From the day my father told me I was going to a boarding school, I had prepared myself for virtually everything I had read online about boarding schools— extortion from senior students, reckless beatings and unending punishments, eating poorly made meals, and so on. I had read up ways to reduce the impact of canes against the skin. I had read up survival techniques posted online. Even as my father continuously asked for my phone as we neared the school, I was still soaking up all the information. When he left me in front of the stern matron in a bogus print gown, I began using most of the tricks. First, make friends with the matron. But it was hard to do so with her ransacking my bags, poking the sachets of milk and milo in the Ghana-must-go I carried.
“Are you with any contraband?” she asked.
I shook my head even though I didn’t know what made for a contraband. Our maid back at home had been responsible for buying the provisions and packing them into the red and white bag.
She pulled out a black plastic bag. My heart skipped. I had forced it into the bag this morning as I left the house. The oily bag was filled with the chicken thighs that I asked Lola to fry for me that morning. Was it contraband?
“Weren’t you told not to bring cooked food? Or do you think we are not capable of feeding you?” She raised the offensive bag towards me and questioned. I could feel the looks of other students lined up behind me and I felt hot behind my ears.
“I’m sorry ma,” I said and lowered my head. “It’s the housekeeper that packed it.”
She scoffed. “All these bigman children sef.” She returned it into the bag and waved me away without checking the other two bags.
With a grateful smile, I pulled my bags a distance away so that the next girl could be checked. I tried to arrange the bag with half of its contents already spilling out. How did Lola manage to pack all these things? No matter how I tried, the bag was not just big enough.
“You need help?” A soft voice asked. From where I was stooped on the ground, a pair of feet in long white socks and blue slippers came into my view. She had a nice scent, one that reminded me of Aunt Beaty that owned a cosmetic shop in Lagos. A similar perfume, I assumed.
I looked up to see a tall girl standing in front of me. Her hair was braided into four neat cornrows with the ends almost reaching her shoulder. From the sky blue blouse she wore, I could tell that she was a senior student.
“Good evening, senior.” I bowed a little. One of my online sources said you had to treat the seniors with ‘earnest respect’.
She smiled revealing white teeth beneath her pale, glossy lips. “I asked if you needed help?” She tipped her head towards the bag I had been struggling with.
I nodded my head sharply, feeling a crick when I nodded too hard. She laughed out loudly, using her hand to cover her mouth. I frowned. Her laughter was definitely not as beautiful as her smile. It sounded like the loud snort of the pigs that raided the farms beside our house. I kept my personal opinions to myself though.
She bent down beside me and I caught a whiff of a stronger perfume from her neck. I sniffed. She looked at me. “What is wrong?” She rubbed at her neck. “Is it too strong?”
I shook my head, but my mouth said, “It’s best if you just dab a-” I gasped and clasped my mouth immediately. “I’m sorry, senior.” How could I forget where I was? Did I think I was talking to my sister?
She looked a little surprised. I wasn’t sure if she was surprised at my comment or at my apology. I could guess it was the former. “Next time, I’ll try not to put on too much.” She said with a bit of reluctance.
Under our combined efforts, we were finally able to zip the red and white bag. I was left sweating and panting. She wasn’t in a better condition either.
“What of your parents?” she asked as she straightened up. “How will you get your bags inside?”
I sighed. My father had been rushing for a meeting with one of his clients. “My dad left as soon as he dropped me.”
She nodded. “Wait here, let me get some junior girls to help you.” She hurried away immediately leaving me stooping there in surprise. I tried to stand up, but my legs felt numb. I massaged it as I watched the matron dissect the bags of one of the new students. Her mother was standing beside her with a furious look, it seemed the mother’s attitude only fueled the woman to remove every single thing in the box. I felt sorry for the girl when the matron brought out a bag that seemed to hold the girl’s underwear and started removing them one by one, flapping them in the air.
The senior girl returned with two junior girls— one whose hand had white foam drying around her wrists as though she had been washing clothes when she was called and the other was fully dressed in the evening wear and a pair of fancy, rubber sandals. I ignored the look the two girls gave me as they carried the bags and walked ahead of us. I made to carry the third bag but the senior girl took it from my hand. I gaped at her. Was I in a wrong boarding school? Why was everything going against my expectations? But I was not one to let such an opportunity go to go to waste and so I hurried behind her. After making sure that the two junior girls were out of hearing, I asked, “Can you be my school mother?”
