The Time I Cried in the Principal’s Office
// February 4th, 2012 // Kenya
Our first couple of days trying to find a new boarding school for John were a complete failure. I’m navigating a country’s education system that is completely foreign to me, and trying to figure it out in a matter of days. The school year had already started so if I wanted to transfer John, I needed to do it fast. The most frustrating part is this: I want him to go to a good school. The school with the highest exit exam marks and with amenities to teach him valuable skillsets. Generally, the schools that perform higher require higher entrance marks. Well, no surprise there except it’s the ONLY thing they look at. One test. That’s it. And if you tell John’s score to people in our district they think it’s good; our district has terrible schools and his marks far surpassed the average. But visit a school outside of our district and his score is not as competitive.
Onesmus knew of a few other public boarding schools, but I didn’t want John to make a lateral move- I wanted the best for him. Once I got back from visiting two schools near our village, I did what my Western roots told me to do- a Google search. I found several schools with good reviews in Thika and thought it was a good place to start. It’s a decent sized town less than an hour from our village. The following morning I took a matatu and a motorbike to Thika High School. After signing in with the guard, I had to pause- the campus was really nice. I was skeptical. After a very brief encounter with a secretary, I found out that the school doesn’t accept transfer students and it also has a really high exam mark requirement. I asked her to please recommend other schools that would accept John’s exam score. She thought for a minute and then told me two schools. I wasn’t familiar with either of them, so I asked her to write them down. She did, though she acted very put out by it. I asked her for directions to the schools, and she seemed to relax a little and recognize that I’m just trying to put a boy in school.
I walked back into Thika and boarded a matatu to a place called Kirwara. I’d never been there before, and a little part of me was happy to explore a new village. The boy sitting next to me was reporting to another boarding school, and so I asked him about some schools and to please let me know when I should get off the matatu. Forty minutes later, when the matatu was full, we pulled out of the stage, bound for new territory. We passed rose farms and other beautiful scenery. My new friend told me when to get off and just told me to take a motorbike to find the school. I took his advice and less than 30 seconds later I was at the school gate. It was less than a half a kilometer from where I was dropped off. Officially the shortest motorbike ride ever undertaken I believe. The guard told me the principal’s office was up a set of stairs. I passed a long line of parents seated on benches, went upstairs, and was quickly told by the secretary that the line was at the bottom of the stairs. The waiting game in Kenya begins once again. Nearly two hours later, it was my turn. I’m anxious. I’ve been fidgeting. This could be it.
I greet the principal in Swahili and inform him that I am looking for a Form 2 (10th grade) vacancy. He tells me that they have no spots left in Form 2, and in fact, they are so overcrowded, they’ve had to turn some classrooms into dorms. He also tells me that I should have started this search in December (yep, check, got that), but doesn’t kick me out the door. I asked about Form 1, and he asks John’s KCPE score. I tell him and he seems to mull it over. I take that as my cue to babble on about John’s role as the Sports Prefect, the captain of the soccer team, and head of the choir at his primary school. I tell him how disciplined he is, and I explain his hardships over the past year, his family issues, his unfortunate school situation. And I feel the principal might bite. He begins to speak… “How old is this boy?” There’s no beating around the bush, so I just have to tell the principal that he’s 21. “He’s too old,” is his immediate response. I try to diffuse the situation, but he talks over me. “He will be much bigger than the other boys. You see the kids out there, they are very small. How big is he?” I tried to tell him that he’s not that big and that I may have a picture with me… but it’s too late. He’s made up his mind.
I don’t know where they came from but I couldn’t hold them back. My eyelids started to fill with tears. I felt like the world was playing a cruel joke that day. I didn’t understand how age could be the final factor in whether someone could go to school. This principal was the first person, though, that I had come across who actually listened. He softened at my concern and asked me what my other options were. I told him I didn’t have any but I was willing to go anywhere, that if he had any suggestions I’d greatly appreciate them. We sat in this awkward silence for a moment because I was trying to pat my face dry. All I could think about was walking down the stairs from his office and have all eyes on me… this crazy, crying muzungu. It wasn’t like a white girl out in this area was common to begin with, let alone waiting in line with parents to see a principal. Then to have me walk out crying? Oh lord. Blink, blink some more.
The principal picked up the phone and called another principal. He was very clever. He asked the principal how many students he had in Form 2, then told him, “Oh that’s great because I have xxx amount of students and am a lot more overcrowded.” He basically cornered him into seeing me, and once the other principal agreed, he immediately hung up the phone. No room for discussion. He told me to go see the principal at Gaichanjiru… “He’s very new, and I’m not sure that there’s a spot but it’s worth a try.” I profusely thanked him but asked him to please write down the name of the school, as I wasn’t really understanding what he was saying. It was a slight miscommunication, in that he took my notebook and wrote a recommendation letter for me to the school. He confirmed that John was a true orphan and included that in the letter. I asked him how to get to Gaichanjiru, and he didn’t know but just told me which overpass on the main road that it was near. I didn’t care. I’d find it. I had a lead, and though Kirwara was a no, I had hope. He told me to please call him after I saw the principal at the other school and let him know what happened. He was surprised what I was trying to do and told me that he as a Kenyan has a responsibility to help these children (actually, I think he was just more surprised that I was dropping in solo at these schools looking like a lost and out of place muzungu). But I really felt like he cared, and I tried to blink a few more times before walking down the stairs and signaling the next parent that it was their turn.
Thika High School was a quick no and Kirwara was an all-afternoon affair but still a no. And then there’s that whole, 27-year old muzungu crying in a principal’s office in a rural school in Kenya. Glad I can check that one off the bucket list.