Just like four million other Kenyans, i spent substantial hours in a day on the internet. The content generated online has a way of always surprising me! It's astounding when you think about the amount of content created in a day. Sometime back, i read a story about two Americans; Arthur Booth and Mindy Glazer. These two individuals were classmates in middle school. After they parted ways then, they met three decades later in a courtroom. Where Glazer was the judge and Booth was on the stand facing burglary charges. The judge who sentenced Booth to 10 months in jail was the first to recognize him, and after he served jail time, she joined Booth's family to receive him from jail. Booth's dream of being a surgeon ingloriously whittled away overtime as he slid deeper into the world of drugs and petty crime. And his classmate who had initially wanted to be a veterinarian ended up studying law. Booth was inspired by his classmate; she was the embodiment of what he could have been if not for the demeaning life of crime and drugs. An inspired Booth promised his family and his classmate that he would put his life in order- "I know where i could have been, but i'm not giving up on life. It's just a new lease on life for me right now."
Much as the story was emotional i never gave it much thought until recently when i met my classmate after eleven years.
In 2002 just like thousands of Kenyan children from middle class families, i was on my way from home. Headed to a place where my parents hoped would give me better chances at life. Public schools were at the time were screwed up (well they still are!) and my parents believed that a private boarding school had the answer public schools could not provide. I was quite scared and intimidated about leaving home but boarding schools then had a mythical appeal that i would soon experience first-hand. Anyway it seemed a small price to pay in pursue of excellence .There was also the perception that it prepared one for high school, learning to be more responsible and self-sufficient - i really can't tell the accuracy of this notion. But, one thing that boarding schools definitely were is- high pressure academic performance environments, at least mine was.
From as early as class six, our teachers fed us the ideology that excelling in the national exams and then getting admitted to top-tier National schools, would give each of us greater chances of being successful in life. The definition of success was academic oriented, and young as we were we grasped the embedding principle and it inadvertently became the creed in our young lives
The very first step towards the good life was being a student in a great private school, which all of us had gloriously attained. Then scoring 400 marks or more to secure admission in the competitive National schools- Alliance girls, Precious Blood Riruta, Bahati girls et al if you were a girl and if you were a boy- Mang'u school, Lenana school, Nairobi school, Maseno school and all the others where students prolifically produced grade As. That would be followed by a certificate with straight As’ to propel one to a good university and safely see them in a medicine or law class, not music or a writing or drama. These careers would ensure we got kick ass jobs with a fat monthly cheque which would see to it that we bought four wheel drives. Then and only then would we be ready to marry and/ get married and have kids, preferably two. Pregnancies before reaching the epic life or out of wedlock were unbecoming of achievers, and were to be avoided at all costs! It was a life of more! Looking back, i admire those minds of thirteen year olds that did not conceive the possibility of anything visible or invisible thwarting the well crafted route.
Our teachers devised mechanisms to make sure that we constantly aimed at the sky. One of them was, Pass marks! Every subject had a minimum mark, and any student who scored below that simply calculated how many points they missed the mark with; and the result was the number of strokes that he/ she would get. We had three exams in a term and in every exam in each subject the culprits who did not meet the stipulated mark were marched from class to the staffroom; where each of them was subjected to a beating, the number of strokes determined by how far they were from the mark. When they were all writhing in pain, they would seat on the cold dusty staffroom floor to receive an epic motivational speech from the teachers on- 'benefits of working hard in class/ how to excel'. All this while, the excellent students sat quietly in class, probably reading hard to never get the beating or thanking God for their performance or feeling sorry for the failures. In such days, the line between good performers and failures was clear; the latter were those lying on their stomachs in a room they did not belong getting their buttocks heated up by strokes.
Mostly out of fear, the pass marks not only encouraged us to work hard but also bred fierce competition and comparison if you may, among the students. But believe it or not, there are those that never for a single time met any mark. They nearly got used to the beatings, but i wondered what they thought their chances were at hitting the proverbial bulls’ eye in life! We somewhat became fixated on grades, and regarded them as accurate determiners who would/ would not make it in life. When results were pinned on the school noticed board, some of us would check our competitors’ marks before we checked ours. Our view of life became so minimalist, reduced to marks and joy of beating a competitor or the ultimate kicker- seeing your competitor head to the staffroom for a beating!
