Here in the UK, when one mentions boarding school, you evoke the image of an old stately building sitting in vast manicured lawns with the occasional 200-year-old oak tree and outdoor tennis courts. The sort of private institution attended by the children of the wealthy and the odd scholarship working class kid. I went to boarding school. Of a totally different class. In Lagos, Nigeria. Yes, I was in Queen’s College Yaba (QC or QCY we fondly call it). QC is one of the best public secondary schools in Nigeria. It is also infamous for a breed of QC girl – stereotypically loud, someone who puts on airs and is into their material wealth. In reality, most of us are normal down-to-earth girls. However, there is a certain QC-factor many of us carry with us for life.
My mama is an ex-QC girl but my (older) sister was in a reputable military school in the north so we all expected that I would join her. I was all geared up for it. I sat their specific entrance exams and went on a week-long interview. Despite my best efforts, I didn’t make the grade (my parents weren’t military enough apparently). Luckily, I did well enough in my national common entrance exam to have been offered a place to Queen’s College. As my mama considered whether to appeal against the decision of my sister’s school to change the rules after a gruelling recruitment process (which I excelled at), I had one of my vivid dreams where I saw me checking into QC. Weird because I had never been or even seen any photos of the school. It felt like a vision of my future and I told my mama I was happy not to fight for my place at the other school. I was going to Lagos.
We got to Lagos a week before and had to go through a series of tedious administrative processes…full medical, bank tellers, school uniform outlets, book purchases. Mama even braved the markets (she hates markets) to buy the endless required items on our many lists. I was excited and nervous and already, I missed my sister and home. A big positive was that my grandparents still lived in Lagos then and their home at least felt familiar. On that first Saturday, we all had to get to QC before 6pm. We left home after lunch (which I barely ate) and as we got onto the 3rd mainland bridge, we hit traffic. My heart sank into my shoes. I felt a darkness descend over my soul and I thought I was going to be sick. To make matters worse, the traffic was all headed in the same direction so the agony of anticipation was prolonged.
It was utter chaos. Have you ever been on a farm when cattle have to be corralled and branded/tagged? Being the granddaughter of a farmer, I have and I can tell you it’s not a nice scene. Cows are not docile like sheep and I think they are cleverer too so once the first lot have been through, they moo a message back to the herd and the rest all go a little wild. They start to struggle against the humans try to feed them through the metal paths. Their nostrils flare and dribble and their eyes take on a wild rolling look. It is not pretty! Combine that with all the shouting men, the mooing, the smell of branded flesh, cow pee and poo…you get the picture. This was how the scene I was faced with felt.
Parents were giving up waiting in the long traffic queues leading up to the school gates. There were people everywhere in the streets surrounding QC as everyone but the drivers disembarked and grabbed luggage, buckets, school bags, brooms and mops. Irritable drivers honked as people staggering under all that load wandered in and out of traffic. Older students spotted returning mates and there were squeals of joy and excited chatter as friends were reunited after the long summer holidays. In the middle of all the chaos were the newbies. Me and my fellow JS1 girls. Silent, quivering wretches whose young faces bore expressions of doom. In our shiny new uniforms and shoes. Taking it all in, dragging our feet, praying for salvation. At least, that was how I was feeling.
First, we had to find the administrative block and queue to submit bank tellers, get registered. All JS1 queued to get to a marquee to be allocated a house (I drew orange for Obong House and not the blue for Obasa my mama had been in). Then we had to find our House station where we had to hand over the cleaning supplies, sign in and be told our dorm and then the senior girls had to root through our bags to fish out any contraband. This process took ages! By the time I was fully processed, it was approaching 6pm and the dean had reached a climax as parents/siblings said goodbye and tired senior girls continued to check everyone in.
I had to make two trips across (dormitories, dining hall and library were separated from the administrative, class rooms and staff quarters by a gated wall). I found Obong 6 (dorm 6 in Obong House), dumped the first lot and hurried back to find my mama. It was time to say goodbye. I gave my mama the longest hug, inhaling her familiar smell and fighting back the tears the threatened to fall. Mama was misty-eyed too as she kissed me and promised to be back on visiting day 3 or 4 weeks later. I gathered up my bits and pieces and with leaden feet turned and crossed over, using up all my will power to stop myself running back and begging mama to take me home. At the gate, I turned and waved one final time and I swear I felt like a dead man walking to his execution. I made my way back to Obong house, claimed an empty bunk and sat on it.
I don’t know how long I sat there for before Zara, my lifesaver found me. Zara is actually my mother’s second cousin but for ease of explanation, in QC she was my cousin. She was a senior girl, in SS1 when I started in QC. She found me in all that confusion and gently guided me through the process of finding a mattress for my bed and making the bed, finding an empty locker and arranging all my belongings in it and putting my bathing things together in my bucket. She sorted out my life and earned my eternal gratitude and then she disappeared back to her House (Obasa, on the opposite side of the dorms). I can’t remember if I had dinner that evening but I remember meeting the other junior girls. The JS1 girls all looked as lost as I did and that made me feel a tiny bit better. I was relieved when it was lights out. As I slid into bed onto my crisp new sheets in my crisp new nightie, I was overcome with sadness and homesickness. I didn’t think I could bear it. I wept into my pillow until sleep swept me into oblivion. I wonder how many other JS1 girls did the same?