Her palms are sweaty. Holding on to the straps of her leather duffel bag is an uphill task, quite literally, as she is walking up a hill. The bag is an old one, most of the leather is peeling off and you can see the lining underneath. Being January, the heat is relentless. She feels it scorch the back of her neck as she walks with her head bent low. The sweater of her school uniform, thin and worn out, is adding to her level of discomfort. How she wishes she could take it off but her mother insisted she wear it.
She walks beside her in silence. The flowery headscarf her mother has on has seen better days. She is in her Sunday best outfit, which is worn to church, to weddings to funerals and now as she goes to see the principal.
The only thing in her vision is the bottom part of his heels and the soles of his shoes. They give him an unnatural gait. The heel is worn out on one side and he is compensating for the lack of balance. He walks a few paces ahead of her and her mum, almost like he doesn’t want to be associated with them. Her head hangs lower.
A few more steps and they will be at the school gates. She has been dreading this moment ever since Magoha announced the return of children to school. That announcement could not have come at a worse time. She remembers that she was washing dishes at the sink when the radio program she was listening to was cut short by an important announcement. Schools were reopening amidst the pandemic. Her heart sunk lower than it had in the previous months.
She caught the stares. Some from the faces of girls she knew, others from girls she had seen at school but never spoken to. At this point in time none of it mattered. Whether they knew her or not, they were all talking about her; those she had stood in line with in the dining hall, or sat next to at Sunday service or played hockey with on the field. Would she ever play hockey again, she wondered? None of it mattered now anyway.
See, the thing about the first day of school is that most students are accompanied back to school by those responsible for them. On the first day of school after a year of being away the majority of the parents were in good-riddance mode. Everyone and their mother showed up to ship out the offspring. The school was abuzz with activity. The queue of parents waiting to see the principal and the school bursar snaked around the administration block. Why do they always put those two offices close together, she wondered. Her father volunteered to wait in line and asked her and her mother to wait a few metres away. Actually, it sounded more like an order. Maybe he was just keen on observing the social distancing rules? Maybe he didn’t want to draw attention to himself? Maybe he was doing the gentlemanly thing? Ha! Can never be him, she thought as she shuffled across the corridor from the administrative block to the small patch of grass in front of it.
The wait was long under the hot sun and under the blatant, unwavering stares and whispers from her schoolmates and their parents. Her mother had not said a single word to her that whole day. She saw her friend, the one who she thought was her best friend, walk right past her like she didn’t exist. Her mother noticed it too. She looked at her daughter, looked at her daughter’s fleeing friend and then she looked away.
A few minutes after forever, her father gestured for them to join him. It was almost their turn to see the principal. She had never been to the principal’s office before. She had just been about to finish Term 1 as a Form one student when the pandemic hit, lock down happened and they were sent home. She had only ever seen the principal once a week during assembly.
Standing in the principal’s office was scary. The only things in her line of sight were the two front legs of the office desk and the one armchair to the left that her father now occupied. Her mother stood to the right. The floor was full of scuff marks, probably from the foot traffic that day. She wondered if the principal had only ever had one seat for visitors or if this was a Covid management protocol.
Her parents and the principle had a conversation about her. For her. Nobody asked for her opinion yet she was standing right there. She was kinda hard to miss. The only thing that stayed with her was the principal’s last words before he asked them to see the matron. “Umeangusha sana wazazi,” loosely translated to mean, ‘You have disappointed your parents’.
On any regular day of reporting back to school, her parents would have walked her straight to the dormitory. Her mother would have hugged her, fervently whispering prayers as she sneaked her a few notes for pocket money, an action her dad would have pretended not to see. Her father would have emphasised the need for her to study and pass exams and focus on what brought her to school and stay out of trouble. Only now she was the one bringing trouble to the school.
Just like the principal’s office, the matron’s office was busy. Lots of parents were concerned about their children’s welfare and everyone wanted to know the school’s measures to keep the girls safe. As soon as their presence was noticed, a uniform silence fell over the space.
Her six-month pregnancy belly was the loudest thing in the room.
She kept her head low and followed her parents. Tears were beginning to well up behind her eyes. She was not going to give anyone the satisfaction of seeing her cry. Her fingers wrapped tighter around the straps of her bag. She held on. Everything she needed for school fit into that one bag. Her ears were beginning to hurt from the elastic on the surgical mask. It felt like all she could breathe in was warm air. Her father had mustered whatever dignity he had left and marched straight into the matron’s office, ignoring the queue of people that was ahead of them. Her mother followed suit. She had no choice but to follow her parents. Nobody objected. Maybe they were in shock, maybe they pitied her, maybe they whispered to their daughters not to end up like her. At this point in time it did not matter to her what they thought.
She wondered if her boyfriend was having the same experience. He was going back to school today too. Did his friends know that he was soon going to be a father? Were his parents ashamed like hers were? Was he being used as a cautionary tale among his peers? Was he even thinking about her and their unborn child?
The matron did not even pretend to hide her disdain. Every word that spewed out of her mouth was either a rebuke or a complaint as to how they were not prepared to handle a student in her condition. The school was already stretched, ensuring the beds were properly distanced in very limited spacing. She was angry that her bed allocations would have to change because a pregnant student was at a high risk of contracting Covid and had to be separated from the rest. It was going to be very unfair to the other girls because someone else would have to be assigned her morning duties as she could not clean the dorm in her condition. She really could not resist mentioning how the school now had to plan to feed an extra mouth.
Her insides were on fire. The tears wanted to come out fast, furious and hot. She bit her tongue hard to distract herself from all the hurtful words coming from the matron’s mouth. Anything to not hear what was being said about her.
After what felt like an eternity, the matron asked her to take a seat in the corner of her office. She assured her parents that they would try as best as possible to make her comfortable but no promises could be made. Her father did not so much as glance in her direction before walking out of the matron’s office. Her mother hesitated for a few seconds before giving her one final look, bowing her head and walking out.
She sat on the hard wooden chair in the corner of the matron’s office. The mask still ate at her ears and her uniform kept her so hot she could be in a sauna. She could not bring herself to put the duffel bag down. She held on to its straps. She held on.