Monday, 31 March 2014

School Daze - Part 5

Parts: 1, 2, 3 and 4.
“You’ve got a lot of catching up to do, young man.”

Miss Kazmi, my Bio/Chem teacher, spoke briskly and with no detectible sympathy.

I missed the beginning of Year 11 as I’d been visiting Syria and Iran in the very late stages of the summer holiday. Four days into the new term, I’d already missed the first few Maths, IT, Biology and Chemistry lessons that were supposed to explain the premise of our crucial coursework assessments.

“You should’ve thought about that before swanning off on holiday.”

The year had begun in a panic. Nothing weighs down on a student’s heart like the prospect of flagging behind classmates, especially if the subjects in question were as difficult to grasp as those I struggled with; Maths, Bio/Chem and IT.

The task of keeping the Year 11s in line was unceremoniously handed to Miss Asaria, our new form tutor. She was a recent teaching graduate who spoke to us as friends as well as students – a fine and delicate balance to strike. Being fairly young, she didn’t shy away from raising a few eyebrows with her direct, unapologetic tone.

Pretty early on in the year, my father decided to visit Iraq for the first time since he left the country in the early eighties. I was extremely tempted to go with him, as I’d never before seen my supposed “country of origin.” After some deliberation and an oath to pray for him in Najaf and Karbala, Mr Mowahidi, the school’s mystic-looking headteacher, allowed me to further disrupt my studies in order to see Iraq. It was an eye-opening experience that was supposed to reinvigorate my waning spirits.. but it didn’t. It left me feeling out of place and wanting to retreat, recoil and live like an ascetic hermit. People no longer interested me. Perhaps this was spurred by the turbulent home environment I was finding hard to accept; or by feeling quite alone in facing the mammoth task of trudging on. In any case, I sought solace in solitude in familiar territory – writing.

Whether in English or Arabic, I would write on an almost daily basis. Failure was staring me in the eye and there seemed no way of avoiding the plunge into personal, emotional and academic oblivion. Ensconced for hours on my slightly ripped swivelling chair, I poured my heart on blank A4s that I would later hide in my wooden drawer. My slanted writing mirrored the skewed, unconventional outlook on life I was developing.

A mild and short-lived sense of redemption was achieved in English lessons. The English teacher, a characterful and bespectacled lady in her mid-twenties, immediately commanded the trust and respect of the class. She led the pack very gently and never made us feel inferior.

In one lesson, we were put in pairs and tasked with giving an oral presentation on one of the poems in our anthologies. Whilst Kareem and Mehdi Z feigned intrigue by Wilfred Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est, Hadi and I furrowed our brows over Seamus Heaney’s Mid-term Break, a poem so simple yet so symbolic, I still marvel at its grim, heart-punching rawness.

When we stood in front of the class to reflect on the then-undecipherable text, Hadi and I bravely improvised and demonstrated faux knowledge of the poem and its moving themes, and glum, industrial imagery. Though we didn’t flounder, it was clear we had not a clue what we were trying to explain. I had no trouble addressing the classroom whose paltry interest in literature fuelled my impromptu pseudo-analysis. However, when I looked at the teacher, I knew I had performed miserably, and I was gutted.

As soon as the lesson finished, I quietly went up to her and promised I’d explain why I’d been unable to perform as well as I could have. At the end of the day’s lessons, I went to see her in the exam hall, between the staff room and the never-open fire escape door.

“Things outside school are hard, and I’m really struggling to keep up.”

I was sincere and almost pleading with her to feel sympathy towards me. She seemed genuinely moved by my defence and promised to help me do my best in school, even if that were to happen in her subject only. She also showed interest as to why I felt resonance with Heathcliff, the ominous protagonist of Wuthering Heights, the very first English novel I’d read cover to cover.

“I feel we’re a bit similar. We both want to be accepted as we are, in a world that respects people not for who they are, but for what they have.”

She also wrote a poem about the classroom in which she referred to me as “Mr Walking Thesaurus”, much to the envy of some of my equally eager colleagues. She also penned some verse that she laminated and gave me, a present I have safely stored in my box of valuables (amongst other artefacts such as a hand-drawn map of my inaugural paper round route). She recommended I read Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, as it, too, had characters fighting more battles in their heads than in their stately homes. However, when I told her that I was quite taken by Sylvia Plath’s Lady Lazarus, she urged me to be cautious lest I’m negatively affected by her accurate and eloquent portrayal of melancholia.

