“Tho’ much is taken, much abides…” — Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
Whereas the army may tear you to pieces to put you back together again, I learned the hard way that Covenant University just did the first part and called it a day. “Covenant is the best university in Nigeria,” is something I heard a lot from my father that year, along with their accolades and accomplishments as an institution. I, on the other hand, was not as excited as he was. I remember in the interview when the woman at the table asked if I was a born-again Christian, a term that still gives me headaches. As I told the sour looking woman that I was Catholic and for the most part, we just didn’t roll that way, she wrote something down on her imposing piece of paper. Questions about alcohol and drugs were answered with the same apathy. I was asthmatic and hated the taste of anything that wasn’t sweet or bright coloured (bright wrapping with cartoons was a must), I wasn’t exactly a party animal, even at sixteen.
“So, you don’t smoke?” She prodded, “Not even a little?”
Nonetheless, I got admitted. I don’t know which was more shocking, my father’s thought that I would be ‘changed’ by the system and come back ‘sober’ and ‘reflective’ or the fact that I was in university and I couldn’t use my phone. A few days would pass before I found out that their ‘no phone’ policy was actually one of their less daunting rules. You hardly think things can get worse before they actually do.
Still, I was in the ‘best private university in Nigeria’ and therefore, my right to complain was taken and given to other people who beat me in the Suffering Olympics. The first semester opened my eyes about the place, and I remember looking at my mates as they jotted down carefully what their ‘Papa’ was saying and thinking, Wow. Ah, yes, the chapel was the one place where most of my problems would begin, thrive and throw parties on weekends. During my first semester, I used to wear my Catholic ‘rosring’ and a band that had pictures of the saints. I left the chapel at some point during a service because I was feeling dizzy when I heard a shrill voice call behind me.
She approached me with hungry eyes not unlike a lion cornering its prey, her gaze fixed on my wrist. “You there! Remove that nonsense from your wrist and give it to me.”
I’d been faced with angry Pentecostals before, who for some reason, regarded everything outside their own sect to be sacrilegious. She looked at the beads like the saints were somehow insulting her, taunting her even. “Good morning, Ma,” I said, trying for my best polite voice. “I’m sorry but this isn’t jewellery, I use them to pr — ”
“I didn’t ask you for an explanation,” she said, her hand outstretched. “I told you to remove them and give them to me.”
“But ma, you see, I’m Catholic and — ”
“And so? If you wanted to wear you beads, why didn’t your religion build a school you could go to?”
And so, after getting my catholic prayer beads and rings seized and more verbal abuse, I signed my first offence form which wouldn’t be my last. It also wouldn’t be the last time I was cornered by a school official. My future in the school would be punctuated with more physical and verbal abuse, which actually isn’t rare in Covenant. ‘Insubordination,’ I learnt, was their favourite word, next to ‘indecent dressing.”
Anybody with more than two brain cells can tell you that protestants and Catholics belong to the same religion but then again, arguing with people older than you in Covenant, Nigeria even, was like spitting on their faces. Apparently, while I wasn’t looking, someone had made an age threshold where, once passed, you became right, entirely, for the rest of your life. You could, say, proclaim the sun was blue and was driven by hamsters in sunglasses or, run a school that dehumanised students and your sycophants would nod their heads, muttering amongst themselves about how smart you were.
Though, at a point, I tried to make it work, it came as a surprise to my father and a gentle nudge to me when I got suspended for four weeks after missing the Youth Alive services. After a whole year, I have a lot of excuses as to why I didn’t go but the truth is, it just didn’t make sense to me anymore. Exams were literally beginning the next day, why should I devote five days of my life involved in strange worship and prayer? Of course, actions have their consequences and I got mine.
Getting suspended is one thing, facing your parents after you get suspended is another. The problem was with my father. At home, both of us don’t even go to church. I’m not sure of his reason but I just became uncomfortable with the whole idea. You could tell he wanted to be angry, he wanted to explode, but, how could he? It’s not like I was doing drugs or involved in a gun fight. And even he didn’t roll with the church scene, could he then blame me for making my choice and doing the same? So, he chose the path of quiet but decisive resignation, reminding me at every turn he got, exactly how I had failed.
At sixteen, I was well acquainted with his disappointment but more, my disappointment in myself wore me down. I felt ashamed, like I truly was a failure undeserving of anything good. Maybe I was, maybe I am. Even while I was home, like my father, I still didn’t go to church, though, this time, in exchange for apathy, hate came and filled the space. Christianity wasn’t a religion anymore but rather the cause of another reason for my father to be ashamed of me, another nail on the cross. I had never had academic issues in my life but because I was suspended, I couldn’t even write my semester exams. In fact, that’s how I knew I got suspended. I had studied all night for a paper only to come to the exam hall and find out my name ‘wasn’t on the approved list’.
Of course, when you don’t write exams, you fail them, automatically. All your courses, and that reflected in the results they sent my father.
That whole summer would pass before my father would pivot saying that maybe this wasn’t the best choice for me after all. I was too ‘wilful,’ ‘stubborn,’ and ‘restless’. But maybe one more year would do. You hardly think things can get worse before they actually do and when Covenant allowed me to come back and write makeup examinations, I was reminded, painfully, of how worse things could get in the coming semester. But that was in the far future, for that moment, I was just a sixteen-year-old boy who had failed himself and his parents, staring at his laptop at 3am in the morning with bloodshot eyes, looking, searching, for a way out.