I’ve been doing some reminiscing latetly and taking a stroll down memory lane. My mind has been traveling back to my high school days: the ugly school uniform, rolled up socks and (terrible) hairdos. Growing up in Kenya I attended a private school named Braeburn High School. Every morning we were picked up in these ugly, rickety, old blue buses. A few years later those old blue buses were replaced with shiny, yellow school buses. We were so excited because they were just like the school buses you would see in American movies. And, of course, if anything was from America it was instantly cool.
But school buses aside, along my high school journey I met some people I will never forget. The thing I loved most about Braeburn were the people. Little did I know how much I would miss them when I moved on.
There was my English teacher, Mr. Manning, who taught me to write just for the enjoyment of writing. His kind demeanor and open teaching style inspired us all. Over the course of one year I saw my writing transform. I read books in a new way, I appreciated the art of literature, and I found my passion. I can never thank him enough for that.
I am still friends with many of my classmates, especially thanks to the power of Facebook, even Mr. Manning! In fact, I was just chatting with one of my high school friends and we were mentioning how, if it weren’t for Facebook, do you think we would have ever found each other? With many Braeburn alumni spread all over the world: from New York to Dublin, from Nairobi to Tel Aviv, it is hard to say if we really would be in touch.
But I would be remiss to speak about my high school experience and not mention one of the most influential people of my high school career. Her name was Mrs. Maina.
Mrs. Maina screamed at me nearly every day. It is a wonder how she kept her voice.
She wasn’t just screaming at me, she was screaming at all of us.
I don’t know how I got lured into joining the swimming team but I think it was something about “well all the cool people are doing it.”
I still remember the first day of training. We would train on our lunch break (which was an hour long) and then rush to the cafeteria to scoff down some food before our next class.
My first day, I stood on the side of the pool, knees shaking, clutching my arms, with a nervous, butterfly feeling in the pit of my stomach. I kept thinking, “why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? I can still pull out, I can still stop. I don’t think I’m cut out for this.”
The older kids arrived, giggling and chatting and giving each other high-fives. I remember thinking, “if I can be that cool one day, maybe I should stay.”
It was a cold day in Nairobi, the sky was a little dark, there was a slight nip to the air. The pool looked like a frozen tundra. I didn’t want to get in there. My mind was going between “run now” and “I can do this, I can do this.”
Just then Mrs. Maina arrived. She was a tough looking woman with a whistle around her neck and glasses. She yelled at the older group to get started. They dived in like elegant dolphins and commenced doing laps. They were doing all the styles: freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke, and butterfly. I watched them in awe.
Then she directed her gaze at us: the newbies. “Some of you are not going to make it through this,” she said (or something along those lines). “This is going to take commitment and hard work. I am not interested in playing games.” We all looked around nervously. “If you want to play games with me, just leave now.” I think I gulped. I wondered if she noticed. Could she smell my fear? She stalked us like a lion in the pride lands. She walked around us slowly. She chewed her gum and snapped it in her mouth.
“Get in the water.”
I slowly inched in. First my big toe, then my foot, then my calf.
“Just get in,” she snapped and I flopped in the water about as elegantly as a hippo.
The first day consisted of learning arms and learning how to breathe under water. I was shivering the whole time. I was counting the minutes in my mind. How long till I get to each lunch? How long till I get to eat lunch?
I remember going home the first day and telling my Mom and Dad. They were both so proud, I could see it in their eyes. “You joined the swimming team? That’s great! I used to be the captain of the swimming team when I was in high school,” said my father. I knew right then, there was no looking back. I had to make them proud.
Back at school I had started making new friends through the swimming team. Us newbies were bounded together. Some of the newbies were already standing out as leaders. We were split into three groups: A group (the best swimmers), B group (the average swimmers) and C group (the newbies). Of course, I was in group C. It wasn’t that I wasn’t a good swimmer, I was actually learning quite fast. It was just that I was lazy…and scared. My mind was still focused on “when can I get out and eat?”
Mrs. Maina was no joke. The minute she saw that you were being lazy or cutting corners, she called you out.
She used to make us run around the pool and do push ups as punishment for chatting or being lazy.
We learned quickly to not mess around with Mrs. Maina.
Her tough exterior broke down the more you got to know her, though.
I remember one day I got a leg cramp from swimming. I started flapping around and wailing in pain. She got me out of the water and massaged my leg. She told me to move it around and asked one of the other girls to go grab a chocolate. I was crying and flopping around in pain like a fish out of water. She just held my leg and told me to calm down. And when I looked up at her, I felt such a warmth in her eyes. She told me it was normal to get leg cramps and that I need to make sure I drink enough water.
By this time I was up to 64 laps during our one-hour training.
When I ate the chocolate I felt a lot better! She told me I could sit the rest of the laps out.
I sat by the edge of the pool shivering and looking up at Mrs. Maina. She was a fearless leader. She yelled and screamed. She gave all the energy she had to turning u s into champions. She looked out over the pool like a king would look out over his kingdom.
Then came the first inter-school competition.
I failed miserably.
I think I came in last place.
It was so embarrassing, especially around all these students from other schools, and all the older, cool kids, and my parents! The only good thing about it, looking back on it now, was that it made me angry. And angry always increases my competitive streak. I said to myself, “I’m not going to lose again. I’m going to win!”
So then we were back to the drawing board.
I moved from group C to group B. At one point Mrs. Maina pushed me even further. She told me, “today you are going to A group.”
“Just get in the water.”
The older, cool kids schooled me that day. They overtook me, lap after lap, after lap. I tried to swim faster, my little heart beating in my chest, my knobbly legs going as fast as they could. But no matter how I tried I couldn’t keep up with them.
When it came to the next competition I was ready. We went to the International School of Kenya. There were lots of cool kids there with cool American accents. I was to be swimming in two categories: breaststroke and backstroke. I put on my swimming cap, I adjusted my goggles and I got up on the block. I stared down at my competition like my lioness swimming coach had taught me.
THIS time, it was ON.
As soon as the blast sounded, we were off. I was in last place. Then I was in third place. Then I was in second place. I could see my competitor in front of me, bobbing up and out of the water.We were nearing the second to last lap. I started thinking, “well, maybe second place is not too bad. It’s better than last.”
But then, suddenly something came over me. ” But I’m NOT second place. I’m first place, damn it.”
A surge of energy rushed through my body as I looked over at Mrs. Maina screaming from the side lines.
The next thing I knew I was gliding through the water as fast as I could. I approached the competitor in front of me. Next thing I knew, she was beside me, then behind me and with seconds to spare I touched the finish.
I couldn’t believe it, I was in first place.
I hoped out the water and looked around for my parents. It felt like I was walking on air.
But then came the news. I was too fast! It turns out if you are too fast you go above your division (heat) category and so I disqualified myself.
Too fast? Me?
I didn’t care. I was still on top of the world.
And I couldn’t have done it without Mrs. Maina. I saw her wink at me from the side lines. She even gave a little smile.
Mrs. Maina taught me how to push myself. She taught me the importance of believing in yourself and never giving up. And most of all, she showed me that life is tough, and sometimes you have to struggle, but if you don’t work hard and do your best, then you are going to be flapping around…like a fish out of water.