My son’s school usually emails these pre-primary weekly bulletins written in blue font. Sometimes I read them when I’m trying to be a responsible father, often I don’t. The contents of the emails are usually the highlights of their week. Exciting things they studied like leaf patterns, animals’ homes, painting pebbles, care of the nose, vital organs inside our bodies, classroom rules, people at/around home, missing numbers 1-10, demonstrate how to handle the Bible, importance of soil, introduction to phonic sounds, making lion masks and such like things that really consume the day of these future leaders.
Not long ago I happened to have opened one of these emails that started by saying, “In my interaction with children I have noticed that they have very long fingernails. As you know, this poses a hygiene issue as they may not be able to wash under their nails very well. May I request that you kindly clip them (the nails) this weekend?”
I smiled at the bracketed “the nails”, because you never know, some gungho parents may just clip the whole finger altogether.
Then the bulletin announced in the next paragraph that the pre-primary class would be hosting their parents in a week’s time in what they call “A Day in the Life of my Child” to observe these future leaders “engage in the learning environment.” I think the aim was not only to know what goes on – academically – in a class full of 5-year olds, but also to appreciate when they come home exhausted and want to do nothing but stretch on the sofa with their dirty socks, television remote in hand. They requested that we block the whole morning for this event; from 8am to 1pm. I imagined the collective groans from parents across Nairobi after reading that they would have to block a whole morning of their important schedules. Because you know how busy we are in our terribly important meetings that nobody else can have but us. I imagined the conversations in homes that weekend.
Mama Junior (MJ): Did you read the bulletin?
Baba Junior (BJ) : What bulletin?
MJ: Junior’s bulletin.
BJ: Junior has a bulletin? Why does he need a bulletin?
MJ: [Weary voice] Junior – our first born, he’s five, remember him? He started school two years ago. His school normally sends these weekly bulletins. I don’t know if you’ve had time to check the less important folder in your emails.
BJ chuckles. He knows how these conversations go. It’s the devil. “But not tonight satan,” he tells himself, “tonight I walk in the light of Jesus Christ our saviour.”
BJ: Oh, right the weekly stuff. No…no, I haven’t checked my emails today.
MJ: They want us to go to school next week Friday for this thing called a day in the life of your child or something.
BJ: Arrh, right.
MJ: Please don’t forget to mark it in your calendar.
BJ: I won’t.
MJ: You always say that then you forget.
BJ: I won’t. In fact, let me do it now. [Picks his phone] Next week, what time?
MJ: It’s the whole morning.
BJ: What?! Why?
Mj: I suppose because it’s a day in the life of your child, not half a day in the life of your child.
BJ: My, aren’t you sunny this evening. [Confers with his phone calendar] I have a 9:30 to 10:30am.
MJ: I also have a 10 to 12pm but imagine we just have to cancel our meetings to do this.
BJ: Lakini a whole morning in class? Is that even necessary? Will they also make us sing rhymes?
MJ: And count from one to ten.
BJ: Waah. [Pause]. Si you just represent me?
MJ: Imagine I would darling, if it was a harambee to build a school toilet in shags.
So before we resume normal programming here please allow me to recount what happened when I attended this A Day In The Life Of Your Child event.
First when I show up, my son flies off his seat, runs to me and hurls himself at me in a hug. If you have pre-teen like I do, you will know that increasingly they don’t want to be associated with you. Before when I’d go to pick Tamms up, I’d walk up and stand by the classroom door for her to see me. The look of panic in her eyes has grown bigger and bigger with each passing week. So nowadays we have devised a brilliant plan where we agree that she finds me waiting in the car in the parking lot. That way nobody mistakes us to be related. And so Kim running up to me like that before all his peers really shoots my daddy ego to about 40,000 on the scale of Universal Daddy Ego. (UDE) His enthused gestures says, “This guy here, with all his wrong choices of clothing, is my daddy and I won’t have him any other way.”
Class started not long ago and there is only one other parent when I walk in, a mother, and she’s seated silently at the corner, smiling bashfully. The room is small and bright, the walls adorned with gaudy cutouts of numbers, flowers, animals, houses, names. Standing against one wall is a motley of all manner of fancy school bags, adorned with action heroes and delicate flowery. The bags have wheels because these future leaders are truly jetset and they have no time to lug heavy luggage. They prefer to wheel them across life’s airport terminals when they are connecting through their life’s intricate labyrinth.
