Tuesday 7 December 2021

My boarding school story still affects me

Parents in the know

I have been watching with rapt and engaged attention the developments on the Nigerian Twittersphere about boarding school life and bullying, that began following the unfortunate death of Sylvester Oromoni, a 12-year-old pupil of Dowen College in Lagos as a result of an apparently coerced initiation into a cult. [BBC News: Sylvester Oromoni: Nigerians demand justice over Dowen College death]

My boarding school experience which started over 45 years ago was a decision by my parent to give me a grounding in our culture and traditions, as we lived in the north of Nigeria and they were from the southwest, I was born abroad with a good few things well-formed, language and speech, mannerisms and attitude, I was somewhat a stranger not integrating enough into what should be a Nigerian.

Back home to black out

On the other hand, they also wanted to toughen me up as I began to relive the separation anxiety that I experienced in England. For I was preterm by 10 weeks and that was spent mostly in an incubator in Birmingham whilst my parents worked and studied in Walsall. I also had a bit of fostering and being moved around foster carers as they progressively could not find suitable ones, one even starved me that I took to stealing food out of the refrigerator when I was back with my parents. Odd behaviour, my mother thought until she found out what was happening.

Just after my 10th birthday, the common entrance examination season for secondary school admission started, my parents were not looking for any schools near home, I was in taking exams in the old Western State and Lagos to the extent that I was away from home for over 4 months living with relations mostly met for the first time when they came to pick me up from the airport. For a while, I was with my cousins when the February 1976 coup happened.

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On my return home in late May, I already had another baby sister, amongst other things too distressing to talk about here and then as a listener with wild tales about paranormal activity between my aunt and our new house servant, I began seeing things, apparitions of otherworldly figures that my father dismissed as fantasy. My parents weren’t listening to me.

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A misfit adrift

I prepared for boarding school with much of what I needed to fit in wrong, my shorts should have been light green, they were grey, I could not tell if that was a typographic error on the part of the school or something my mother misread. I had a hefty machete to cut the grass when what I needed was the equivalent of a scimitar. This introduction to boarding school life was brutal and harsh, so I left essential personal health things undone and resumed bedwetting that rarely ever happened in the past year or so.

Soon, I was seeing things in the night, ghosts, I thought, and recited Psalm 23 all through the night until I was completely tired out. Amongst my classmates, I was in the younger cohort by an average of 2 years and were it not for my early development, I would have been picked on more, just as I was the butt of jokes and extreme ridicule.

That first term was torture and when news of my situation reached my parents, I know that my mother’s best friend tried to prevail on them to bring me back to the north, which they refused to do, confident in their reasoning that the boarding school experience was essential to my education and tough education it was I found ways to adapt and survive whilst keeping counsel of my own situation. My parents weren’t listening.

New terms of engagement

The Christmas holiday was spent in the village with my grandparents and my father came to visit for a week. In that time, we visited grottos and medicine men, had incisions in all sorts of places, drank concoctions, some too vile to describe. All to the goal of curing me of my apparent ailment or psychological illness, but never once did I see a professional, a specialist or a paediatrician in psychology or psychiatry, which with hindsight might have done me a world of good.

The first half of the second term, I spent as a day student living with my aunt because the boarding house could not endure another half-term of nightly disruptions from an apparently unstable child.

I returned to the boarding house in the second half of the second term and appeared to settle down to school. To my parents, their planning was working, I was becoming more independent and may be responsible. Responsible for some things they probably would not have liked me to be responsible for.

You get by even with the injustice

There was bullying and abuse, much that I try to forget, and I made friends with similar backgrounds, though I was more privileged in that when they were returning home for holidays, they got on trains to the north. I was picked up and taken to the airport to fly home, there are things where my parents really did lay out the red carpet for their son. Even when we moved from Kaduna to Lagos, at half-term and the end of term, the driver arrived in time to take me back home. No fuss.

In the last year at school, we returned for summer school which was going well for a few weeks when some amongst us looking for fun in their riotous youthful exuberance raided the girl’s hostel causing damage to property and harming some of the girls. Many of us were oblivious of what had happened, but rather than investigate, the Parents Teachers Association imposed collective punishment on all the boys, and we were expelled from the boarding school for the fifth year.

The vice-principal came to the hostels to see us pack up to leave, and she said to my hearing as she looked at a few of us that she knew we were not involved in that melee. I spent my fifth year as a day student, and it is a huge upheaval to my early education. For that unjust act, I have not forgiven Remo Secondary School (RSS) for that injustice from 40 years ago. I believe I would have had a better leaving school result had I stayed in boarding school.

My education was searing

The result of my boarding school experience is more far-reaching than I sometimes realise. For whilst, I am in contact with some of my school and classmates through social media, I have no enduring friendships. That time represents when I seemed to fall into clinical depression from which I did not recover or find any bearings for 5 years. It also took completely leaving my parents’ and home too. The boarding school experience had schooled me into preferring to be away.

I have not participated in any RSS old student association activities or offered any support for first the reason I gave earlier and out of the fact that part of the leadership has some of the people who bullied me in charge. It is strange that a couple of years ago, one of them attended an event I was at, I would not have recognised him and if I did, I most definitely would not have approached him.

Not another chance to do that again

The most consequential part of this boarding school experience and I was speaking to Brian about it is Nigeria. When I left Nigeria, I left for good. I have family and relations in Nigeria, my father, an octogenarian and my mother a septuagenarian, I have felt a bit shamefaced about not seeing them in a very long time, but the truth is we broke those strong affinity bonds much earlier in life when they were being strong parents.

I can forgive them the boarding school experience, but the result is the result, I am not inclined to get on the plane to see anyone, much as I love them and would probably miss them when they are gone. I do the necessary in supporting them as much as I can and that is where we are at. Boarding school shapes you, marks you, scars you, if you have a child in boarding school, be prepared for the unintended consequences. Yes, I am well into my fifties, and it is a wound that never healed, I just learnt to tend it and live with it.

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