The first day I saw Sarah was in her mother’s car on the first day of school. Her mum had been holding up her brown, almost golden hair in a long braid. I’d watched as my own mother zoomed out of the school parking lot in her old Mercedes promising that daddy would come pick me up by 2:00pm. I stood there backpack and all and watched as mother and daughter chatted and exchanged a quick laugh. I heard someone call out her name and she turned and waved, flashing a wide smile.
Sarah Peterson was a girl to be admired-or envied if you’d like-for a whole lot of reasons. First she had that name. I grew up watching a lot of cartoons and reading British feel good stories, a name like that sounded like one just out of those stories. It seemed to suit her perfectly too. Second, the skin color; I’m not quite sure how to explain it (and I doubt anyone could put it better than this) but you know how albinoids have a sort of melanin deficiency? Well let’s just say in Sarah’s case, you couldn’t quite call it a deficiency. I mean, it’d be an offence to use such a word where she was concerned. Then she had those eyes-an unusual shade of brown, widening at the pupils and shaded by long sooty lashes. One look at her and you just knew she was one of those few lucky people who would rarely have to use mascara. And of course, the brownish-gold hair… she had it braided that morning but I was sure if she let it loose, it’d billow down her waist…or something.
Now, to avoid sounding like some love struck puppy- which I certainly was the first time I saw her- I’ll say in one word, she was beautiful. I was even more shocked to discover that Sarah didn’t just have her looks going for her; she was also the smartest, most friendly girl I’d ever met! I mean, by the end of the formal assembly, she already had a passel of giggling girls thronging after her. Saint that I was, I kept my distance. Not that I envied her or anything- okay, maybe just a little bit (and can you blame me?) – It’s just that I wasn’t much for making friends.
My first day at school, very much unlike Sarah’s was quite uneventful. I was five foot four, had dark brown eyes, thick stubborn hair that could never stay straight for long, and dark skin. My mum usually braided my hair into tight cornrows, it was the only way it ever stayed put. I had never paid much attention to how I looked before, I knew what my face looked like for I had seen my reflection several times in the mirror but to take note of what exact shade my eyes and skin were, whether or not my lashes were long and sooty, no, such things had never occurred to me till I met Sarah. Not that I was completely unappealing or anything, cause hey, you certainly could do worse in an 11 year old, I guess I was just one of those kids who weren’t always noticed and I was certain I was going to remain that way for a while, at least until I grew into my school uniform.
I noticed as I walked through the school gate looking as lost as ever that a few other kids were in their uniforms too. Others, like Sarah, showed off what they had; girls in pretty dresses and colorful ribbons and the boys in jeans and t-shirts. I decided it was better I’d worn my uniform, I mean; let’s get serious, what else would I have worn? The only thing that popped to mind was my Sunday best- a pretty blue dress I’d gotten for my birthday- and there just was no point flaunting that here. I also noticed that most students came light; only a small back pack and a couple of notes here and there. But my mother- bless her soul- had insisted I carry all my books to school, stating clearly that the first day was the most important day and determined the rest of the school year. I’d guessed of course that there’d be no classes, but argue with mother and I’d have had to sit through an hour of talk about, ‘a serious start’ and ‘setting myself apart’.
I glanced at the watch my mum had given me earlier that morning. It was almost 8:00am and according to the school handbook (a thin volume of rules mummy and I had pored over for the last few days), the school assembly should be starting soon. I wondered around unsure what to do. In the admission letter, it had been stated that guides would be available to new students. Either they weren’t doing well by their promise or I was in the wrong building.
I wasn’t addlebrained or anything; in fact, I was usually quick to adapt to new surroundings. However, St. Joseph’s Baptist High school, the school I’d just gained admission into was one of the biggest in town. For a school owned by a church it was huge and although I’d been there twice before I was still a little daunted by the unfamiliar surroundings. Mommy had paid three trips to St. Joseph’s just before I got in. The first was to find out if the school was actually what we’d heard it was, the second was two months later to be sure she’d seen well the first time and she had taken me on the last one. We’d looked around and met the principal. My mum had developed a rapport with the woman immediately. That was another trait I hadn’t gotten from her; her ability to so easily create a flow with people. She’d said how the woman reminded her of her mentor when she was in school and I’d listened and wondered at the sheer excitement in my mum’s voice thinking it was as though she was the one who would be attending the school in the fall and not me. By the time we got home, mum talked about school shopping and going to the bookstore in the morning. I suppose it skipped her mind that I would still have to write the common entrance exams and pass them. Turned out she hadn’t forgotten, she just thought it irrelevant to tell me to work hard and pass. Something about my mother I learned quite early in life- if something could be done, you either did it or-did it. We went through all the past questions together until she was sure they was no other question under heaven they could possibly think of that we hadn’t covered. It came as no surprise to her when I passed the exams and got admitted into St. Joseph’s but that didn’t mean I didn’t get the celebratory dinner of jollof rice and chicken just like my brothers had when they got into school.