All these future leaders are in their socks because their shoes are outside the door lined out in a parade of fragile beauty. Remember Pharaoh in the Bible telling Moses to kiss his behind when Moses asked Pharaoh to let him take the Israelites with him? And how God got completely red in the face and sent ten plagues, the tenth one which He passed through Egypt, taking the first born of every household and how those without the red mark of blood from a sacrificed lamb got their first borns killed? That’s how I normally see households with baby shoes outside their doors, it’s the modern version of the blood red door framed. A child’s shoes at the door, is a metaphor for love. They seem to say love lives here. I can stand outside my son’s classroom and just stare at the shoes outside. It’s like watching a skittish kitten cross a road. You can always tell the boys’ shoes, they are the ones with the worn noses because at some point they just kick everything out of their way.
The class teacher is Ms Carol and she’s standing in front of the class teaching language activities. It’s a cold morning and all the future leaders are in jackets and sweaters and stuff. I can tell the children born of mothers from Central Kenya – they are wearing everything warm they own. A boy has on one of those extra hats that looks like he knows something we don’t; that the temperatures are about to dive to subzero temperatures.
The class is loud because they are five and their opinion has to be heard. They are seated in a cluster on soft mat and they are reading cards and saying things like “dabaliyuuu!” and they are laughing and Ms Carol is saying, “No talking behind there, Zamara!” She’s raising one card with a letter and they are shouting, “N…just like Naima!” and she raises another one and they shout, “L..just like Lisa, Laura, Lewis and Leeroy!. And she raises letter E and they say, “Just like Imara” and Ms Carol says, no, and they say, “Just like Ethan!” and Ms Carol says, “Zamara come here, you can’t be talking and I’m teaching” and Zamara is asked to sit in front where Ms Carol can keep a keen eye on her.
You can’t imagine how loud the classroom is. They are laughing and shouting because you can’t read a letter “M” without screaming it at the top of your lungs. One hour in, a small throb starts to develop at the side of my head. I can’t imagine Ms Carol spending her whole morning like this, asking Ethan to stop shoving or Imara to focus or David to stop removing his sweater. It’s bedlam. Education at that point in life is not what you know, but how loudly you can scream what you know. Which, come to think of it, is uncannily like Twitter. Because Ms Carol is only human, she can’t do it all alone so she has an assistant, a Ms Judy. Ms Judy’s job is to assist her not tip over from exhaustion, dehydration and other undocumented traumas like mutiny because it’s easy for one child to just stand on the desk and scream, “The hell with these adults!” and then it will all go to the shitters before the headmistress makes her way to that class.
There is also another young gentleman in the room called Basil, he’s a teacher in practice from University of Nairobi studying Early Childhood Learning or something like that. Later, when I find him standing at the main table that acts as Ms Carol’s desk and ask him why anyone would want to spend their days being shouted at with letter E and B and F by these future leaders, he says mildly that teaching these young people is purely a “calling.” “Boy, am I glad God didn’t “call” me into a classroom,” I thought to myself, because I’m impatient. I can’t see myself repeating colour blue for a week before they get it.
What colour is this, class?
Class, what colour is this again?
Good! Linda, please stop eating your sweater!
Another thing about these children is that they can’t stay still. Nobody can just sit their ass down for thirty seconds. So even when they are seated in a group, they are swaying and shoving and rustling. It’s like watching reeds in a storm. And poor Ms Carol, she has to constantly ask someone to behave in a firm but polite voice because these children, at the end of the day, really are God’s children but they also belong to parents who imagine that their children are made from porcelain.
One day my son, after school, wasn’t his usually chirpy self and so his mommy asked him what had happened and he said the teacher had “shouted” at him while he was getting on the bus which really hurt his feelings and ruined his otherwise good day. Mommy – in an effort to get to the bottom of this grave travesty – wrote in his diary asking what had happened to her otherwise chirpy son, the apple of her eye, in school that made him so low in spirit. The teacher never responded and that also hurt her feelings and I don’t know, made calls and found out that it was a small skirmish at the bus, boys being boys. I found the whole thing hilarious by just how sensitive these kids are and how much more sensitive parents are now. I wouldn’t last a day as a teacher because by 10am I will be shouting, “CLIMB YOUR SMALL ASS DOWN FROM THE CHAIR, DONNEL!” and when Donnel’s self righteous parents come to the office breathing fire and brimstone, asking for my head on a stake, demanding to know why I dare shouted at their future leader, I would fail at rolling my eyes. Then I would be fired. On the spot. And escorted by security to the gate and told not to show my mug around there again.
