Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Thoughts on School II

I attended Nairobi Primary School; this is a picture of the building when it was the European Nairobi Boys School.Nairobi Primary School

My first teacher there, for Standard 1, was Ms. Edgar. Ms. Edgar was young and mod. She wore short tailored dresses, high heeled shoes, and her hair swept up and lacquered into a beehive. Oh, I thought her so glamorous! We dared to call her "Miss Eggs and Ham" behind our hands; the humour of 5 year olds is not deep. Miss Edgar's shining moment was during one of our swimming classes early that year. She was standing at edge of the shallow end of the pool watching us. I don't remember what kind of suits the boys wore but we girls wore black one piece suits with a white stripe down each side; if we passed proficiency tests the stripes were removed (one per test). Since this was an early class, we were all lined up, tallest to shortest, and then we paraded around the shallow end of the pool getting used to the water. I could already tread water and doggie paddle but some of my classmates had never been in a pool or large body of water before. Can you spot the potential disaster? Led by Anna Banana, the tallest girl in the class, we walked in ever expanding circles. The two shortest boys suddenly found themselves beyond their depth and panicked. Letting go of the conga line they grabbed at each other and went under. Everyone started screaming but none of us attempted a rescue; instead we all looked to Miss Edgar. Miss Edgar threw her purse to one side, kicked off her platform shoes, and jumped into the pool. She lifted a boy in each arm and helped them out of the water. We were amazed! She didn't even take off her watch before jumping in and it became ruined.

The building our class was in was like a cabin, there were three classrooms but each had an outside entrance. The older children had class in the "real" building; it had very high ceilings, marble floors, and sweeping stairs. I don't remember the bathrooms in that school at all. How strange. The grounds of the school were extensive; there were many playing fields, some woods with a stream, dormitories and a dining room, an infirmary, a swimming pool with bleachers and changing rooms, 3 or 4 sets of cabin classrooms, and the main building. My sisters and I were not boarding students but for several years we ate lunch in the dining room because our bag lunches were stolen on a daily basis. My mother felt very sad that there were children who were so hungry but she could not let us go without our midday meal. We wore red and white checked full skirted dresses with white collars, short sleeves, and white cuffs. Tan socks, brown or black buckled shoes, straw hats with navy ribbons, and navy blue cardigans completed the uniform.

I remember very little of the teaching...a hand writing lesson during which Miss Edgar intoned "Around, UP, and down" over and over, some work with rulers, swimming lessons and the school-wide competitions. My report cards note that I was a good reader and had original ideas but that my handwriting was terrible and my parents should enforce discipline to ensure I used my right hand for writing. Discipline at school was often physical. Small infractions like talking or fidgeting in line brought whacks on the palm of a hand with a ruler; repeated infractions brought a sprinkle of salt on my palm before the ruler. In my four years at Nairobi Primary I only once got into serious trouble, trouble that required intervention from up the administration scale. The problem, in my opinion, was Charles. Charles rode to school with us every morning and lived in the Post Office flats at the end of the block. Charles liked me; in particular, he liked to kiss me. It wasn't that I didn't like Charles but (like doomed relationships for hundreds of years) I did not like him "in that way". Charles took advantage of our reading groups. During reading group time half the class worked on paperwork while the other half sat and read with Miss Edgar. Miss Edgar liked to concentrate on the group at hand and asked the non-reading group to work quietly without disturbing her. While we were at our desks, Charles would kiss me, over and over. I told him not to, I told him to stop, I wiped his kisses off my cheeks, then I told the teacher and she told me to sit down and she told Charles to stop. This scenario was repeated over a week or two. Miss Edgar stopped intervening. I took my problem home and discussed it with my Mother who told me to "make" Charles stop; it seems she meant I should speak forcefully but at the time I thought she meant me to take action. The next day Charles kissed me and I hit him with my ruler; the ruler broke and Charles and I burst into tears. Miss Edgar stopped everything and made the class put their heads down while she penned a terse note. Charles and I were to take the note to the Headmaster's office. Nobody we knew had ever been sent to the Headmaster's office. Big boys, rowdy fighting big boys, were sometimes sent there. It was widely known that the Headmaster spanked with a stick or sometimes a leather belt. Charles and I slowly and silently (still crying) made our way through the long hallways and up the marble stairway. We sat on the great wooden bench outside the Headmaster's office, taking our places at the end of the line of older boys. Slowly the line moved up as the door would open and a hand would beckon in the next offender. Sometimes the student would come out with another note, would disappear and then reappear with his schoolbooks to wait for a ride home. Several times we heard the smacking sound of wood on flesh and then a red-faced boy would exit the office with his shoulders up and his head down. Finally it was our turn, Charles and I held hands shaking with fear. We shuffled into the office to face Miss Karimi. She took our note, read it to herself, looked at us, and said, "Yes, what have you to say for yourselves?" Charles and I started sobbing, we tried to explain, we each accepted all responsibility, we tried to say it was not important enough for her attention, we said Miss Edgar had misunderstood. I don't know how she kept from laughing. We were handed clean handkerchiefs and given a lecture on order in education. We promised to never misbehave again, ever, anywhere, for any reason. As far as I know neither of us was ever sent to the Headmaster again.

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