The Graduate

by Esmat

My dad was there. He had just arrived a day or two before – from a long trip to Kabul. I was seven years old. Right to start the start of a twelve years journey of school. I had been insisting my parents for quite sometime to get me into a school. I had been going to another Pakistani school for a while but for some reason, everyone decided to take me out from that school. I studied my first grade there. I learned Urdu very quickly by being there. Everyday, there was an assembly where all the students gathered, from which I remember my earliest pinch. One day, early morning, I was standing there in the assembly, shoulder to shoulder, but in a lazy way, moving a little bit here and there occasionally, until I tasted a nerve-bending pinch on my arm. Apparently my standing pose was not good enough to the school’s standards. I learned to stand firm.

Early morning while having breakfast, my sisters got ready to go their school, another day for me to start waiting until my parents would decide to enroll me into a school. Surprisingly that day, right when I was looking quite depressingly into the breakfast cloth because of not being in school, my dad turned his face to my sister right before she was leaving and said “Would you take Esmat to your school today? You know show him around? Maybe he’ll like there.”

I was excited. My sister and I, we took the street heading towards the Lycee Neswan Esmat early that morning. This was the start.

I learned to read in a fast way. Even few years before being able to speak I had ruined quite a number of books by scrabbling the pages. No one got angry. They let me do that, happily. Some years later, in early primary school I was reading books way faster than any other student in the class. By the time the teacher was teaching that lesson, I had already memorized it. Quite amazed by my ability to read and write, the principle offered my parents to let me skip a year or two. My parents wanted me to progress through the grades not skip them, so they respectfully denied her offer.

Recess times I would stay in the class. I was shy. I had nobody to play with. I had nobody to do Cheshm-putakan (hide & seek) with. 

A boy. Whom I had seen somewhere in the neighborhood, came to class once during recess. He said: “Why are you here all alone?” “Let’s go outside.” He became my best friend. Although, I used to sit in the front row of the class, I often turned my face around to make a funny face to bring a smile to his face.

Teachers loved me. I was the best at whatever I was doing. Later on, another boy, whose family had recently come from Kabul, was trying to change that situation. Teachers took notice of that and gave me the right care and attention I needed.

I remember – in autumns, mornings used to be really cold in Peshawar. If you woke early around sunrise, you would see frozen water around the courtyard. Midday was the peak of sun’s heat. You could actually see heat waves on the highway. I bore all of that during my three years of primary schooling in Pakistan. Even when I was sick, had a fever, I went to school. No matter what, I went to school. Going in the shivering coldness and coming back with a sweaty forehead.

During my time at Lycee Newan Esmat I did few things which still brings smile to my face. Quite often, during recess, I walked right in front of the principle’s door in a slow-motion way. I don’t know why I did that. Maybe to impress her even more but I don’t know the reason why. Whenever she saw me there, doing my slow-motion walks, she would get busy right away with some document.

Once, while chasing a classmate through the school courtyard, I yanked my head hard at a yarn and threw myself to the ground. Nobody noticed, but I laughed.

My family right away moved back to Kabul as soon as me and my siblings were done with our finals. I took my three year transcript from Lycee Neswan Esmat few days before we left towards Kabul. I remember, the principle herself handing the parcha (transcript) to my sister while I was standing right in front of her. I felt silly remembering all the slow motion walks I did.

*

I spent a cold winter in Kabul waiting for the school to start in spring. I had no idea of how much things could go wrong.

I was to start the 4th grade.

A cousin took me to Lycee Ibn-Sina to get admission. At that time around 2007, the school’s original campus was not rebuilt. It had been destroyed during the civil war. So Lycee Neswan Sorya had given a couple of it’s buildings to Lycee Ibn-Sina. I think it was only primary and middle school because I don’t remember seeing kids older than twelve or thirteen years old. I was a couple of years younger than all of them.

I got admission very quickly.

The first day. I quite very well remember the first day. How uncomfortable and unhappy I felt. After getting admission, my cousin showed me the class where I was going, and he bid farewell. Shyness remembered that there was a void in me, so shyness filled it’s place. I opened the squeaking door of the classroom. There was chaos, madness and sounds of which nature I had not heard before in a classroom. I was used to a much quieter mode of studying. I found the courage in me to take a couple of steps inside the classroom. I found an empty seat and rested my body there. Right after I took a seat, history’s teacher entered the class. He noticed me, I don’t remember his face or his name but I remember he had a very serious pair of eyes, the sort of eyes which would cry madness themselves.

He said “We have a new student in the class. Let’s introduce him to our rules, shall we. You don’t want want to mess with me boy! Do you get that?! I am not the sort of teacher who would Lehaz (leave) your face! I will slap it if you don’t obey me! Do you get that?!”