Anyway, Ms Carol is now saying, “Can we now play a game of I spy?” They all scream deliriously, “YEEEEES!” I feel my brain shift in my skull in the process. It’s this game where she places all these cards with letters on the floor and two different groups all with sets of cards with letters pick a card and hold it up, I don’t know, match it? It was too complicated for my brain. Anyway, there is a lot of shouting again: BARBARA HAS FFFFFF! “Well done, clap for Barbara!” Then a thunder clap ensues. Barbara in red pants and hair tied high in a bun, flashes a big smile. I sat next to her in an exercise and I was struck by the silent and mature disposition about her. Very meticulous girl in her little spectacles which she wears when working on her books. It’s almost like she had a 10-year old trapped in her body. Kim’s mommy asked me, “You like her, don’t you?” I said, “I really do.”
More parents have now come in now and the room is warmer because everybody is breathing and not holding their breaths to what might happen. We all sit on the small wooden classroom chairs that the future leaders sit on, and so we feel small immediately. The moms with really big bums fill out those chairs because they were not meant for big bums. The fathers are doing all right, our bums are not any bigger than the future leaders’ bums.
What strikes me are the kids’ fancy names. There is Jermaine and Ashadeiyah, Shamim and Alajek, Leeroy and Ethel, Nuaym and Bristal, Imara and Alyssa, Tiananette and Donell (like Donnell Jones). There is even a Lissa, but not the normal mainstream Lisa we all know, but a Lissa with a double ‘s’. God forbid if your parents named you a John or Noah from the Bible. I wonder how a mere Paul would fit in this chic modern-day nomenclature, a cesspit of insecurity by itself. Paul was a good name before the discovery of penicillin, but now, in modern 21 Century, at the fringe of the Internet of Things, Paul is as sexy as a street signage downtown. Parents have really gone ham on this naming thing because parents name their children for others.
When the class gets a bit rowdy, Ms Carol keeps referring – for the umpteenth time – to a particular magic marker. I wonder what this magic marker is but I am later told that it’s a marker which she uses to draw smileys on the back of the children’s hands if they have been good. It’s a big thing to have a smiley drawn on the back of your hand. Massive thing. It’s a mark of honour. It says you were chosen because you did good. It’s their version of Order Of The Burning Spear. And Ms Carol uses this magic marker to create order in this chaos because what day would you have had if you don’t go home with a smiley drawing on your hand?
A gentleman with a file comes into the room and looks at a very important file he’s holding. He says, “If you hear your name please leave for ballet.” We all look at him. I secretly hope my name is not in that list. Thankfully only the kids names are there because after keeping the suspense for so long he only calls Mark’s name, I think. Mark is the son to the mommy who came first for the event. The one with the bashful smile? Mark gathers his shit and prepares to leave the room. It’s 2019 and this is perfectly cool for boys to dance ballet. I expunge my snide thoughts and try to think like a modern man because anyway, ballet for men has always been considered very muscline in Russia. Mark smiles at his mommy as he floats past. Mommy smiles at her Mark. He exits the room. Later, after tea, I will ask Mark’s mommy what that was all about and she will tell me. How much his confidence has improved since he joined ballet classes. I nod knowingly because I have long decided that whatever happens in the world will never shock me. But because I can’t help myself I asked told her sarcastically, “And I suppose it has also helped with his balance too.”
The future leaders shout the letters of the alphabet from A to Z. Then they count them after which Ms Carol asks them “how many letters are there in the alphabet?” and they all shout, “TWEEEEEENTY SIXXXXXXXX!!!!!!” The earth shakes. Birds’ eggs fall off nests. Many kilometers away, the geologists and seismologists at the meteorological department at Dagoretti having tea look at each other and one – a Paul – asks the other – A Noah -, “Did you feel that?” The one called Noah munching his mandazi says nonchalantly, “Yeah, I felt a little tremor, but it’s nothing. It’s those children reading the alphabet again.”
AT 9:20AM, Ms Carol says, “OK, we are now going to the music assembly!”
There is jubilation and screaming and chairs being pushed out, and little feet running around. Over this din, Ms Carol says, “Please tuck in your chairs!” The music assembly is happening in the square downstairs. The sun is now out and the children are shaking off their jackets. If I thought the class was loud, the assembly is thundering with squealing and shouting, children spilling out of classrooms and running into the assembly square. Parents take their seats at the back. The children turn back and giggle at the parents. There are teachers and assistant teachers and some support staff in uniforms, herding these children into their respective clusters. A little boy running falls right at my feet with a loud thud and I’m certain he has broken something, but before I can contemplate standing to go to him, he’s up and running off laughing. They are like rubber at that age. Remember when they said it takes a village to raise a child? This is what they meant. Finally they settle down, sort of.
