“And they say, ‘Where’s that crazy girl? You don’t get drunk on red wine and fight no more.'”
– The Background, Third Eye Blind
When I was young, I hated going to school. For the nine years or so I spent going to seven different schools in four different countries in two different continents, I’d wake up in the morning absolutely dreading the fact that we had school that day. I’d arrive in school that morning with my heart hammering in my ribcage and a certain uncertainty plaguing my consciousness — I was always afraid of not being in the right class at the right time, not having done the right homework, not wearing the right uniform, you name it.
This had a lot to do with our (too) frequent late arrivals to school. When we were in Accra, the company van reserved for family use would go around Manet Cottage — and later, Regimanuel Grey — every morning to pick up all the Malaysian kids at their respective houses. There were about fifteen to twenty of us at one time, both in junior and secondary school, and as always, one or two of us would be late. Sometimes traffic would make things a little difficult, but the most fun part was always when this ancient vehicle would break down at the side of the road. I remember one such time: one morning on our way to school, we’d just left the Tetteh Quarshie Roundabout (the largest in Ghana, I believe) and turned left into Liberation Road, when the van suddenly decided to take things into its own hands… We stopped right in front of what was then the Shangri-La Hotel (which has since closed or relocated, according to Google Maps).
Everyone in the van was nervous, and little comfort could be found in the fact that all the other kids would be coming in late as well. (For one thing, we were all in different classes anyway so this made little difference.) I forgot how we eventually resolved the matter; it could be that Abu, our driver, got a couple of people to help out, but I did remember all of us getting to school in the end. Abu’s van was so ancient and nearing expiration already, so it was little wonder that this happened.
After we left Ghana at the end of 2001 and resettled in Seremban, Malaysia in 2002, my brother and I enrolled in Sekolah Rendah Islam Seremban, a private primary school offering an Islamic curriculum. Although both my brother and I were in Class 6 in Ghana International School, when we got to Malaysia he re-enrolled in Standard 6, while I was downgraded to Standard 5 due to my age. Our classmates knew us as ‘budak Afrika’ — ‘the African kid’.
The school was bloody far from our house — almost at the complete opposite side of town, in fact. Either our mom or dad would send us to school in the morning, braving through fourteen traffic lights (seven on the way and another seven back) and the horrible morning traffic. Seremban is an old city with little motivation to rejuvenate itself with new, wider roads and less traffic lights. Some of the shophouses in the city date back to the colonial period — some terribly preserved — but the most bizarre thing about this city is that it’s quite hilly, with narrow streets heading uphill barely enough to fit two cars. There is a big manmade lake right smack in the middle of the city called Lake Garden, next to which is an A&W Restaurant we always felt was a privilege to go to on the few occasions that we actually did. All of this — the lake, the land around it, and the restaurant itself, which was the first A&W franchise to open in Malaysia from what I heard — was owned by the royal family of Negeri Sembilan.
In the morning it took us nearly 40 minutes to reach school from home — 30, if we’re lucky. On days when it was our dad’s turn to send us to school, it was us who had to drag him out of bed, rather than the other way around. As always, we’d always get to school after 7.30, which was when the morning assembly started. We’d pass through the gates looking painfully embarrassed because everyone had already stood in line. Sometimes we’d manage to sneak into our class line, but more often than not, a teacher would already be waiting by the gate, ready to take down the names of late-comers.
God, I hated those times.
The photos below are of the road we’d always to take to school every morning. Sometimes when I pass through the roundabout today I still feel traumatized — I’d cringe and think about those times we’d come late to school and how I’d always show up to class a nervous wreck. The fancy gate at the left is the Istana Hinggap (sort of like a visiting home for the royal family, I suppose), whereas the road to the right leads to the Lake Garden I mentioned above. This setting looks exactly as it did ten years ago.
I can’t believe ten years have passed since then.
In Dhaka, the traffic was always so much worse. Sometimes it’d take an entire hour to get from Bashundhara where my school is to our apartment in Gulshan 1. Tardiness wasn’t so much of a problem, but when I was in Grade 12 they imposed a new rule — be there by 8am sharp, or be square. And this was a threat they actually delivered — mainly by turning away kids who showed up after this cut-off time, which means they would be marked absent for that day.
Harsh. But at least by this time we’d already moved to our apartment in Bashundhara, which was only a five-minute walk from school. In fact, in the morning, I would literally wake up at 7.30 and leave the house by 7.55. Sometimes my maid would be kind enough to walk with me and helped me carry my bag, which I truly appreciated.
But seriously, after all this, I cannot believe I actually managed to graduate high school at sixteen. And that ten years since I’d finished primary school, I’d started my PhD. It was a rough journey, but I think I wouldn’t be where I am today had I not gone through it.
So — this is the story of my habit of coming late to school when I was a kid.