, I said very few words. Then afterwards, I rebuked myself and rephrased how I should have responded. For instance, when I got my books ready and walked out of the class, she asked: “Robert, are you leaving?”
“Yes,” I answered and walked on, calm but very disturbed inside. Much later, I thought I should have said, “oh yes, I’m actually leaving. Are you not ready yet? We shall see again.”
One morning, as I walked along the path between the male hostels and our class, I met Candy where the path from her hostel joined the one leading to the class. The moment I saw her, I became aware of an influence around me. Like a piece of iron brought near a magnet, I felt a force that pulled me to her. I was confused. I wanted to keep moving at my right pace, but I was not sure what it had been. I could not remember how I had positioned my hands before. One effort and the other to restore myself to normalcy, failed. “What do you care man?” the opposition voice in me rebuked me; but in truth I cared. I wanted to stop and walk up to her, greet her and walk beside her to the class, talking and laughing with her.
“Good morning Robert,” she greeted, exhibiting her kind of smile that made me angry at myself.
“Hello, good morning,” I returned and moved on.
“How was your night?” she enquired behind me.
“Fine,” I shot, and increased my pace, angry at my inability to walk beside her, and even angrier at the way I thought she would feel. There was war in me. Part of me thought I was not being fair to her. A number of forces I did not know existed in me began to act and I had no control over them. I suddenly discovered I had no courage to respond to her and it made me sweat profusely. The day was a bad one for me. The lessons came but I took them passively, angry at each teacher for coming when I was reading, writing or resting. Actually, I wanted to be left alone; to say something to Candy – something to make her understand what I was going through.
“She doesn’t have to understand anything, man,” the voice came again and I felt very uneasy, knowing full well that the debate had just begun, that was going to drag on till Candy was in the class no more. It hurt me.