The whole class enjoyed her lessons; though, to varying degrees. English always brought out the most curious qualities in people. Whilst I revelled in the enforced hypothesising and second-guessing what a writer may have meant centuries ago, others found the work a little tiresome: as we entered Robert Browning’s bleak head, in hope of seeing why he strangled Porphyria with her own golden locks, someone near me let out a sigh of frustration. He then proceeded to say something that not many students present in that class have forgotten.

“This guy’s desperate. If it was me, I’d just rape her.”

He followed his quip by an uneasy laugh, as if he were disappointed that he didn’t draw more cheers.

The class fell silent. A few people, including myself, gasped. I was in disbelief by his incongruous declaration. Our teacher looked horrified.

“That’s just shocking. I have no words to say to you.”

On another, less incriminating occasion, the English teacher's foresight was being put to the test. She was envisaging what each of us would do in later life. She said she could imagine me as a nimble man of God, donning full religious garb and working away at some passage from the Quran. She calmly turned to Hadi and said:

“I think you’ll be the first in this class to be sent to jail, for dealing drugs, probably,”

I should clarify that there was no malice in our interactions with the teachers. The relationship we maintained -whilst hierarchical- was relaxed and, sometimes, humourous. The teachers occasionally poked fun at our expense, and, some of us, bit back.

The class erupted in laughter.

Usually loud and outspoken, Hadi was quiet. He looked disturbed and offended in equal measure by the English teacher’s premonition.

Alongside the eventful English lessons, History, under the helm of the hard-to-impress Mrs Ahmed, proved an unlikely outlet. I found it far more rewarding to learn about real people’s decisions and lives than trying to conjure up some convoluted, cryptic mathematical mystery and slaving away trying to solve it.

Mrs Ahmed was stern and rarely smiled. The only time I remember seeing her facial expressions change was when she realised a football had ricocheted off the wall and was about to knock her off her feet. Luckily -for both of us- I was right next to her, and somehow managed to deflect the leathered cannonball away from her fixed features. In that very lesson, hushed sniggers broke out when my friend proclaimed that Jordan was a place he’d love to explore, whether he meant the Hashemite Kingdom or the silicon-encrusted glamour model depends on whether you were a student or a teacher in that half-empty classroom.

As the most senior class in the school, we considered ourselves masters of the playground. We’d occasionally mingle with the lower years, but it was often imbued with a hint of condescension. Last year’s dubious Year 9 lot were now in our place. Our Year 10 classroom belonged to them, and so, naturally, we didn’t like them very much.

As the year progressed, I formed closer friendships with a number of classmates whom I still speak to regularly. However, one particular friend completely enchanted me. I suppose it’s a rite of passage to have a BFF with whom you make numerous vows of life-long loyalty. Unfortunately, my classmates couldn’t get over the fact that I was deciding for myself who I chose to spend my long hours at school beside, who I confided in, and in whose company I thrived. Over the years, my friendship with the gentleman in question may have taken on another form, occasional text messages and rare catch-ups, but my respect and love for him have remained as they had been a decade ago. I fail to see how loyalty withers or how love for another vanishes. The core is indelible, but its appearance morphs into something more palatable to one’s later outlook.

The class spent a lot of time thinking about where we’d be after the summer, trying to secure ourselves places in colleges and sixth form schools for our A-Levels. We paid a few visits to potential colleges, though many of us eventually studied in places that weren’t what we had initially fancied.

When the year neared its end, panic over unfinished –or unstarted– coursework ensued. The sense of foreboding was immense and impossible to bear.

On one of the last few days before we went off on our study leave, I had overslept because I’d spent the previous night attempting to write all four or five essays I had to submit for English. As if by divine scheming, I stumbled on a long-lost file on my computer called CM 00-01. Excitedly, I opened it and found that it was what I had suspected: Championship Manager. I spent the whole night clicking and hyperventilating as the screen flashed goals and offsides. I completed a whole season (winning the Premier League, of course) and slept on the sofa in hope of waking up for school. Instead, my brother jolted me out of my snooze after he took a phone call from the school secretary.

“They want to see you immediately.”

I rushed to school, arriving just before home time, and waited outside the staff room. A number of teachers had requested my oft-elusive company. First to give me a glare was Miss Kazmi, furious that her coursework was late.

“I’ve been putting my neck on the line for you, mister, and you still haven’t delivered!”

That was the first time I heard this odd expression. I immediately imagined her dangling her scarfed neck onto a railway track, almost as if she were Jerry facing the onrushing, salivating Tom. 

Unfazed, I took her words in my stride and remained nonchalant. On the inside, though, I was trembling.