There are two big speakers and a deejay-like unit at the front manned by a bi-spectacled teacher in a checked shirt who looks like one of those fellas you might see in Mercury or Brew Bistro having a Heineken and chatting up a girl sipping a cocktail with legs crossed. The children are feeling this fella and his music. He’s the Deejay Kalonje of Kindergarten. The pied piper of nursery rhymes.
A Ms Kimani takes the microphone and says, “how are you boys and girls?” and the children say, “We are fine, Ms Kimani and how are you?” And because Ms Kimani is the hype-master and is not satisfied with the energy in the arena she says, “I didn’t hear you, how are you boys and girls?” And the children thunder, “WE ARE FINE MS KIMANI, AND HOW ARE YOU?!”
“I’m fine, say hello to the teachers.” Then they say hello to teachers. Then Ms Kimani says, “Look behind you, say hello to the parents.”
“HOW ARE YOU, PARREEEENTSSS!” They shout.
The parents, ati now shy say, “Fine, thank you, and how are you boys and girls?”
We stand for the National Anthem. (Beautifully done by boys and girls blowing an instrument).
Then we all dance a song that goes ‘Loopty loopty” and there is a video screen next to the guy of Mercury. The place goes wild with song and dance and twirling and clapping and raising hands and the piano keys pinging off buildings and they make us clap and raise our hands and legs and it’s not how some of us planned to spend our morning going by the pained and embarrassed looks of some parents who don’t have a single rhythm in their bodies. But the children are gleeful at watching the parents take musical instructions.
Chicken one…chicken two…quack quack ...the song goes. And the teachers are dancing and I know that if I did this daily, I’d not need to pay a gym. There is an ageing parent or it’s a grandparent and I look at him and feel sorry for him because at that age – mid to late 50s – surely, you shouldn’t be subjected to lifting your hands to a nursery rhyme. But this is life.
When the dance ends (thankfully before a parent breaks a leg), a Ms Nancy, who a few months pregnant and trendy in her badass tan boots takes the mic and continues to handle the proceedings. All the children who celebrated their birthdays that week are called up and asked what they would like for their 5th or 6th birthdays and they say, Five cakes or five triangles or six hearts and we all give them six or five claps for their trouble and we all wish them a happy birthday and a little brave girl prays for “this beautiful holy school and for their teachers and for the parents.” Some parents don’t close their eyes. Because you know how naughty some parents are. The kids are all adorable.
We go back to class and have tea that is set outside for the parents. The children all unpack their packed snacks; oranges, sandwiches, sausages, bread, pizza, sweet potatoes, pancakes and juices and sodas. They lower their heads and stuff their kissers. I see a boy eating a croissant the size of a buffalo’s head. I watch him open his mouth so wide to bite this croissant and each time he opens his mouth wide, I feel pain on the side of my own mouth. Who the hell would pack such a big croissant for his child? Is he going to war or is that boy doing the intermittent fasting? I asked Kim’s mommy, “can you seen that boy eating that massive croissant?” She laughs.
But then I hear the couple next to me talk about that boy and his croissant and I turn and say, “I know! I was just wondering the same thing! Why would anyone pack that for a child?” It seemed to border on child abuse.
After the tea break they started on Number Work and Activities where they roll a dice twice and then add the two numbers. We sat next to our children. So I sat between my son and Barbara whose parents might have attended the session on a different day. My son is easily distracted and impatient. Barbara is more deliberate and patient in her very serious and trendy spectacles. She probably will be in finance. Or public policy. I tried loosening her up by cracking some jokes but she wasn’t feeling that silliness. She remained focused. I watched some children roll the dice like they have been doing it for years. Those are the children who have a future in the casino.
By 12pm I was drowning in the hubbub of children jostling and moving about and screaming and laughing and the colours in the classroom were too bright. Plus those chairs were so small and hard for my bum. If the school was trying to make us see how our kids days look like, well, they succeeded in letting us know how hard it is to be a teacher to kindergarten kids. It’s amazing how they don’t go crazy from repeating themselves and the noise. I wonder how many Panadols they take in a week.
There are these guys who I see who when they take a holiday in coasto, they wake up, have breakfast and lie on the poolbeds the whole morning and the whole afternoon. And they wake up the next day and do it all over again, eyes closed, only opening one eye to suck a drink through the straw. I always thought such people are a bit off. But now I realise that they might be kindergarten teachers.