Tash Deverill. I’ve never liked her much.
That’s weird because I’m the kind of person who likes people. The world is my friend. Ask anybody and they’ll tell you, “Oh Omololu, he’s always going around, talking to everybody.” It’s my nature. Even though, I am a natural introvert – and many people disagree with that when I say it – there’s just something about meeting new people, having conversations with them, finding out what they think about all sorts of things. It gives me this nice warm glow inside. But from the first time I saw Tash, I had an instinctive feeling: Stay away.
My name’s Omololu Johnson. I’m 13 years old, almost 14, and in SS1B at IDHS. Just so you know I prefer to be called the full thing – Omololu. There’s something about that short form, Lolu that just… uh… irritates me.
The matter of my feelings about Tash is important because right now my team is facing hers on the stage of the Assembly Hall. The whole school is here. I can see my parents, Mr Andrew and Mrs Mayode Johnson, sitting there. My Dad winks at me. I smile. I can tell he’s anxious. He really wants me and my classmates to win. Almost everybody in that crowd, including some of Tash’s SS3F classmates, wants us to win. Because so many people in IDHS hate Tash.
It really is surprising how almost the whole school loathes the girl. Because Natasha ‘Tash’ Deverill is the only white student in the entire place, you’d think everyone would want to be her friend. But oh no. Not Tash.
IDHS is my school. The Ikeja District High School, Alausa, Ikeja, Lagos, Nigeria. Most people around simply refer to us as ‘that big oyinbo school opposite Elephant House’. There was a time when IDHS had lots of white/non-Nigerian students. Brits, Americans, Canadians, all sorts of Europeans, Asians, South Americans, Caribbeans, South Africans, Tanzanians, Kenyans, Ghanaians, even Australians; IDHS had them all. That was way back in the late 70s and early 80s. IDHS was the premier international private school in Lagos. But over the years, little by little the population of such expatriate students dwindled, even though educational standards remained high. By the time I got admitted to IDHS, there was only Tash Deverill, a Briton, two Indian boys in SS1 and three Chinese girls taking A-Levels. Tash was in JS3 then. The gist was her parents divorced and her mother, an artist, came to Nigeria with her to cool off and find inspiration. That’s what everybody said.
It didn’t take me long to realize Tash was an outcast. She didn’t have any friends. She was and still is a short plump white girl with thick glasses and beribboned pigtails. I think the best way to describe her stature is the word ‘squat’. But her appearance isn’t the reason people avoid her. No, it’s her manners. Tash is rude. Horribly rude. She believes she’s a genius, superior to all of us idiots at IDHS. And she has made it her mission to let everyone know. Including teachers.
The stories about her are the stuff of legend. According to people, when she just arrived in JS2, she told Mr. Lepe, the JS2 Math teacher, “I really feel sorry for you and for these other poor kids you think you’re teaching. If you will move away from the board, I will demonstrate just how many mistakes you’ve made since you entered this classroom.” Of course Tash got away with it only because she was oyinbo, a white girl. Had it been any of the other Nigerian boys and girls, Mr. Lepe would have whipped the skin off that person’s backside.
Later that same session, when Mr. Lepe was replaced by Mrs. Oguntoyinbo, Tash told her, “Isn’t it rather bizarre that someone as fat as you is teaching Math? I would expect someone spare, lean, with focus, you know, like the subject. Math is a language of precision, accuracy, exactness. It needs someone sharp, not… diffuse like you. Why don’t you try your hand at something else? Say…Home Economics?”
When I heard that one, I found it ironic. Tash Deverill calling someone else fat. Imagine that. The cheek!
My first close contact with her was at a meeting of the Students Representative Council (SRC). It was my first SRC meeting after my classmates nominated me to represent them. I was 11 years old, in JS2. Tash was in SS1. I still can’t believe her classmates chose her to represent them.
I wanted to ask a question so I raised my hand. The SRC President (the Head Boy) said I could speak. I was about to get up when a hand grabbed the back of my shirt and jerked me violently back down to my seat. I looked back and it was Tash.
I exclaimed, “Ahn ahn! Why? What’s your problem?”
She said, “Little children like you do not speak at these meetings. You are to be seen, not heard. You shut up. You listen. And then you go home quietly.”