Soon, I realised that I was in front of Miss Ameen, Mr Jafari, and several of my teachers. One by one, my disgruntled debtors took aim as they hurled accusations and threats of expulsion if I didn’t rectify my errors.

In the corner of my eye, I glimpsed the ever-thoughtful English teacher watching the spectacle from behind the glass panes next to the unholy congregation. She waited until her colleagues had finished berating me.

“I stayed behind to make sure you didn’t have a nervous breakdown after speaking to all of them at once.”

The weeks leading up to my GCSE exams were a period of relentless self-flagellation. I knew for a fact I was going to fail. My only reprieve was the sense of understanding and recognition I was getting from reading and writing. At my creaky wooden desk, I understood myself better and saw my life with some clarity.

On the final day of lessons, someone brought in a video camera and recorded the day as it unfolded. I was struck by a sharp pain in my stomach, and was quietly groaning all day. This, my classmates thought, was typical.

“Everyone’s happy about the last day of school but you find a reason to be depressed about it.”

I was in no mood to contest their claim, and stayed at my desk with my face down. I half listened to the noise around me and wished I were elsewhere. Later that day, Miss Kazmi read a short piece she’d written for us. Her recital was abruptly interrupted by the school secretary’s knocking on the door and asking to see me.

“Your little brother was sent out of his classroom for misbehaving and being rude.”
A prominent source of anxiety for me in Year 11 was the constant trouble my younger brothers were getting themselves in. I had to stay with them during afterschool detentions, and if they misbehaved in class, I was every teacher’s first point of call. This drained me and made me adamant to not send my own children to this passable attempt at being an educational institution.

“He was caught doodling during a spelling test.. drawing this…”

She presented me with a large piece of paper with crayon-green letters scribbled on it. At the top of the paper, my brother had drawn a stickman with two disproportionate circles around the chest area. I couldn’t hold back my laughter.

“Okay, Miss. I’ll talk to him after school.”

I walked back into the classroom and slumped in my chair, feeling quite flushed. At the poem’s end, Miss Kazmi asked each of us to say a few words in tribute of our years at the school. When it was my turn, I heard chuckles and murmurs remarking that my short speech was going to be quite Shakespearean, which is hilarious, of course. I readied myself, looked at the floor and spoke succinctly.

“This is the first class I’ve been in that has made me feel welcome, and I’ll miss being a part of it.”

My sop-speech was directed at but a few of the audience. The rest, I was quite relieved to be parting ways with.

The GCSE exams went by in a flash. Along with MZ and Hadi, I wasn’t allowed to sit the IT exam as punishment for submitting (allegedly) plagiarised material, so we spent the afternoon in the nearby park, talking about our impending future and thoughtfully listening to Seether’s Fine Again.

On the last day of exams, the boys’ class went to a nearby cinema to watch Mean Girls (starring Rachel McAdams and Lindsey Lohan before things went a bit awry), whilst our female counterparts, on the other side of the building, opted to watch Troy (Brad Pitt topless throughout), in the very same cinema complex. Whatever tickles your fifteen year-old fancy, I suppose. I opted to join a group going to MZ's cousin’s flat to watch Germany take on the Czech Republic in Euro ’04. On our way there, we were met by a reasonable number of delinquent youths who’d assaulted Mehdi Z a few days earlier. As soon as they squared up to us, all my friends vanished except for one, MZ. Whilst those who fled took refuge behind nearby vehicles, MZ selflessly stood by me, preventing what could have been quite an ugly, one-sided scuffle.

Since that day, the class has never been the same. Inevitably, our personalities were crystallised once we stopped being together all the time, and we were able to choose our company with greater freedom. Though many of them I no longer really care about, a few still play a big part of my life today.

Throughout the ten years that have passed since we left that messy classroom, some of my school friends and teachers have stood me in good stead. The school itself is not remembered with particular fondness, but some of the people I met there have been immeasurably important in my survival in the wilderness of life. To them, I tip my araqchin, and extend copious amounts love, appreciation and gratitude.

Apologies are in order for the unfathomable delay in publishing this latest instalment. Sift through previous posts and you may gather what's been keeping me busy.


Ghadeer said...

What a small world, I had no idea you went to Khoei too! I haven't been on blogger for a while so I had a lot of reading to do- thank you so much for the School Daze series, it brought back so many memories! Mrs Kazmi, Miss Ghania, Dr Mowahedi (!)

Little Penguin said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it, Ghadeer.. and I hope the next chapter is well-received, too. :) Also, feel free to pass it on to any Khoei alumni if you like..

Blogger said...

Sprinter - DarKz (170BPM)