Chapter 3 — Redemption!

This is an excerpt of Chapter 3. Please check my page for Chapters 1 &2…

Calmer seas, finding the Mayflower

I clearly remember the first day I visited Mayflower Junior School to see my mom and my brother. Walking past the exit of the dining area, I saw one student after the other walking out and pouring stuff from their plates into a very large pot. On a closer look, I realized they were dumping eba and soya beans soup with bony remnants of fish heads and spines. My eyes popped out of their sockets! What wickedness! I had been feeding on chaff for weeks and here was a multitude wasting food. I watched one of the young girls throw out all her food, hardly touched, into the big pot. If only I could pick the fish to sate my hunger pangs. My dismay shook my hungry fragile frame and I hugged myself in embarrassment. My long neck trembled as I walked past. I longed to sit by the big pot and relive the days of feasting off leftovers.

Lost in my fantasies about the big pot, I had failed to hear a woman ask if I needed help. She must have sensed my disorientation, my isolation. I was obviously inches thinner than the trooping diners and I was neither sporting a blue check shirt nor deep blue shorts. Now standing inches from my face, she had to ask one more time before I replied. “Yes. I am looking for my mother.” She stared back with a puzzled frown. “Aunty Tayo”, I added, realizing I had never had to use her name before. Her wrinkle melted into compassion and she walked me to my mother’s domain. When my mom saw me from afar, she left her duty post and ran out to grab me. Tears rolled down her cheeks. She was very happy to see me. She had saved me some eba, soya beans soup and fish. My eyes popped a second time as I dug in. For the first time, I truly enjoyed sharing a meal with my brother. Until that moment, I had never eaten a full cut of fish in my life. Mayflower Junior School; I could not wait to start.

Four weeks passed till September 1997, when I was admitted into primary six at Mayflower Junior School. Like all transformational experiences, it proved challenging. My biggest challenge was adapting to normalcy. For the first time, I sat in class without fear of being called out or sent home for owing fees. Everything we needed to learn was provided; food, textbooks, notebooks and pens. I was surrounded by brilliant classmates and passionate teachers, the latter consisting mostly of Ghanaians. The school culture was different from all previous six schools I had attended. While others emphasized dressing smart and clean, Mayflower cared little about what we wore, as long as we were comfortable. A fair slice of my class came barefoot. Madame Sheila also forbade caning of pupils in the Junior school. Our teachers relied on positive reinforcement, just like my mother. If I added a dash of squalor, school would have felt just like home. I loved it there.

Mayflower Junior School toughened me both in and out of class. The school complex was located on a campus with large football fields and playgrounds, reminiscent of the compound at Ile Baba Eleyin Goolu, only a thousand times bigger. Our timetable encouraged mingling through physical activity before academic sessions. Out on the fields, we played in cliques. You picked a clique and stayed loyal to your clique. Your clique was your family. Your clique protected you from bullies, most commonly from the secondary school. Beyond strengthening our belief in community, this clique culture moulded our understanding of the power of the individual. My clique got me believing that physically, I was more than I had always imagined. In groups or alone, we stood up to students from the secondary school, who risked expulsion if they ever touched us. In our cocoon of equality, we matured faster than our peers outside the Mayflower world, where age defined respect. If you wanted our respect, you had to earn it. This fit firmly with my preferred world view. I found myself wishing I had been here all along.

Academically, I did okay in Maths. But I had a big problem with reading. I knew what some of the words meant, I just couldn’t pronounce them right. My tongue had skipped years of verbal flat-ironing and stuck too long in my native tongue. The unfiltered Yoruba-English accent which I proudly wield today hasn’t always tasted this good. I dreaded being called to read comprehension passages, especially from books without any pictures. Luckily, I had very patient teachers who were interested in helping me succeed. My favorite was Mr. Kwabena, our class teacher, who also taught us English Language and Handwriting. In his measured, precise Ghanaian accent, he would enunciate every syllable till I struck the note right. Through several cursive handwriting exercises, he straightened out the kinks in my embryonic scrawl. I was having the letter C experience all over again, only this time success was my north star. He pushed me hard all year, keeping me consistently in the top quartile of the class each term. Knowing I was amidst champions, I was proud of this feat. More importantly, I kept my eyes on the goal of joining the Mayflower Elite. It was a breeze. I passed my Common Entrance Exam into Mayflower Secondary School, Ikenne.

An “outlier” is born

One bright Sunday morning in September 1998, days before my 11th birthday, I moved into Student Second Home, the hostel operations arm of Mayflower School. Though the Solarins had yielded control of the academic arm to the government, they had retained control of the hostel to maintain the tenets of self-reliance and self-development. I was assigned to the lower floor of the boys’ dormitory, stylized as B3-down. I placed my few belongings in the three-by-two footlocker, which my mom had contracted to a carpenter back in August. Reincarnating the seamstress in her, she factored baanbe into my school uniforms, adding a few years in size. As such, the hem of my short sleeves sat halfway between my elbow and my wrist, while my shorts reached inches below my knees. She also made my bedding, from two quilt-bare mattresses discarded by the ’98 graduating students, which she dressed in new fabric and a faux-leather jacket. She had saved enough from her new job for my new notebooks and stationery, which were not provided in Mayflower Secondary School, and we went shopping together. As I arranged the books in my backpack, I longed to open them like presents under a tree. Christmas had come in September and I was very excited to resume school. Hurry up Monday!

