I never got to introduce myself properly the last time. My name is Eze, and I’m a student of a federal government college in Eastern Nigeria. My best friends are Joseph and Ibuka. Joseph and I are in JSS3B, while Ibuka is in 3A. Now, if you ask any student – male student –, they’ll tell you that JSS3 is the most miserable level in the school. Once you’re in JSS3, you get shunted from the junior hostel to the senior hostel, where you become the most junior set. The SS3s hand down to the SS2s, who hand down to the SS1s, who hand down to us. And I’m not talking about the passing on of gifts here. No. I’m talking about chores. Punishments. Errands. JSS3s are quite a miserable lot, I’m telling you. The bottom of the totem pole. The nadir of the senior hostel species. The dregs of the scholarly humanity. Even JSS1s are better than us, because they have only the JSS2s to boss them around in the junior hostel.
Ah, JSS1 – I remember when I was in that class. Fresh off the grapevine of primary school. Starry-eyed. Naïve. Blissfully unprepared for the rigors of a boarding-house secondary school. But at one point or another, the bubble breaks to make way for the intrusion of the ugliness that swirls in the school. For some, that reality comes almost as soon as they step through the school gates on their first day. For others, much later. For me, it came on the first Saturday I spent in the school, three days after my parents dropped me off to start a new life as a boarder.
It was breakfast time, and the atmosphere was taut with the pensiveness of the students and the barely restrained ire of the prefects. That Saturday marked the beginning of what is usually called the ‘Duty week’. During this week, the prefects are at the peak of their brutality, intoxicated by their power, and lashing out – quite literally – at any committer of any infraction. Everyone knows that; everyone, but the ignorant JSS1s.
Breakfast was yam porridge, a tasty, orangey mishmash of yam and pudding. The dining hall was abuzz with the clink of cutlery against stainless steel plates and the hum of umpteen muted conversations. I was, as yet, friendless, and looked around me for someone to talk to. The boy on my right side had that intense, slightly-condescending look I’d come to expect from older students. The girl on my left was sharing giggles with her friend on her other side over some private joke. The boy across the table from me was tubby and had that freshness that I knew had to be reflected on my own countenance. A fellow JSS1 boy! But he was attacking his food with the same kind of concentration that my older sister, Ada, usually reserved for the chore of husking Egusi seeds. One spoonful of porridge went into his mouth, and another followed almost immediately after, before the first was properly masticated and swallowed. His fat mandibular area was doing a merry dance that fascinated me.
Just then, there was a loud banging on the table set on a dais at the forepart of the commodious dining hall. A prefect – I recognized him as Senior Temple, the Prep Prefect, from the orientation JSS1s were given yesterday – was banging a fist-sized, scarred metal object of indeterminate description on the table. “Listen up!” he barked.
“Listen up!” reiterated another prefect – Senior Onyekachi, the Assistant Head Boy – from a corner close to where my table was.
“Listen up!” echoed yet another prefect. He was too far away from me, but I could faintly make out his cadaverous features – Senior Ikenna, the Labour Prefect.
By that time, the noise in the hall had ebbed to a strenuous silence as spoons stained with dregs of yellow-brown pudding were gently laid down in the plates, beside varying amounts of unfinished porridge. Heads lifted, turned sideways or rotated backwards – depending on the point of view – to focus the eyes in them on the dais, on the pudgy boy whose obvious pomposity made him seem even fatter than he actually was.
“In a few more minutes, this meal will be over!” He didn’t need to shout so much. The hall was so vast that a well-modulated speech would have carried to every corner. Senior Temple, apparently, was of the opinion that he was addressing a bunch of deaf people. “When you hear the Dining Hall Prefect’s command, you are to drop your cutleries and say your prayers! Once the bell rings…!” He paused, as though he knew what was coming.
It came. The echoes. Again. ‘Once the bell rings!’ was dragged on a couple of times by prefects situated in different corners of the dining hall. The tubby boy in front of me stifled a giggle. The boy on my right shot him a glare.
