I knew I wasn’t so serious that term in school but in the viral words of Divine Oduduru, “I never experred it”.
As I walked towards the Assembly Hall, I could hear the students walking ahead of me talking. One whispered to the other: “Mark was last three in his class”. My heart sank. Our positions weren’t usually written on the result sheet but some students knew how to get that information. My legs became heavy but I kept moving one foot in front of the other, willing myself to go on.
Back then at my secondary school, the indignity of being in the “last three” meant that your name would be announced in the Assembly Hall in front of the entire school. I could already imagine the stares I would get, the looks of derision and disappointment and also the veiled joy from the person whose place I had taken. I finally made it to the Hall. The Assembly Hall was noisy as it was the last Assembly for the term before holidays. There was palpable excitement in the air. But not for me. As I settled into my seat, oblivious to all that was going on around me, I paused to think of how I had sunk so low.
It hadn’t always been that way. When I was in Primary School, I had been the kid to beat. At some point, it seemed as though the first position was my birthright. I suspect that other parents used to query their children about me, asking, in vintage Nigerian parent style, whether I had two heads that made me have better results from term to term. At the end of each term, I would typically come back home to the familiar ritual of a handshake from my father and a hug from my mother. Academic life was effortless at the time and I was loving it.
Things started changing gradually from when I got to my first secondary school. I was 4th in the first term and 12th in the second. I figured I was still trying to adjust to school life at a higher level and would bounce back. But I was already on a slippery slope and I didn’t even know it.
In my third term, I moved to my new secondary school. As a Centre for the Gifted and Talented in Nigeria, it was a great source of pride to everyone who knew me that I had been granted a scholarship to go there. In that term, I had managed to score 69%. I was far from those at the top of the class as well as those at the bottom. In that midway position, I found comfort. But I was still slipping.
My results went down from the 60s to the 50s. Sometimes I wonder how my parents felt as I was slipping. To their credit, they never showed any disappointment. Dad tried to help me improve in some subjects but I would return the next term with an even worse result. It was in my first term of JS3 that I finally hit rock bottom. 41%. Last three.
I was still in shock. But my shock wouldn’t help me as the moment of truth drew near. The Principal had been talking but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. When it was time to announce the results, I was jolted out of my reverie. I listened with rapt attention and a rapid heartbeat as our Principal stated in a surprising twist that the results for that term were generally good and for that reason, the names of those who had come in last three would not be announced.
A shout of excitement went through the Hall but I sat in stunned silence. I had escaped judgment day and come out unscathed. The Assembly came to an end with rapturous shouts but I was just glad that I hadn’t been outed. I tried to discern from the faces of my friends whether they knew my secret but everything seemed normal and I found myself able to smile again. On returning home for the holidays, I told my family that we hadn’t been given our results that term. I couldn’t bear to break their hearts more than I already had.
I returned to school the next term, put in a little effort and ended up with 58%. I was pleased at the improvement but I needed to do better. My Junior WAEC exams came up the next term and I barely managed to pass. I still remember how scared I was to check my results on the notice board. Everyone around me had several As; I had none. To make matters worse, one of my seniors had commended me for trying, even though it was a result I was ashamed to be associated with. I was broken. At that point, it became clear to me that everyone expected so little of me. I knew I had to change the narrative.
That was when I set a goal for myself. I figured being in the first three was beyond my reach but the least I owed myself was to score a 70% average since my highest ever had been 69% in my first term at the school.
For the first time in years, I put in effort to reach my 70% target. All my toiling for the first term of SS1 ended in 67%. I was glad at the improvement but disappointed that I didn’t meet my target. I guess I had thought it would be a cinch as it had been during primary school. The next term, I renewed my resolve but could only end up with 68%. My target was within sight but having spent my junior secondary days rolling downhill, going back uphill was more challenging than I had anticipated. By the third term of SS1, I put more effort to move further up the hill but only ended up at 69%.
It was getting frustrating but I needed one more push, especially as I had been increasing by 1% each term. It was my first term in SS2 and I pushed once more. At the end of the term, I found myself waiting with bated breath for my results. As I opened my result, I heaved a sigh of relief and accomplishment: 71%.
Many years have passed and many more successes have been recorded but that result was a significant turning point for me, not just academically but in other areas of life. The entire experience taught me that it’s easy to spiral from the top into an abyss because with each time I chose the path of least resistance, I found myself going further downhill. And though I knew I was falling from grace to grass, I gradually settled into eating grass as my new normal, and worse, others started to see that as normal for me. Falling is normal but getting used to the ground (or the taste of grass) should never be the case. So we should always get up though I’ll admit it’s not easy. But with every 1% I gained in my results each term, I could feel the gravitational pull of failure weakening. It is a beautiful thing to be finally able to stand up from failure. Because it’s only after you stand that you give yourself permission to soar.