“Which is worse: A lie that draws a smile or a truth that draws a tear?” – Defense counsel to judge [Miracle on 34th Street, the movie]
Hi, and welcome back! Disclaimer: Today’s post has nothing to do with the TV Show you’re thinking about – or any other one for that matter!
I started writing this shortly after a few of my ex-schoolmates (@SeunAlade, @FeyiShayur, etc) and I got together [online] to recount experiences from our secondary school days. And, just yesterday, I bumped into another pal from back then who had recently become a medical doctor. It just made the reminiscing all the more intense. I only spent three years at the school, but those years proved critical in shaping the person I’ve now become.
There were lots of memories, but one towers high above all others – and I remember it more today because I don’t know when I’d see the hero of the story again. Very true what they say about twenty kids and twenty years. Even truer when they’re siblings and well above twenty!
From my very first day in that compound, I knew I was in for a different experience. For the accomplished primary school kid that I was, secondary school felt like the chaotic afterlife. For every familiar face I saw, there were 40 previously unseen. For every previously held idea of how stuff worked, there were four better alternatives. For every one thing I thought I knew about life, there were a billion I was now to learn.
My new school (FGC, Ikirun) was a sparkly blend of humans from different backgrounds and cultures. There were people from all over the country – children whose parents didn’t walk the same paths as mine, and had been raised differently. There were kids with diverse temperaments, accents, religions, manners, skill-sets, tastes for music, shapes and sizes.
It was beautiful, then it was tragic. It was as amazing as it was pensive – wildly exciting and eerily depressing. It was the time I lost my greatest inspiration, my grandmother; a time for the kid to man up. It was an escape from the confines of regimented parenting, into yet another prison: one of despondent freedom. It was everything but gradual; it was a plunge. There was no time ease into anything; you had to get used to it – or get used by it.
I learnt to adapt and survive. The kid started thinking for himself and making ‘big’ decisions. It felt impossible at first, but time began to slow down as the days passed. Things started settling into a cyclic pattern; the ‘impossible’ was finally becoming a routine. But, just as equilibrium danced into focus – just as all the chaos settled into rhythm – the bottom fell out!
I had begun to feel like a part of the system. I was learning to adapt – to fight for my place and space – when I made a bubble-bursting discovery: every fight seemed rigged in favour of a few. The dice felt loaded; it didn’t matter what the rest of us did. Things always fell nicely for the privileged – by size, age, social cadre or affiliation. It didn’t seem at all fair heading into fight knowing you were certain to lose.
However we played it, the system and the seniors had things their way. The richer kids, much like the bigger ones, also seemed to have an easy path through the many hoops. Maybe I could understand advantage based on seniority or size. But, balancing privileges on the pivot of social strata? It didn’t seem fair – but it just always appeared intuitive. How do you deny a ball-owner the right to choose whom he wanted to play with? And, why shouldn’t seniors be softer on kids who gave more ‘peace offerings’ during visiting days? Logical, not fair!
So, it didn’t take long after that realization for the fight within me to wane. It didn’t take long for me to start wishing I were older or bigger – or richer. I soon started to wish I were like the ‘chosen’ ones. But wishes have never been horses – so, beggars improvise. I thought to adjust my expectations a little. It wasn’t something anyone was supposed to notice, but someone was watching more closely than others.
I should mention at this point that my older brother was enrolled in the same school. Different hostel, different struggle – but the same school. However, with a class advantage of only one year, there wasn’t much he could offer me in terms of a bail-out. Maybe he even had a larger horde of demons to battle. Still, he saw what no one else could: I had become more withdrawn; the system was mopping the floor with me. So, one day, he drew me aside and told me something that changed my life forever.
He said the one thing cooler than just being rich was being rich without showing off. He said he had stumbled on an underground bunker where our dad hid all his wealth just to appear humble. He described, in vivid detail, the affluence he’d seen – the cars, the precious stones and regal clothes. It was wealth beyond what anyone I knew could match; stuff of dreams. He said to toss my worry and just hang in until the holidays when I could see the treasure for myself.
I remember lying in bed that night feeling like I had the world by the nuts; checkmate with a move to spare! There had been no transfer of currency, no motion of machinery, yet it felt like a new lease of life – an awakening! All of a sudden, my perception of the world about me was turned on its head. I just couldn’t see the overhyped divide between rich and the not-quite-as-rich anymore. From that moment on, I perceived myself as privileged; it didn’t matter what reality tried to say.
It was such a rush; so real the next time some ‘rich kid’ didn’t want me to play his ball, I asked him to find another field – since I had reserved that space for ‘my own friends’. The next time some bigger kid tried to pick on me, I punched him so hard in the gut his ego needed surgery. The next time the system scored one against me, it was no more than a ‘consolation goal’ – one that mattered as much as pi’s final digit. I wasn’t only back in the fight, I was one to watch out for. It was the best feeling ever!
It took many years to realize the best gift I ever got was a blatant, well-crafted lie. But, instead of deceit or betrayal, what I felt was utmost gratitude. It was a lie that, by all accounts, did more than the truth could have achieved in those years. Till date, I still question the mastery; I still wonder how my brother knew. I hadn’t spoken with anyone about how I felt – yet, he knew! And, he didn’t only know what was wrong, he knew how to fix it. That lie about he secret bunker was for me – not him. He knew all the while that stuff was as it was, but he found the strength to tell me things would be just fine.
The more thought I gave it, the less sense it made. What does it take to be such a human? A person that would stand in the rain to keep you dry – or take full blame for crap you both did. Someone that’s expected to have answers for you, despite an obvious lack of specialist training. A person that can hold back personal fears to give the assurance you need.
It still doesn’t make much sense – but I’ve come to realize that’s precisely what it means to be a ‘big brother’. It’s not about size, age, gender or blood ties. It’s all in what they’d give to keep our worlds from falling apart, and how they never fail to show up for us – even through their own personal struggles.
Looking back at that phase of my life just made me see how easy it is to take these unsung heroes for granted. How tragic would that be? Big brothers deserve a world of praise. Mine, more so – for that lie that brought a smile, the smile that changed a day and the day that changed my entire life. There have been many moments in the 15 years since that day – but that one memory and its many lessons stay forever green!