I was beginning to feel a little restless when a shrill bell reverberated throughout the building. A voice came unto the megaphones that were positioned few feet apart from each other and announced it was time for assembly. I glanced at my watch again out of habit and adjusted the burden that my back pack had gradually become. I was looking forward to telling Mummy this part of the story. The part where I huddled a sack full of books and stationery I would not need. I stood for a moment unsure what to do. Students were moving all around me, all in different directions. I wasn’t sure which direction the assembly was and I didn’t know who to ask. A few seconds later a senior boy (I knew he was a senior because he wore trousers as opposed to the shorts juniors wore) showed up and announced that all new students should follow him, well about time! I quickly followed him and noticed a throng of freshers did as well. So these were my new classmates.
The boy led us to an open field where several students were already standing in rows. He showed us where to stand and prefects made us stand in straight lines. I was used to this routine. I’d done it for five years in primary school and three more before that in nursery school.
The formal assembly started with a hymn and a gentle hush fell over the gathering. The teachers stood on a platform facing the students and prefects hovered around keeping students under control. I willed my mouth to sing but the words would not come out. It was a common hymn and the words were being projected right in front of me but I still did not sing. I searched around for Sarah with my eyes but couldn’t find her. She was probably upfront while I stood at the tail end of the line.
The hymn was followed by the national and school anthem. I sang the national anthem but apart from a few whose entire families had probably schooled here, new students kept quiet during the school anthem. Then, the principal addressed us. She was a middle aged, smartly dressed, fast talking woman. She had short greying hair and a very peculiar mole at the left side of her mouth. The first ten minutes, I stared at the mole wondering if she’d ever tried to get it off. When I finally paid attention to what she was saying, she was addressing the final year SS3 seniors and welcoming them back to what was going to be a challenging session. Her speech took about 30 minutes and I hoped that it was only that long because it was the first day of school. I figured it had to be. Her address to new students was brief. She mentioned she would have a lot of time during the one week orientation to ‘familiarize’. Something about the way she said it made me realize this was going to be no social call.
After she rounded up, a few teachers came up to give announcements. A burly man who had to be in his early fifties mentioned a math competition that would take place this session and announced that interested students should register(and on the first day of school! Mommy would be pleased) and a slim young woman saying that classes would start the following day except for new students who had the entire week for orientation. The assembly ended with the same man requesting that we file neatly to our classes.
We first years were ushered into the school hall for the beginning of orientation week. The senior prefect boy (I knew this because of the shiny badge he wore) led us into the school hall and I slightly envied the old students who already knew all about the school and were going to spend the rest of the day catching up with their friends. The senior prefect boy was a tall, lanky, dark skinned boy with glasses that seemed to tilt a little to the side. I hadn’t met a senior prefect before, but if I had to describe one from my imagination, he would look just like him. His school uniform was neatly pressed and unlike most of the seniors I had seen earlier who had their trousers sewn in more fashionable styles and wore shirts that looked a little too tight for comfort, his was very modest. He raised his voice above the noise and told us to get settled in. Nobody seemed to pay attention to him and he soon exited the hall with more important duties to attend to.
I looked around the hall for a place to sit. Pupils sat haphazardly, quickly forming cliques. I looked around for a former classmate or maybe a kid from church but there was nothing, no one. There had been about 90 graduates from my primary school, so not one of them came to St. Josephs?! I found it a little hard to believe. My brothers did mention that not all students show up for the legendary first day at school when Mummy had been fussing about how her little girl was moving on to the next phase of life and I hoped they were right. Someone was coming; they just hadn’t shown up today. I finally chose a spot by the window. I dusted the wooden chair with the handkerchief Mummy had tucked in my bag earlier that morning and found it was joined to a desk. Back in primary school the chairs weren’t joined to the desks. Yes, I took note of differences like this throughout the day; there was simply nothing else to do.
