So, I have a confession. All my life, I’ve wanted to be on stage. ALL. MY. LIFE.
I’ve done amateur stuff at various stages of school and actually got admission to study Theatre Arts in university but chose something else because I felt I was betraying my father by not doing medicine and the compromise in my mind was a more ‘serious’ arts degree: English in the end.
The urge to perform has only died in the last few years, but I don’t know, can dreams die, or are they simply put on hold? Each year I tell myself I should try to go up for character roles or extra roles, take a few community classes or improv classes and/or tap dancing or just fling myself into it…something! (Although I think I am more guarded now, and quite reluctant to visually emote.)
This is the woman who started me on the path. Lydia Grant, aka the dance teacher from the popular Fame film and subsequent TV series, aka the almighty Debbie Allen.
“You’ve got big dreams. You want fame. Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying. In sweat.”
These words till today, have got the ability to induce mania in me. They’re so powerful and can be applied to just about any facet of the creative process. I have the DVDs, the soundtrack was my ringtone for a while and my playlists are full of Fame songs such as ‘High Fidelity’, ‘Starmaker’, ‘Hot Lunch Jam’, ‘Be My Music’ and ‘I Sing The Body Electric’.
From age two till about 14, I wanted to be Lydia Grant.
My sisters and I would perform wall sits until our thighs felt leaden. We’d wear our one-piece swimming suits – lovingly packed for us all the way from obodo oyibo, even though there was nowhere in which to swim – don leg-warmers (ditto) and prance about pretending to be the kids from Fame. Sometimes, we tucked out dresses into the leg bands of our underwear and that worked just as well, although one kept having to stop and re-tuck, particularly after a challenging bit of choreography (for me, the high kicks were murder. I was a plump kid).
I cannot tell you how many times I hurt myself. Once, I slipped on the carpet and banged my bum on the floor so hard, I could have sworn my I compacted my spine. I’m still convinced that is why I am the shortest in my family. I’d hide the injuries because even though my mother encouraged the dreaming, the one thing she did not condone was injury or damage to property. But these were the days before the proliferation of ‘Do not try these at home’ warnings. Besides, who would have listened? Not me. The whole point to Fame was sowing the desire to try it at home.
Long before Lady Gaga came along to popularise the term with her album cover, long before Save The Last Dance and the abomination of the Fame remake (according to the reviews. No true ‘Famecicle’? ‘Fameite’? ‘Fame Fam’?* would see it. I certainly didn’t), there was this TV series that told us that we could be whatever we wanted, do whatever we wanted and that is was OKAY to want it as badly as we did. AS LONG AS YOU WERE WILLING TO DIE IN ORDER TO ACHIEVE IT.
Lydia Grant and the entire cast of Fame (et vous Coco, et vous!), thank you.
* What is the collective noun for a group of Fame fans? Answers in comments please!
Before I went to Nigeria this time around, I was always on the Hubster’s case about Tot going to school there. I spoke often and longingly of my own experiences in primary and secondary school in Nigeria; the ultra-strict teachers, cutting the tough elephant grass with a machete as punishment, the classrooms with no doors or windows, all that open space to play in, that one time my friends and I found a bullet as long as two index fingers in the sand around the smouldering rubbish heap outside Primary 6A…
“Hang on,” said the Hubster, his unibrow creasing up in one giant mark of concern. “None of that sounds very pleasant.”
“It wasn’t,” I replied.
“So why do you want him to experience all that?”
“Because…” I was confused. “What kind of question is that? Can you not hear all the things I have been saying?”
Sometimes, it is as if he doesn’t listen to me when I am talking.
Anyway, he finally gave in and the day before we left said “Well, when you get there, look around and see if you like any of the schools,” which made me very happy until I got there and realised that of course it was ELECTIONS followed by EASTER and all the schools had closed in anticipation of violence* followed by insane amounts of bingeing. But perhaps it did not matter because being home disabused me of the notion of Tot going to school in Nigeria, at least for now. Here, in order of increasing importance, are three reasons why this is the case:
3) The discipline, my God the ‘discipline‘: By the age of eight/nine when I left primary school, in addition to the aforementioned grass-cutting, I had been flogged with a cane (several times), flogged with a switch (there is a difference), had my mouth flicked (painful!), been knocked on the head with knuckles (Hey! I can smell my brain!) and flogged on the calves (discouraged for girls, because you know, we have to maintain that hot-leg thing for future spouses). All this and I still do not know maths so it was pointless.
I am smiling to myself as I think about it but I admit, that reaction cannot be normal. However, it was part of life then. Everyone got flogged by their parents and teachers; for being cheeky, for not doing homework, for having a dirty uniform, for even looking at a teacher funny. This was just a fragment of life, there was A LOT of good. But tough preventative and disciplinary action was a big part of school where learning was by rote. No one cared if you knew why the sky was blue as long as that was the answer you gave when asked. It’s the Victorian way and as at the time I was in school, it had not changed.