I must have been very near to crying, that he took a step back and went about his daily business of teaching the class the history of early Islam. I felt stuck. More than that, I didn’t speak of any this till later on to my family. I was bullied a lot. I was the youngest kid amongst all of them and I didn’t have an ally. None of them were my friends – I never found one to be honest. I couldn’t move a shoulder that day in my seat after the fear the history’s teacher instilled in me. I felt very unhappy, the first time in a  classroom. I felt confused, because school was where I was happy, and that had changed. I had no where else to try to be happy. I was depressed. I remember I was depressed. I cried when I slept. I felt that was the end of everything for me.

Every day, I tried skipping school as much as I could. At times, I was forced to go. Every time that happened, I was crying inside, only hiding on the outside. I found myself really helpless in a class where every single one of my classmates were older than me by three or four years. And all of them bullied me when the teacher was absent. And teachers were often absent. Leaving the classroom in a constant state of chaos. Whenever I heard the bell of the recess session, I got so happy like a prisoner freed to go outside. Every single recess, I took the precious few minutes of free time, walking towards the Lycee Neswan Sorya’s courtyard to find my sister, she was studying there. I would be so happy to sit beside her or quickly say Salam before I headed back to class where I was bullied again. I somehow spent a year like that.

The following year the school’s original campus was rebuilt. I missed a couple of the first days of the year going to school because I went to the old place, only to find it empty. How happy I was. Then, the same cousin who got my admission told me that it had relocated. He took me to the newly rebuilt campus and took me to my classroom and found a seat for me next to someone whom I found too flabby and chubby.

Things were much better, still the same in a way. I had seriously lost my interest in doing any of the work I was supposed to do. It reflected poorly onto my grades. Every one thought I wasn’t studying. The problem was something else, I didn’t find school a place where I would enjoy my time anymore. School had become a benign place.

Later on, that very year, I got into a fight. I think the first time ever. His eye got injured. I run home crying.

After that episode – no one else tried to bother with me. They somehow feared me. I kept their fear of me alive. Every now and then I slapped someone on the face for no apparent reason. I learned that this was the easy way of keeping everyone else away from me. I spent a year this way.

*

My family moved to another street.

One day, winter of that year, while me and my dad were visiting a friend’s house. We crossed by Oxford Model School. My dad said “Let’s go and see the principle.”

I gave the entrance exam, I got in. Not knowing how much things could get worse here.

I experienced my first time of being called my ethnicity, Hazara. At the time, I was confused why I was called that in that certain way. I so learned about racism.

Things were good at the start. I was seriously disappointed when I didn’t get the right position in class so many times even though teachers loved me. Siyam, the headmaster’s son, always got the first position in class, even though he annoyed every single one of the teachers. I so learned about nepotism.

Next year, things got much worse. Many experienced teachers who also taught at governmental schools left the school. New teachers were basically high school graduates. They kept themselves busy in talking to girls all the time. That year, one of the teachers got fired because of the relationship he had with one of the students.

At teacher’s days celebrations, I always gave a speech. For which I prepared and practiced many days in advance. Other students smuggled mixed bottles of Coke with wine into the little alleyway behind the principle’s office.

Things were pretty much the same the following year and the next year after that. If only, things got a bit worse.

I faced a delusion with the education system. I had seriously began questioning everything that had to do with the education system. I believed it was wrong. And was going in the wrong way.

The principle slapped me a few times in the face, because I was saying so many things about how the school ran was wrong. I so learned to keep quite at times.

School began to feel like something I had to do, otherwise, I wouldn’t.

*

Few years later, things got so much worse that I gave my family an ultimatum, I said “I will not go to school anymore, if you don’t get me into another proper school.”

I asked around. People said, I should try Habibia High School. I had heard Karzai went to that school. Ahmad Zahir as well. My dad thought I would not get an admission there, because Habibia used to be a place where only the son of the Afghan elite studied there.

My dad and I went to the principle’s office. It turned out that the principle’s brother, used to be a friend of my dad. A close friend. His brother and my dad used to play Toshla-board around the neighborhood once when they were kids. My dad and the principle got into telling each other stories of the past. I could see how much happy both of them were.

I easily got an admission there. While other people who sought an admission, were rejected in front of us.

How much had I been mistaken. Again, I had no idea of how much things could get worse here.

Principle wrote something on a posted note and gave it to a teacher and told him “Take this to Sar Malem saheb (headmaster), and would you please take this boy with you as well there.”

The headmaster read the posted note quickly and told me to come to his desk. He looked right into my eyes, then jotted something down on the back of the posted note and told me to take it down to the principle’s office. Apparently that’s how the headmaster chose which class I should go to.

I was excited, I was happy for the first time in a long time to be going to school. How wrong was I again.

I remember my first day at Habibia. Quite the same as my first day at Lycee Ibn-Sina. A teacher came and shouted at me and told me to obey whatever he says or else I would get my face smacked. I didn’t expect that. Especially at a place like Habibia, where Karzai and Ahmad Zahir studied.