While other freshers did the headless chicken routine at the sound of the wake-up bell, I was up and ready to go. My advantage was bigger than a peek into Mayflower routines through my year at the junior school. I was high on anticipation. I barely even remembered the order of the day, except that classes resumed by 8:15 am and like a whippet at the gates of the oval track, I was rearing to start. I sailed easily through the mandatory two-kilometer morning run, breezed through the politics at the water reservoir and finished my shower while my mates contemplated the weirdness of an open bath-yard. Dressed in Mayflower’s popular green check shirt and plain forest green shorts, shod and glistening from the layer of Vaseline over my face, I joined the dining-hall-bound throng of aluminium-toting diners. I gobbled down my first breakfast of many to come; beans, lots of beans. Assembly rolled by too slowly. Why were the announcements so long?

After an inspiring welcome message by the principal, I strode proudly for the first time into my JSS1 Purple classroom. No stroll till date had been more important and nothing could dampen my pride. Not even the fact that the classroom was significantly more dilapidated than I had imagined. The large windows had no barricade and the most notorious students were known to jump out of boring classes; not that we had doors to keep them in. Through holes in the unceiled roof, sunrays filtered in like the knowledge promised on the school’s motto. As I took my seat around the middle of the class, I revisited my Mayflower dreams. I hadn’t chosen this school for the looks, I was drawn to the light. The first rays were shone by Mr. Osuolale, our class teacher, who listed all the rules and encouraged us to be good students.

Good students. Beyond getting great grades and obeying the rules, this was a vague expression to most of us freshers. Being the most available examples of this ideal, those of us from Mayflower Junior School were treated with some respect. We were perceived to be tougher and smarter than the average student. We were known by our assertiveness, our ebullient spirits and most distinctively by our cursive handwriting. The junior school cursive was a badge of honor, signifying the years of discipline it took to master. With a few pen strokes, we furnished a history of respect for rules, an understanding of routines and processes, a keen eye for discerning personalities, a fundamental understanding of action and results, and above all, the sense of independence conferred by these attributes. It did not matter that I had only spent one year in that system. I was accorded the same respect.

Apart from the desire to make my mom proud of me and repay her sacrifices, I initially felt no pressure for academic success from anyone. In truth, I had no clear academic goal as a freshman. I was simply driven by curiosity, a yearning to understand the world. I looked beyond the doctrine of passive goodness, rooted in the old testament’s thou-shall-nots and the modesty of Yoruba culture. The Mayflower system challenged us to do better and as classes progressed, I pushed myself to learn all the key subjects from Mathematics to Integrated Science, Introductory Technology, Business Studies and Languages.

Back in the dorm, some of the seniors took it upon themselves to ensure we were outstanding students. Early on, I noticed a fascinating dynamic, where seniors sought to be part of the making of the next Mayflower prodigy. It was not enough that they had made their own marks. They were keen on leaving a legacy. They would file us out during the mandatory siesta to check our notebooks for completeness and our brains for understanding of those words. Since I had no dedicated school father like most of my friends, I leveraged this opportunity to put myself in check. My mom, ever present and supportive, backed me with prayers and encouraging words. She also made a conscious effort to afford me emotional stability, providing as many of my needs as she could. Unhindered, I studied hard and paid attention in class.

On the last day of the first term, Mr. Osuolale returned with a sheaf of report sheets. We were all anxious. We already knew our scores in most of the subjects, from the marked scripts, so that wasn’t what we looked forward to. We wanted to know our positions in class and more importantly, who had topped the class. From our scripts and class interactions, there was quasi-consensus on the front-runners. Mary was the most articulate in our class and Tayo was just too smart to be true. These ladies were the rock stars of our class. Besides being one of the boys from Junior School, I wasn’t well known for anything. So, I had tame expectations. I was sitting quietly at the back of the class when Mr. Osuolale called my name, waving my result sheet. After receiving the white watermarked sheet, I had turned around in search of a quiet corner to check my position before he added “And Michael came first. Please clap for him”.

My eyes had to confirm what I had just heard. He hadn’t made a mistake. I had come first. My feet kept walking but my spirit was floating. For only the second time in my 11 years, I was eager to share my report sheet with my mother. I flashed back to my first report sheet from Greater Tomorrow. My kindergarten teacher may have been right. Maybe Wale is truly a brilliant boy! This was the moment I started to believe not only in the competition but also in the victory. My mom was very proud when I showed her my result sheet. She rolled on the floor and praised God with songs for minutes. She had wanted this all her life; I was only starting to.

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