There are a lot of Montessori schools in Nigeria now and a lot that do not employ corporal punishment. They were some of the latter when I was growing up as well. But, I would want Tot to go to a normal,non-ajebo school, like I did. One in which I do not have to pay through the nose for my kid to be treated as a human being. It’s the general culture of teaching we have that has to change, not just that of a few, choice schools. I’m all for discipline but it has to be equal to the misdemeanour.
Not like the time my sister was flogged on the ear for innocently asking a teacher how old she was. Or my baby brother, flogged to get him to start writing with his right hand instead of God-ordained left. My mum went ballistic on the teachers in both cases but my brother now writes with his right. It was probably easier to avoid trouble – his mum wouldn’t be around all the time to fight his battles after all. For a while though, he used to write his letters backwards because his brain could not keep up with the switch.
(My kid is a leftie. Flog him for this and I koboko you right back.)
2) Paying through the nose for the level of education considered ‘basic’ here in London: Which is frankly ridiculous. Some schools charge exorbitant fees because they follow the ‘British curriculum’, but they have no flipping clue what they are doing. The poor parents who will do anything just to see their kids get the best are sold all kinds of nonsense.
Case in point: I have a set of cousins whose training my father is responsible for . Their mother was always demanding these sums for each child, close to the same amount which my father spent to put TWO of his own children through university per term. So he asked her “What on earth are they teaching them in that school?”
“It’s a very good school she said. They give them DVDs and uniform and all their text books are printed in Cambridge…”
“I don’t care what it is they give them, there is absolutely no reason it should cost this much. In fact bring their reading materials when next you’re coming and let me see,” he said.
The next time she came, we looked at the so-called material. It was full of Disney DVDs. The school was making money selling the parents ‘The Lion King’ which they could buy in the market for a fraction of the cost. It did not matter if they kids had it or not, it was compulsory to purchase from the school.
Now, said Aunty could have been lying of course, taking the opportunity to try and get more money from my dad, yes, it’s possible. But I am inclined to believe it because it is the sort of thing we do in Nigeria. You want a ‘British’ education? Then you must do everything that goes it with. And buy this. And that. Or else.*
Or consider this: My sister Whatsapped me last year, complaining that her kids’ school had introduced compulsory swimming lessons. All well and good, right?
“So they have a swimming pool now?”
“They don’t. And they said we have to pay NXXX for both costumes and lessons, if we don’t have ours.”
I asked her to take a photo of the letter. The thing did not make any sort of sense to me. Was there a provision to ferry the kids to the swimming pool? How were classes arranged? How were they going to assess the kids’ skill level? None of these things was covered in the letter. It was just going to be by age, so you could have proficient swimmers in with kids who have never swum a lap in their lives. Add to this a line which made me see red: ‘All teachers are to accompany their students to the pool’. Were they qualified instructors? No. Would they know what to do if a child was drowning?
“How many children per class?” I asked my sister.
“17,” she said.
One teacher to seventeen pupils. In a swimming pool.
Bonus confusion: They’d told parents the swimming classes were compulsory but still gave them consent forms to sign. Consent for what again? I rest my case.
1) My kid has SEVERE food allergies. Here in London, a lot of food items on allergy lists are forbidden for kids to bring into school, as some kids might have contact allergies as well (inflammation of the skin when you come into contact with an allergen). Teachers are trained to respond in cases of allergic reactions, are trained in first aid and schools have certificates to prove it. Cannot say the same for back home, and I’m quite unwilling to risk it.
In the case of Tot, his soy and peanut allergies lead to anaphylaxis. The response has to be as quick as the reaction is and then you need to call an ambulance and he has to be monitored for an least 8 hours in hospital afterwards. We are simply, NOT EQUIPPED.
It is still my dream for him to be soaked in Nigerian culture. There was/is a lot of bad, but there is good as well. So of my best days were spent in boarding school (especially when I was no longer a Ju – junior girl) and the experience still features heavily in my writing. I learnt so many life skills that if the apocalypse were to befall us, I would most likely survive. I’m not bragging. I just would.
However, for now, the challenges are overwhelming and so this may remain a dream for a little while longer.
Good memory: In the photo above, the PE teacher made some of us take off our socks and trainers so that those who could not afford any for sports i.e. had only sandals, did not feel inferior/left out. The girl still wearing hers arrived just as the photographer was about to click the button and was allowed to stay. We learnt football that day. I sprained my toe and never played again.
* Election violence luckily did not happen (or happened in a very small number of areas in Rivers State when some idiots tried and failed to hijack the process). We conducted our elections beautifully!
* My sister, Pastor, had to have a baby in a Lagos hospital. She had her delivery bag packed months ahead, checked and updated it regularly and was sure to carry it when it was time for her to go to hospital. When she got there, they made her buy the hospital’s ‘Delivery Pack’ never mind that hers had everything, otherwise they said ‘she would not get a bed’. She had to take the receipt to another nurse before she was finally admitted. This is the sort of shit we do in Nigeria.
Don’t get me started on her ante-natal classes. Say you were in labour and you showed up at a hospital, they would make you pay ante-natal fees for all the classes you missed (even if you had done classes at some other hospital) before they let you in. Not all hospitals behave this way. But A LOT of them are insane like this. What are you going to do? Not have your baby?