I’d barely settled in before a girl way smaller than me took the seat in front of me. Her relaxed hair was pulled up in a ponytail. I was going to say good morning as she settled in but she turned around and put her head on her desk, folding her arms firmly in front of her. She didn’t say a word to me or anyone else throughout the day. Well I didn’t say anything to anyone either so I guess we were soul sisters.
The guidance counsellor came over to welcome us and give us the history of the school. I’d met him once before when I’d come for the oral interview. He hadn’t been the one who conducted it but he’d been in the room; sitting in a corner and quietly taking notes. I’d wondered if he had been writing about me or just scribbling away. He looked to be in his late forties with a protruding belly and a receding hairline. He spoke so earnestly that I intended to listen at first but frankly, I’d never heard anything so mundane in my entire life, well, except for that one time Pastor Daniel had given an account of all the offerings in Leviticus. I knew from the practiced way he delivered his speech he had given one just like it for the past fifteen years he claimed he’d been with the school. I could only thank God when an half an hour later, he was interrupted by the music teacher who wanted to teach us the School Anthem.
The music teacher was a boss-eyed woman who looked at you like you’d done something wrong. The boy behind me said it must have come from years of gazing at manuscripts. Her eyes seemed to take up everyone in the room and once in a while I met her gaze, I immediately averted my eyes for fear that she was going to point me out and make me stand in front of everyone. She wrote out the words to the school anthem and made us copy them out. The woman could hear sounds miles away and so, she kept gazing around and saying stuff like, ‘who was that?’, ‘stop doing that?’ I wasn’t surprised when she couldn’t teach the tune due to all the interruptions she easily could have let pass. She was interrupted by the senior prefect and promised to teach the tune the next day. I thought if she kept on the way she had today, she might not get anything done before the week ran out.
By the time she left, it was already noon. The prefect announced we could go out for lunch. We were to file out and be led to the cafeteria. I didn’t need to move, my lunch was in my back pack. Mommy had made me a sandwich and a soda to go with. I waited until there were only a few other kids whose mothers had packed their lunch left in the hall before gingerly bringing out my sandwich. The girl in front of me stayed put only reaching into her bag to sip from a bottle of water. I munched quickly- it’s simply how I eat. I popped my soda open and took several mouthfuls. It was warm already but I didn’t mind. My mother had always pointed out to my brothers and I how we had to be careful what and where we ate. All through primary school, she had packed us lunch from home and only gave us extra change for biscuit and water. She would warn us not to buy fried snacks- like buns or doughnuts from small stalls always backing up her warnings with a story of how she’d once seen a cockroach in a meat pie she’d gotten from a local store and painting scenes of women handling food, money and a child’s dirty bottom without washing their hands. Those stories had me sworn off anything that wasn’t well packaged and by a reputable company too. My brothers erred every now and then though and I wondered how they could when I found myself pitying my classmates who didn’t know any better and consumed the seeming ‘poison’ with such glee.
By the time I had emptied my soda can, some of the other kids were filing in. Most of them were in groups of twos and threes. I wondered how they did it, I mean I’m no social outcast or anything (although my brothers would disagree); I wasn’t just one to make friends so quickly. It just wasn’t in my nature.
The rest of the day wore on quickly. We were pretty much free throughout. Prefects took turns watching us. I took out one of the literature books we would use during the term and leafed through its pages. Leafed through because, well, mummy had made sure I read it during the holidays. In fact I had read all six literature books. Yes, my mom is that awesome. I gave up a while later and just fed my eyes with the scenery. I found Sarah sitting at the other side of the room. She was the center of attention as expected. She talked and smiled and laughed out loud and I almost wished I could walk up to her and her passel of friends and ask what the joke was. Before I could gather enough courage to do this (enough being a truckload), another bell rang and the megaphones announced it was closing time. I checked my watch and found he was right on. The prefect that had been watching us told us to file out in an orderly manner. (They seemed to use that phrase a lot even though it hardly ever worked). He hadn’t quite finished the word ‘manner’ before he had to step out of the way to avoid being crushed by the throng of screaming students eager to go home. I was last in line as expected. What can I say? I just love to follow the rules.
And there, my first day as a secondary school student; totally uneventful. Of course if I were to write it in an essay, or retell it to my kids, or just my brothers-which I undoubtedly would soon do- I would have to spice it up just a tiny little bit. I’d have to say, for example, that I’d talked to Sarah Peterson and we’d become best of friends. I’d say she’d come to talk to me herself but we do wanna sell a story don’t we?