I was furious. But the Head Boy reprimanded her for what she did and he let me ask my question. While I was talking, Tash got up, picked up her school bag and walked out.
Then there was last week. After our victory in the semi-final contest with SS2A, Tash walked up to Chamberlain, Shayo and I on the stage. I’m so much taller than her; the top of her head hardly reaches my chin. Yet she poked me in the chest with a finger and said, “You. You again. I suppose you think you’re quite clever. Now listen. Stay, out of my way. This competition is mine and in the final, I will deconstruct and discombobulate you.”
She took in both my teammates with one disdainful sweep of her eye-lids and then she left.
Shayo hissed loudly. “That girl is a fool!”
Chamberlain chuckled and said in pidgin, “Hmm, na wa for dis Natasha girl o! Ahn ahn, na fight? You go fear now!”
I just took it as a sign that Tash realized we were formidable. No walkovers in the final this year. No sir!
Now, here we are in the Assembly Hall. The second round is over and it’s still a tie between us, SS1B and Tash’s team, SS3F. Even though it’s hardly a team. Tinuke and Aisha, Tash’s teammates haven’t uttered a word, not even a suggestion since the contest started. It’s like they’re accessories; decorations to surround Tash while she hammers out all the answers. It is wrong. And I wonder why the judges allow it. This is a competition of words. Everybody’s vocabulary is meant to grow. That’s why the teachers called it the Vocabulary Development Competition. Though students just call it Voc Dev.
The Voc Dev competition is an annual IDHS event for senior students. Some old English teachers started it years ago to make sure students aspired to learn as many new words as possible. In Second Term each year, three students with a good command of the English language are nominated from every arm of each senior class: SS1, SS2 and SS3. These teams of three then face off against each other in a word contest designed to show who has the best grasp of English words. Since IDHS has arms A-F, that means 18 classes participate each year.
The procedure is simple. The judges give a team a word, any English word, but usually a noun, verb or adjective. Then they ask for any one of the following: the meaning of the word, an antonym, a synonym, or the use of that word in a sentence that illustrates its meaning. The team leader gets 10 seconds to reply. The team leader can receive answers or suggestions from his teammates but he/she is the only one who gets to shout the answer back to the judges. If he answers correctly, the team gets 10 points. If he doesn’t answer correctly in 10 seconds or he exceeds the time, the bell rings and the other team gets the question as a bonus. If they get it correctly, they get 5 points.
Each match consists of two rounds and in a round each team gets 10 questions i.e. 10 words. Thus the maximum possible score for a round if you get all your answers correct, not counting bonuses, is 100. For a match, after two rounds, the maximum score is 200 – again apart from bonuses. However, in the final, what we’re doing now, there are four rounds of 10 questions each. So the max score possible without bonuses is 400.
Voc Dev is HUGE in IDHS. Everybody talks about it for weeks. It’s a big school tradition and everyone loves it and wants to be involved. For obvious reasons. There’s popularity. Compete in Voc Dev and the whole school knows your name. It’s that easy. There’s rep with teachers. If you represent your class at Voc Dev in SS1 or 2, you can be sure that come SS3, your name would be on that list of Prefects. In fact, since I got to IDHS, there hasn’t been a Head Boy or Head Girl who wasn’t a Voc Dev contestant at one time or the other. And then there’s the prize: one hundred and fifty thousand naira to be divided by the students who win. That cash prize started back in 2006 when the English teachers started getting sponsors for the competition. And since then Voc Dev participation has been massive. There’s nothing like the possibility of making money to get people interested in something.
Right now, the Assembly Hall is packed. I mean, it’s never this full. The Hall is looking fit to burst. Every seat is taken. Every class is here. Juniors who got to the Hall early have been pushed out of their seats by seniors and so most of them are now seated on the bare ground and on the steps leading up to the stage. Some are sitting so close to us that they might as well be contesting also. Earlier, I saw Tash kick a junior boy out of the way as she strode to her position opposite us on the stage.