“Once the bell rings” – Senior Temple had taken on the reins again – “everybody should move straight from the dining hall to their classrooms. Did you hear me? I said, straight to your classrooms! And you better be running. Because if I catch you walking…!”
And like the symphony it had become, ‘If I catch you walking!’ began its own reverberation. The tubby boy could no longer hold back his mirth; he tried, believe me. The giggles left his mouth in fits and starts, like the ignition of my dad’s faulty Volvo. His mirth was contagious and I found my lips twitching with the strength of my own amusement. The glaring condescension on the other boy’s face was stark and complete.
“Do they always talk like this?” the fat boy gasped when he noticed I shared his hilarity.
“I honestly don’t know,” I whispered back, “but if they keep it up, they’ll make a good choir someday.”
His stifled laughter was seizure-like. “Kai! I can’t wait to tell my parents what comedians our prefects are when next they come to visit me.”
“Where do you live?” I asked. Finally, someone to talk to – even though it had to be in the peril-infested environment of the dining hall.
“In Port Harcourt. What about you?”
“I stay in Owerri.”
“Ah-ah, that’s not too far nah.”
“Not at all.”
“By the way, my name is Ibuka.” His eyes danced merrily, as though he was very pleased with this tentative acquaintanceship in much the same way that I was.
“And I’m Eze. Nice to meet –”
My words were cut off by a piercing hiss from a great deal of distance away from our table. It was followed by “You there, in the green checked shirt!” Ibuka and I froze, our eyes widening with fright. We were both wearing green chequered shirts – an indication that we were in the same house – and we had been talking. With a sinking sensation in my chest, I suspected the summons was for us. Particularly for me, seeing as I was seated in a position facing the prefect calling.
“Am I not talking to you?!” The commanding voice had turned strident.
Necks craned and seats creaked as students turned to see who dared keep a prefect waiting. With my heart palpitating, I looked up. Indeed, the beady eyes of Senior Nonso, the Dining Hall Prefect were zeroed in on me with laser-like intensity. He crooked his index finger at me, and I stood shakily up from my seat, on legs that were threatening to give way any second. I caught a glimpse of the boy-on-my-right’s face, and the smugness etched there made me want to spit on him. Just one well-aimed gob of saliva to land squarely on the bridge of his haughty nose.
But there was no time. Retribution was calling. As I shuffled towards where Senior Nonso stood close to the dais, I felt the heat of several pairs of eyes burning into me. A sheen of sweat broke out to stain my armpits generously. I came to a stop before him.
“Did you not hear that you were supposed to keep quiet when a prefect is talking?” His voice was icy enough to send chills racing across my skin.
My mouth was dry. I could hardly work up enough spit to speak, and my answer came out in dry whispers like susurrant bursts of sand blown against a desert stone. “I’m sorry, senior.”
“You’re sorry,” he scoffed, as though my apology was insulting. “You’re sorry! Come on, bend down, you idiot!”
As I did his bidding, my body bending forward before him, exposing the expanse of my back to him, I trembled so much I feared my legs would not be able to hold me up much longer. I had no idea what he had in mind for me, but at least he didn’t have a cane –
The pain registered before I heard the sound. The slapping sound of his open palms crashing down on my back. The sound ricocheted in the hall, at about the same time that the pain diffused from my back to all other extremities on my body. An anguished gasp broke through my mouth. Tears scalded my eyes. My renal muscles unclenched and a warm sluice of urination drenched my shorts. Miraculously, my legs still held, and as I straightened up, I didn’t see the second blow coming. His palm cracked against my cheek, whipping my head to the side and showering my momentary blindness with a million stars. I staggered backward, flailed, came to a stop. The tears pooled faster in my eyes, and trickled down my cheeks. I felt overwhelmed with a gamut of emotions – shame, misery, mortification, rage.
“Now, get back to your seat and remain silent!” Senior Nonso snarled.
Wanting very much for the ground to open up and swallow me, I turned and began the long, arduous journey back to my seat. That was how the Johnny-Just-Come scales fell out of my eyes.