Monday, 30 November 2009

School Daze - Part 3

Apologies for the long hiatus coupled with an oath to abolish my sporadic occultations from the blogsphere. The third part of my schooling memoirs has been in the pipeline for a while and the fourth, unfinished though it may be, will go to print once my pile of essays are out of the way.


We arrived in London a week into the new school year. I had recently turned 13 and was very much unsure as to how I felt; on the one hand I terribly missed my school friends from Syria, and on the other I was quite apprehensive about meeting the people –friends, relatives and otherwise– whom I hadn't seen in seven years, and of whom I was inexplicably yet deeply sceptical. Most worrying for me, though, was that news of my class-topping performances at school in Syria had crossed continents and reached my relatives in London, so I had to live up to a relatively hyped-up expectation. My having to catch up on my command of the language to be as academically competent as my contemporaries was a nightmare; not only did I face the impossible task of making friends whilst still a 'freshie', but I also had to make sure I didn't seem to be making too much of an effort in trying to grasp the language, accent and overall culture so as to stay cool and slowly blend into the background, as far away as possible from what I naively and insecurely thought were the disdainful eyes of relatives, friends, neighbours, etc.

My former school in London had refused to let me join a couple of weeks into the new school year, or so it was claimed; so after much discussion and driving around the catchment area I was registered at the local comprehensive. Prior to finalising the admission process, I had to sit exams that were to determine the level at which I were to study. I was tested in basic maths, science and (very basic) English. I passed all three tests and was lucky in being sent to the advanced classes of maths and science. English, however, I studied at the third out of four tiers. I later discovered that this form of labelling systematically dumbs down students and implicitly maintains a certain socioeconomic hierarchy which most people seem completely oblivious to. In any case, all of this is just the little pretentious sociologist in me making grand assumptions; in reality, it's just a way of sieveing the Cristiano Ronaldos from the Jonathan Greenings.

Year 9 was great: Miss Fernandes, my form tutor, was instrumental in encouraging me to read more widely and practice my reading and writing skills tirelessly. Much to my delight, a few months later, I was promoted to the second level of English. The school had large numbers of Afro-Caribbean students and so I was exposed to, what was to me at the time, an entirely novel culture. Between lunchtime and the following lesson, my female classmates would play the latest R’n’B hits really loudly and dance quite.. passionately? provocatively? I still can’t make up my mind. Meanwhile, I was happy being the startled 13 year-old Arab Muslim! Despite numerous attempts to lure me to the carpeted dance-floor, my conservative upbringing was an adequate deterrent. Unsurprisingly, I very rarely felt bad about getting out of bed in the morning to go to school; I was expanding my circle of friends quickly and was making good academic progress. I genuinely believed, for a brief while at least, that I was living the educational dream of every student around the world: mixed classrooms, long breaks, funky school diaries and, most importantly, any practices involving the asaya were unheard of!

There were a few Iraqis whom I felt –quite naturally, I suppose– compelled to befriend and hang out with. They weren’t always pleasant company but it was either them or an army of Somalis or Jamaicans amongst whom I stood out like a sore thumb. It’s worth mentioning that there was an Iraqi girl in my class who, at the time, seemed like the cutest thing God had ever bestowed this earth with. I even unearthed a brief diary entry where I proclaimed that God had "blessed mankind" with her "divine beauty." I was infatuated. We were amiable towards eachother but never too friendly; our longest conversation was during a cookery class and involved me explaining the importance of saying 'Bismillah' before pouring boiling water into the sink, lest the resident jinni strikes back – charming or what! To make things worse, I was later joined at the school by a distant relative who figured out that I had my eyes on someone. Ever the helpful one, he was intent on making her take notice of me so he sat in front of her one day and said “What are you looking at? Do you want me to pop your eyes out?” She was bemused and clearly frightened. Understandably, she began avoiding me and her brother gave me a piece of his mind.

I quietly gave up but still flustered whenever I saw her or spoke to her. The moment of truth came at the very last day of school when one of my friends, in the precise moment for which the phrase 'uncalled for' was devised, inadvertently let slip that I liked her by saying her name quite loudly. The girls were gathered around one table and the boys sat around another one, with each group discussing suspected or potential romantic partnerships. When she turned around and asked why her name had been mentioned, he chuckled and said “I was just saying how you two should hook up!” I had never felt my face turn so red so quickly in my life; my head was thumping and I felt a tsunami of blood in my ears. I simply mumbled in denial though I had done nothing wrong. That was the last I saw or heard of her.

The school wasn't academically ideal by any means; so during the summer break, and after some persuasion by a caring cousin, I waged a campaign to change schools and move back to my old academic stomping ground at Al-Khoei, where I had studied nearly a decade earlier. Another entrance exam was taken and despite my failing the head-teacher's age-old trick question (“An electric train is travelling southwards, which way does the smoke go?”) I was admitted into the school. Later, it transpired that I had been treated with a certain degree of nepotism and that, ideally, I would’ve had to sit written numeracy and literacy exams prior to my admission. Needless to say, this revelation didn’t go down too well with my new classmates – what the heck? It’s only school, right?

As was the case in previous years, the night before the first day of year 10 was spent making promises to myself and vowing to be the best of the best. The following day, I was late to what was to soon become the most tedious and mind-numbing of affairs: the morning assembly. It was definitely a far cry from the near-militaristic morning line-up that I was used to in Syria. There, we stood in long queues made up of pairs and had to neatly march back to our classrooms, or else.. Oddly, I think I preferred the latter as it was slightly more interesting to take part in.

My new classroom was full of familiar faces, except for a few who had either put on quite a bit of weight over the years or had had a faint moustache, or in one case, both. I smiled to those who smiled at me and made every effort not to say or do anything that would draw attention to myself.. until I laughed. I cannot recall exactly what had happened but it was something mildly humorous and I couldn't but laugh in a way that made some faces turn towards me. That was the first time I took notice of my laugh and people have since described it with an array of adjectives; menacing, inviting, insincere.. the list goes on. A few days later, I was dubbed 'giggler.’ Not a bad nickname to be given I thought! What I found slightly surprising was that some of the people had simply grown up and that the class had remained fairly unchanged; personalities, playground politics and even football skills were remarkably similar to my memory of the 93/94 class.

Perhaps the coolest thing was the fact that I was one of four Mehdis in my class. Thankfully, all four of us got on quite well with eachother despite our varying levels of academic achievement and footballing technique, though the two sets of statistics hardly ever correlated. One of the Mehdis, MS, I sat next to during our chemistry and biology classes in the lab. We would spend the entire lesson talking about TV adverts, laughing hysterically at eachother’s impressions of them, particularly the Fiat advert that introduced me to Human League. We laughed endlessly and our fun was only made more durable when our teacher, the strangely-loveable Miss Kazmi, snapped at us and sent either one –or both of us on a good day– out of the lesson.

To be continued..