Teachers have been jammed together in the soft foam-covered metal seats always reserved for them in the centre row. Heads of Departments, senior teachers, junior teachers, it’s all the same. Gridlock. Parents are scattered all over the Hall, squashed within the sheer mass of IDHS students. Representatives of the sponsors, a company that makes noodles, are here too seated behind the Principal. The parents of those participating in the final have been given pride of place beside the Principal and both VPs. My parents are there. Those of my teammates, Shayo Akinnusi and Chamberlain Oguike are there too – I met them just before we got called to the stage. Tash’s mum is there. She’s wearing an adire caftan and a strange box-shaped hat. The junior boys on the steps keep staring at her and giggling. She’s thrown quite a few severe looks their way. There’s an Alhaja. That can only be Aisha Abdul’s mother. And then there’s the couple who both slept through much of the action that’s already occurred. I assume they’re Tinuke’s parents. Though she doesn’t resemble either of them.
I can see the school Accountant, the two librarians, the Exams Officer, old Mr. Nurudeen in charge of the store, Mrs. Gafar and Mrs. Ogbechie, the two middle-aged secretaries from the main office, Miss Maila, the school nurse, even Mrs. Fetuga, the caterer in charge of the Tuck Shop; everyone is here.
I can see our class teacher Mr. Olorunnimbe standing at the back of the Hall in the midst of our entire SS1B class. They’re cheering us “Go Shayo! Go Chamberlain! Go 1B! Go Lolu!” Some are already singing ‘Winner oh oh oh!’ My friend Ebube Clark is carrying a cardboard poster screaming ‘LOLU ROCKS!!!!!!!’ in bright red marker. I wince. Couldn’t he have just added the ‘Omo-’ to it?
The 10 minute halftime break is nearly over. We should begin the 3rd round anytime now. The score is 200 for us to 200 for Tash’s team. Nobody has missed a single question. Some of Tash’s classmates are sullen. Maybe they thought Tash would simply walk all over us like she did with her classmates in SS2E last year. No sir. Chamberlain, Shayo and I have been studying for weeks. Every day after school, we spent at least 2 hours together testing one another, scrutinizing lists of difficult words. During weekends, we spent all our Saturday mornings in Shayo’s house, going through SAT words, dictionaries, thesauruses, encyclopaedias, the Internet; looking for new, tough and unusual words. We knew who we were facing.
The truth is, her offensiveness aside, Tash has reason to boast. She is a walking lexicon. She has never missed a Voc Dev question. Her class SS1F was the first SS1 class EVER to win Voc Dev and they were also the first class to win with a score over 400. Last year, her class SS2F won it again and their score was 460. The SS2E girl who was team leader burst into tears during the 3rd round when her team was already losing 110-295 to Tash’s team. If you’re going against Tash Deverill, you better be prepared. The only way to beat her is not to miss a single question. If you miss one, you can forget it. But we’re not going to miss any. Shayo, Chamberlain and I are here to set a new record: the first IDHS class to beat Tash Deverill at Voc Dev. Yes sir!
Our three judges are the most senior IDHS English teachers. There’s Mr. Ajilore, the HOD; Mrs. Forsythe, who has been at IDHS longer than even our Principal Mr. Sonaike and now insists on teaching only SS3; and Dr. Edidiong, who actually hugged the three of us when we defeated SS2A last week. The cards with the words for the next round have now been arranged in front of Mr. Ajilore. I see him signalling the MC/timekeeper, the P.E. teacher Mr. Obed Shammah. Mr. Shammah stands up and goes over to the judges’ table. They converse a bit and then he turns around.
Tension is thick in the air as he walks to the microphone. Despite the Hall ACs blasting cold air at us, I feel hot. I wish I could take off my school blazer. On my right, Shayo is wiping her sweaty palms on her skirt. Across the stage, Tash is scowling at me. I give her a small wave. She rolls her eyes in disgust and turns to look at the judges table. I see my mum smiling; my dad gives me a thumbs-up.
Mr. Shammah is talking. “Hellooo. Hellooo. Alright, silence everyone. The 3rd round is about to start. Silence… SAAAAIIIIILENCE!”
The buzz of voices across the Hall reduces. Me and my teammates hold hands, bow our heads and say a short prayer. I see Tash smirking. Hmm. Let her smirk. This competition is just like ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ with Frank Edoho. You can prepare all you want but once you’re in the spotlight, it’s in God’s hands. They can ask you anything.