When I was reading about survival techniques in boarding schools, one girl had explained that it was her school mother that helped her get through school. And one of the first things on my list as I prepared to start school was to get a school mother. The girl didn’t, however, explain that there were different types of school mothers, a lesson I had to learn the hard way given my experience in the first year of secondary school.
Senior Kay-cee as I got to know later, was referred to as the ‘National School-mother’. She had quite a good number of the JS1 students as her school daughters. That was not the reason she was called the national school mother. It was her habit of sweetly extorting from the junior girls that made her earn the name. I finally understood that she stood by the gate waiting for unsuspecting newbies like me to step into the role of ‘school-daughtership’. I learned my lesson when the second term rolled into the third term, and I realized that I never saw most of the provisions I had brought to school and she had offered to ‘save them for me’ in her locker where it was safe from the hands of thieves that raided the lockers of students.
After my ordeal with Senior Kay-cee, I didn’t stop in my quest for a proper school mother. While Senior Kay-cee was an expert at taking provisions, she still saved me from getting punished or being sent by other senior girls. It was on this quest that I met Senior Emelda.
Senior Emelda had all the good qualities of a good school mother. She washed my uniforms, sent water for me to bath, called me away when my class was being punished, gave me her extra food in the dining, and most importantly, she didn’t take my provisions. I was excited. I had a school mother. I was among the selected few in the junior class that had the support of one of the higher-ups. I walked with my shoulders high.
When the rumors started spreading about ‘unholy unions’ among the students, I too received the news with shock. There were students that did things to themselves under the darkness of their blankets and under the mango tree behind the dormitory. I began to think of the footsteps I heard behind my window in the middle of the night. Every whisper in the night became suspicious not only to me but to many other students. Eyes in the form of bitter junior girls who had suffered punishments in the hands of the senior girls followed everyone around—suspecting, investigating, and then reporting. I was not among them, but I loved gossip, so whenever I heard my mates talking about it, I would try to join the conversation, and almost every time I attempted to join, they would change the topic. The reason I was bound to find much later in the future, and almost too late for myself.
With her perfectly shaped body and pretty face, Senior Emelda was quite popular among her mates, more so because she had a knack for music and dance. She could rap and move her body to the sound of her mates drumming against wooden lockers. She had this swag around her—the way she walked, talked (she talked fast often imitating foreign accents) and the way she dressed—she always tucked in her shirt but left the first two buttons flying, a golden chain hung from her neck disappearing into the valley between her breasts. Her short hair had spiky ends from the hours she spent with her numerous hair products. I wondered how she was able to sneak them into school as ‘excessive beauty products’ were not allowed to be brought in by the students. She walked around with a book filled with the lyrics of foreign songs and spent most of her time on her purple hardback notebook trying to come up with her own lyrics. I enjoyed it when she read out her new lyrics to me, even though they merely seemed like a continuous slur of incomplete words and a repetition of wanna and gotta.
That night prep, I was struggling to complete my CRK note when a JS2 student entered the class and told the senior supervisors that were reading at the teacher’s table that Senior Emelda had sent her to call me. I looked up when I heard both names, and looked at the seniors to gain their permission before I got up making sure to put the notebooks back in my locker and lock it as I left. There had been cases of stolen notes and I didn’t want to become a victim. The prep was relatively early but the whole school was quiet.
“She is in the Computer lab,” the JS2 girl told me as we got closer to where the labs were. She turned and went back to her class.
The labs were all on one block—the biology lab, art room, physics lab shared the first floor, the other floors were for the school library, and the computer lab. The light on the staircase leading to the lab was dim. I could hear the girls in the physics lab laughing and talking about topics that were definitely not related to whatever books they had opened in front of them.
The only light in the computer lab was from the two computers that were switched on. I stood by the door and called out in a small voice, “Senior Emelda.”
“Tonia?” I nodded my head, then whispered a yes when I realized she probably couldn’t see me.
“I’m coming.” I heard the scrape of a chair against the ground. I perceived her perfume as she neared. “Ouch!” she exclaimed.
“What happened?” Another voice came in the darkness.
