This week, when I saw several children join school for the first time, I couldn’t help but remember my first day of school 33 years ago.
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Yes, I still remember that day. It was pure drama. I can still see my mother negotiating with my father to let me go back home with them because I was ‘too young’ to join school. But, looking back, it was not my age that was the problem but a series of scary experiences.
I will never forget elephant and lion sculptures that stood right outside the washrooms. I was 100 per cent sure those things could come to life and eat me up. That’s the reason it took me several years to get potty trained. The sculptures made me surrender my bladder to nature; at no point did I ever visit the washrooms even after weeks and weeks in that school. My mother resorted to nappies to save the day.
Then came the language in school! The only language I had ever learnt back at home was my mother tongue. So when I reported to school and everyone was telling me, “How are you this morning”, I felt like I was in a whole different world.
I remember sitting in class and just watching the teacher’s lips move as she communicated in English which I never understood. I only memorised one particular line that everyone else seemed to have mastered, “Please teacher, may I go to the toilet?”
This line was like an introductory line to every pupil in school. Apart from that simple line, no other English words made sense to me. All I would do is look at everyone speaking and try to patch everything together from one or two words that I could guess. Even when our bus driver walked from class to class to call us out when it was time to go home, I would just wait to hear the word ‘country’ and I would immediately know that was my bus and then I would rush out and board the bus. We had the Town bus and Country bus and I used to board the country bus.
You see, my parents took me to a school in the leafy suburbs and every student there seemed to understand English except me. In fact, since it was a Muslim school, I ended up grasping Arabic words faster than I could learn English ones. Before long, I was the loudest during prayers. Each morning, I would recite the prayers word for word.
But when it came to class time, I was the quiet naïve girl that peed on herself because there was a huge lion and elephant by the washrooms.
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One time, I wasn’t able to open my lunch box as my mother had closed it tight when I was leaving the house. Our school served us meals but we were allowed some packed snacks. Most of the time, I would just sit at the back and munch away during lessons since, after all, I wasn’t grasping anything. I tried asking my classmates to help me open the lunch box but none of them understood what I was saying since I was speaking my mother tongue. And so I started to wail.
The teacher rushed to me and asked what the matter was. I actually didn’t understand what she was saying but my common sense made me believe she wanted to help. I looked at her and yelled out, “Teacher, na na na na na na container chamo!” as I pointed at my lunch box.
Those days, we used to refer to lunch boxes as ‘container’. ‘Chamo’ in my mother tongue means ‘eat’. Luck was on my side as the teacher understood my dialect and immediately helped me open the tin even though she later told my mother about it. To date, my siblings make fun of me by mimicking the ‘na na na na’ bit. We laugh about it.
This week, I took my four-year-old daughter to school for the first time and all these memories filled my mind. Indeed, we all have come this far by grace. May all the children have a peaceful term!
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