When I was talking to my best friend the other night, she told me that she was looking forward to reading about our school search for John… and then she chuckled. Just a little. And then it dawned on me… “I think I’m going to omit the part where I cried in the principal’s office.” “No, you can’t!” she replied. Okay, okay, so I guess I’m going to divulge all the details, and then everyone will officially know how ridiculous I am. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I thought I’d waltz into a principal’s office (at only one school), share my story, and be given an admittance form. Easy peasy. But that was so far from the truth…
Six schools and two weeks later, John and I found ourselves reviewing a play-by-play of our most recent visit. We had found a school. And not just any school, a f*&*ing fantastic school. I’m not even sure who was happier- the boy who’s whole world as he knows it was about to change or the girl who had started to lose hope three schools back. It wasn’t easy. In fact, it really sucked and added more stress and anxiety to my already stressed and anxiety-ridden self.
Giving the whole story in it’s entirety would fill a book (seriously, and yes I do hope to do that one day) but I think to understand the following, you must understand the past. John is 21 years old (he celebrated his birthday for the first time last month). He is in the ninth grade. While he is an exception, there are plenty of other ‘big boys’ (that’s what we call the older ones) in school, especially since secondary education is not free. We have a 22 year old friend who is in the 10th grade. He worked for several years and went back to school when a few Americans graciously agreed to send him.
John dropped out of school in the 1st grade. He dropped out before it ever even really began for him. His mother was sick and he stayed at home to care for her and work in neighbors’ fields to earn enough money for them to buy basic food supplies to survive. When he was 12, he went back to school just three weeks before his mother passed away. He was a 12 year old in the first grade; he handled criticism and mockery from other village dropouts well and was undeterred. The school allowed him to skip second grade and and he completed primary school (8th grade) in 2010 at the age of 19. He performed well on the KCPE (the exit exam and sole determination of what secondary school you get into), was accepted to two provincial schools (schools are ranked as national, provincial, district, and local), and was so excited to head to boarding school. But things don’t always go as planned, and the orphanage director had other ideas for him. The director sent him and all of the other secondary school eligible children to his friend’s new school in Nairobi. The children didn’t get textbooks. How do you run a school without books? They had to share their single beds with other students, and eat a poor diet. Some days they were made to work in the garden rather than attend school. It was ridiculous and nearly unbelievable unless I hadn’t been told by five of the six sponsored kids themselves (four, of which, ran away or refused to return to school midyear). John left partway through second term (there are three), and the director refused to send him to another school. So, he did what he thought he should do and started working at the orphanage. In term three, he took himself to a day school in the village and finished out the year there.
Fastforward to December 2011. John and I are sitting in a local restaurant in Nairobi with a very dear friend of ours. Neither of us had seen him since 2010, so we had a lot to catch up on. Our friend “E.” asked John which school he was attending and John told him. “Oh that is such a bad school!” I was taken aback at first. You can’t just tell some kid how crappy his school is. But E. could, and he did. “You can’t go there. If you wan’t to go to university you have to go somewhere else. Like Makuyu Boys. That school you are in is terrible.” I had tried (and failed) to encourage John to switch schools. I would pay for him to go anywhere. He brushed it off by telling me his responsibilities he now had at home and at the orphanage, (yes, infuriating) and that he needed to look after their compound. I should’ve pushed the issue further, since I knew he needed to go to a boarding school, but I didn’t. Thank god for E. John told him that he wanted to become a lawyer, and E. just shook his head and told him that he must go to a good school. I just kept nodding with the ‘see if you won’t listen to me, listen to him’ expression, and John got excited. Once E. told him that he would never become a lawyer if he stayed at his current school in the village, that’s all it took. E. is a university graduate and a good role model for John. John was sold on the idea and willing to go anywhere. The problem? The new school year started back in three days and most schools had already filled any vacant spots. I wasn’t sure if the muzungu factor would help or hurt our case, so E. advised me to take an employee from the orphanage with me. When that plan failed, I asked John’s older brother Onesmus to help out, and he was more than willing.
Two days later, on a Monday morning, John, Onesmus, and I went to visit Makuyu Boys boarding school. It turned out that the day after New Year’s Day is a ‘holiday’, so no one was around. The groundskeeper told us to come back at 8am the following morning, to catch the staff before they had to go elsewhere for some meeting.
Take two, Onesmus and I start walking at 6:45 am on Tuesday (while John reports to his first day of 10th grade at the village school). At 8am sharp, we walk through the school gates. The principal is not in, but we meet with the deputy principal (assistant principal). Not even a minute in to the conversation, and I am shot down. “We don’t take transfer students. They are disruptive.” Taken aback by this strong stance, I assure him that John has excellent discipline, and he won’t be a problem. “And,” I told him, “John was the sports prefect at his primary school. Kids look up to him.” That doesn’t work, so then I inquire if it is possible for him to start 9th grade again with the new students in a few weeks. The deputy principal shoots that idea down as well and tells me that the school in the village is just as good as any other. That couldn’t be further from the truth. My idea that this school search would be so easy quickly deflated. Onesmus told me that Makuyu Boys does have a problem with riots breaking out (hence the ‘no transfers’ policy), and I feel a small bit of relief that I can’t send John there. Plus, I later find out that their exit exam scores have declined in the past few years, and they are actually not a very good school. So, I’m a bit happy that they refuse to take John.
We take a 30 minute matatu ride to head to another boarding school on the other side of our village called Igikiro. Onesmus tells me it’s a good school. The staff have not started working yet (even though their school opens the next day), which is a red flag in my book. The grounds and buildings aren’t as nice as Makuyu Boys, and I decide to scratch it from the list.
We head back into Pundamilia, and I stop in to see the principal at John’s current school. John wasn’t sure if he had lost his report card from last term, so I wanted to verify his grades with the principal. Makuyu Boys wanted to know his grades, and I realized I should probably have them with me for my next inquiry. As we wait to see the principal, I notice a posting for the mock KCSE exams from 2011 (this is the exam that is the sole determination of what/if you are allowed to study at university). To get into a public university (public is better than private in Kenya), you need a B+ or better. Then, depending on what you want to study determines whether you needs a B+ or an A-, etc. But the goal is a B+. Out of 180 students, not a single one had an A, there were only a couple of B+’s, and the average was a D+. An average of a D+???? It was settled- John had to get out of there. When it was my turn to see the principal, I explained that I wanted a copy of John’s grades and he passed the duty over to the secretary. As we sat at his desk, the principal proceeded to play on his phone. I asked if he would like us to step outside so that he could see other parents while we wait on the report form, and he said no, that we were fine. And then he goes back to playing on his phone. What secondary school principal on the first day of school has time to just sit and play on his phone? My frustrations were growing.
Onesmus and I grabbed a late breakfast at my favorite little cafe in the village and decided we needed to make a new game plan. We just had to visit more schools and do it as soon as possible.