“I just knocked my leg against this stupid table,” she hissed.
“Tell her to switch on the light. The switch is beside the door.”
I didn’t wait for her to relay the message, I reached out in the dark and felt around the wall. A soft click cast a bright light in the room. Senior Emelda was a few meters away from me nursing her hurt feet.
I hurried to her side. “Did you injure yourself?”
She shook her head. “It’s just a little sore.” She dropped her feet, though most of her weight rested on the other leg. It was then that I realized that she was dressed in just a white camisole over her blue skirt. She wasn’t even wearing a bra under it, and I could see her nipples poking through the tight cloth. I looked away in guilt.
She turned to return to where she had been sitting. I followed behind her, curious about the voice I had heard earlier. She stopped at one of the computers. The hum of the CPU was loud in the quiet room. Senior Kenny was seating at the table beside hers.
“Good evening senior,” I greeted.
She nodded absently at my greeting, turning to ask Senior Emelda, “Did you injure yourself?”
“No.” She sat down. I stood beside them. Senior Kenny was Emelda’s friend. They were always together and shared the same interest in music. Unlike Emelda, Senior Kenny had her bra on though half of her breasts were spilling out of the black cups. I peeped at the computer screen and gasped when I saw what was on the screen. I shifted out of view.
“What is it?” Senior Emelda looked at me with a frown.
My eyes strayed again to the computer screen. She followed my look. “Oh shit!” She quickly closed the window.
But the harm was already done. I couldn’t wash the sight of the hairy mass from my mind’s eye. I stood awkwardly unsure of what to do.
“What is it?” Senior Kenny asked.
“She saw what I was doing,” Emelda replied, her eyes were still on me, waiting for a response. I was unsure of what she wanted to hear from me.
Senior Kenny looked at me with a frown, “Hasn’t she seen it before?” Without waiting for a reply, she continued, “I still don’t know why you even sent for her.”
Senior Emelda shrugged, then looked at me. She reached for her shirt on the table behind her and put it on. I’m coming,” she said to Senior Kenny as she buttoned the shirt, and then to me, “Come with me.”
My eyes went to the blank computer screen once more before I followed behind her. As I left the computer lab, I heard Senior Kenny say in a voice different from what I was familiar with, a voice that dripped with milk and honey, “Sorry, honey, there was a small disturbance.” I didn’t want to imagine what would be on her screen. Emelda switched off the light as we left the lab, closing the door firmly behind us. I followed behind her quietly. At that moment, I wanted to be anywhere but near her. The images that came to my mind were not pleasant at all.
“I don’t allow them to see my face,” she said suddenly. I stopped abruptly. I hadn’t realized when she stopped walking. We were almost to my class now.
“Okay,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say.
“They pay me too and one of them promised to produce my music,” she continued, running her hand through her spiky hair. For once, Emelda didn’t look as cool as she’d always seemed to me. Her spiky hair suddenly seemed unkempt, like that of the mad man that graced the front of my sister’s salon. She seemed even more frustrated than the JS1 students with their whitish feet and dried face.
“You sing well,” I said, but what I’d meant to say that it wasn’t worth it, entertaining strangers in the computer lab. I would never have a normal computer class seated in front of any computer again.
She smiled tiredly. “Will you come to my corner after prep?”
I shook my head. “I have to complete my CRK note. We have to submit it tomorrow.”
She nodded. She didn’t ask why, even though she knew I preferred to read in her corner than to read in mine. We stood awkwardly for a while. I wanted so badly to return to my class. She looked like she wanted to say something, but the sound of the teacher on duty shouting at someone stopped her.
“Go inside,” she said. I waved lamely and hurried into the class, my heart pounding so hard. I walked blindly to my seat.
Despite what I’d found out, I felt quite relieved. At first, I imagined that Senior Emelda was one of those girls, the ‘mango tree girls’ as they were called. But she was a ‘computer lab girl’ and there were no rumors about them. Yet. I would go to her corner that night and other nights that would follow. I still ate her food and allowed her to wash my uniform, I still listened to her lyrics. But the air between us had changed, tinged with caution, as though we tiptoed around each other in words and actions. And in all these, I developed a new respect for her, one untainted by what I knew about her. She was still Senior Emelda, my school mother with a gift for good music.