None of the school based exams however brought out our tenacious behaviour better than KCPE! When the results were released, we called each other and slyly texted other people's index numbers to Safaricom to promptly receive their results. We gauged who had moved on to the next step in the odyssey successfully and wondered who had been tragically cut out? Little did we know that KCPE was just one of many sieves to come that could weed people out of the 'race'. Some of us made it to the coveted national schools, others to low tier high schools and sadly for a few, it was the end of education. This competitive behaviour persisted on in high school and for a while after we left school.
Last week while in Masinga, i met one of my classmates from primary school. Here is the story!
I walked into a shop to purchase eggs. I was dressed down. In fact i was a precise incarnation of the phrase! I had a long skirt whose hem had chipped over old age, an oversized sweater that was torn on the left arm, a head scarf on my head hid my messy hair and my left slipper had a broken strap. As i charged on towards the counter, i noticed the face of the lady that stood behind the counter looked familiar. As i walked on i desperately attempted to put the face into the context of my life in the past. She must have read my thoughts cause she also seemed to be in deep thought probably of who i was. I asked her to give me three eggs and as she packed them she asked in classic Kenyan fashion- "Nimewahikukuona mahali?" I smiled to show agreement with her line of thought and replied- "Unakaa familiar but sijui tulionana wapi?" After a few minutes of deep thought, she shouted "Wango Boarding in Embu!" Eureka eureka!!
She left the counter through a small door that gave her well endowed body a challenge in passing through, came to me and gave me a hug. And i suddenly became aware of how shabby my dressing was. In mortification, i felt a desperate need to explain that was not my daily dress code! Acting on impulse of embarrassment, i begged to live and suggested a meet up to catch up. "Can you come here at around 10 O'clock tomorrow?" I had all the time on my hands so i agreed.
The following day at 10am, neatly dressed i was on my way to her shop. She had prepared some coffee, which when i sat down she requested to pour me a cup. Our conversation quickly went from 2005 to 2016. And we talked about what each one of us was up to. I was a little envious that she ran her own shop, while i was still fumbling to find my way in the world of creative writing- "You must feel so good that you run your own business?" I pried. My life is not as easy as you think, she told me.
And it was not! She was a wife, and a mother to two; three and one year olds (this was not the problem!) She explained that on completing high school she got pregnant and instead of going to college she got married. Her husband was a broke fresh graduate at the time and but soon struck gold in the corporate world. He build her a big ass shop closer to their marital home while he got busy in the city. "He must be such a good man", i added. "He used to be!" She said those words and i heard her voice break and the life on her face slowly whittled away. I kept mum for a while, allowing her to recollect herself and decide whether she would tell me the obviously sad story of her life. With a voice heavy with bitterness she explained that she found out her husband was a serial liar. Cheating on her with such disdain! Her words touched me more than i could express and I desperately wanted to tell her something inspiring like- 'don't worry, it's gonna be okay/ just pray about it': But i couldn't. Instead i wore a sad face as a genuine indication that i felt with her.
I could read between the emotional intensity of her words and i that she thought i was well on my way to the life we all had pictured eleven years ago. The truth is i was not close to being close to achieving it. And i told her that. I explained that i was raw in the blogging space and my writing wasn't making bank. In fact for that to happen i had to have the patience of death. And i had to be content with small results for enormous efforts.
When you meet your classmate there is always that strange need to know how successful they are? And since the devil is a liar, you might find yourself putting the two of you on an economic scale. Measuring success by the dress code, hair style, a good ride and all things frivolous. It was the same for me that day, but at that point our defenses were down and the anxiety that the other person could be doing 'better' died down. We were two human beings, who had veered off the script, who probably by their primary school teachers' definition they would be called losers. We were just two people with broken dreams, baggage and a common history who sought to encourage each other. Two people who chatted a fresh path when they lost faith in an ideology they cherished and now understood there was more to life than academic credentials. After pleasantries, a promise to keep in touch and a warm goodbye, i was on my way back home. While mulling our conversation, I remembered reading Mindy Glazer and Arthur Booth's story. I fell in love afresh with Glazer's instinct to encourage Booth to stay straight, out of drugs, crime and prison. An inspired Booth promised to not only stay out of trouble but also get a job. My classmate and i promised to check up on each other every now and then. What better thing is there to do than to encourage each other when we meet, putting pressure on each other on the basis of a successful life. And by the way what is the precise definition of success?