I was surprised. I was gobsmacked. I was wondering what had happened. Was this really the place where the Afghan elite studied? Was this it? Was this the best school ever in all of Afghanistan?

I went into another phase of depression. Again, telling this to nobody. I spent an awful summer. I didn’t do anything much.

Things were much worse here. I would have been really happy at Oxford Model School. But I could not go back there, it was the middle of the year.

The whole time, people shouted, cried, punched someone, kicked someone, did fist fights. I skipped school as much as I could.

A reality I had not thought about.

Every day there was a fight in my class. Every single day. If not, at least every other day. Things were so serious that students usually brought in knives and brass knuckles amongst other weapons of their choice. There was no checks at school’s gates. I experienced a lot of foul-mouthed talks here. Teacher and students both cursed each other openly.

At this point, I had lost all my faith in the Afghan education system. I turned my attention to books. I read about one, in a week or so. Winters, I did nothing but to read and write, at times, I did drawings as well. I thought if I can’t learn things in school, I should start learning things on my own. And I did, I read Aristotle, Nietzsche, Kundera, Marquez.

While I was reading, every other day someone at school got stabbed and the criminal was sent away detained somewhere. Oh and the criminal was one of the students of this very school. I was counting myself very lucky every day I skipped school.

By night, I fiddled with programming. I learned HTML, CSS and a bit of PHP. It thought me to think in new ways.

Exams, cheating happened right in front of me – books were placed on chests hidden under jackets, headphones were plugged on phones and listened to, cuts of papers with solved equations were easily transferred around the class, all happening while I was watching with eyes wide open. Some dummy always got caught red-handed with a piece of paper and was kicked out of the classroom.

Violence, to this day, is used openly in all of the classrooms.

One day a couple of girls were walking right below our classroom’s window and apparently someone from my class shouted something to them. I saw that happen. So did the Mudeer (principle) and Sar Malem (headmaster) – both of them came into our classroom and started a barrage of curses. As usual, I was amused and terrified at the same to see another episode where a student was smacked right on the face by Sar Malem or Mudeer. Sometimes they joined hands and kicked and punched the poor student together. Maybe for them that was more fun. By the time they were done with kicking and punching, the student had probably a broken nose.

Recess times, couple of the students went to the back of the class and smoked hashish (aka. cannabis), you could always smell of some cannabis if you walked by our class. I was offered. Though, I refused.

I skipped school so much that Sar Malem often asked for a Tasdeq (note of some sort) from a doctor. I was happy to do that, instead of going to school and being the victim of a knife fight someday.

I sat at the back of the class and had nothing to do with anybody.

The more the time passed, school’s textbooks looked more stupid to me. I found Talemat-Islami’s (Islamic Studies)’ teacher contradicting himself, more than once. I did not dare myself to ask him questions.

English had already become a joke for me. Pronunciations, meanings and grammar was lost in translation.

Mornings, if late, students would have stay in the courtyard until the second period’s bell – this was to make sure that all of them were crossed off in the attendance sheet as being absent. They would call their classmates and ask them to tick their names as being present.

After an hour or so at class, students would try to escape from school. Often by climbing school’s walls. Soon barbed wires were installed. Students found another way, this time they made a hole inside a wall.

Racism and nepotism was at it’s peak as always. Fist fights and knife stabbing would usually happen because of such matters. Name calling was even used for teachers such as Qado (midget) and Kar (deaf).

A couple of weeks ago during the Muharram time

Teachers often absent, students would spend their time smoking cigarets/ hashish, making a racket, getting in fights, cursing each other, if nothing else seems interesting, they would break the beautiful marbles off the windowsills and play soccer with them in the hallways. I spent three years in this place.

Today, was my last final exam – history. I remembered all the time I have spent in many different classrooms.

I just graduated from high school.

– Afterword –

I regret for the time wasted. I have learned things. I know. Maybe, a little academic learning was good as well. I didn’t get the chance to do that well enough.

I love learning and still learn stuff on my own. Nothing can change that.

Though when I see students graduating with attitudes and mindsets like my classmates, I see a grim future for them and this country.

A couple of weeks ago, a group of university students in Nangarhar province pledged allegiance to ISIS. Now, they must have been a 12th grade student like me some two or three years ago. How can they be convinced to join hands with the cruel ISIS?

Families think they send their sons and daughters to schools far from the reality I have described in this post. But it’s a true and it’s a sad reality. Families aren’t aware of the current reality in the classrooms. There needs to be awareness.

Habibia wasn’t always like this. Something happened and now it’s like this.

I have started a project to campaign against violence in classrooms. I have also began interviewing a number of students for stories about violence in classrooms. I want to bring more light to the situation of the classrooms. I think it’s really important that everyone knows about it.

In a society, where you have people that’s not morally accountable; a culture and attitude that’s promoted in Afghan classrooms, you will face problems that will leave it’s trace for generations ahead.

I hope things get better.