It hadn’t changed much. The original yellow paint was peeling from its walls, which had gathered a lot of dust as of late. But, after all the paint had weathered over the years, it was well within its rights to decide to go into retirement.
Memories came flooding back as soon as I arrived at the school. I still remembered when I changed schools as a kid like it was yesterday. A government edict was issued that forced everybody to send their kids to the school closest to where they lived, and thus, since we had moved to a more rural area the year before, I had to transfer from my beloved old school to one that had recently been built around the block. Despite my best attempts, I couldn’t thwart the plans for me to attend the new school.
From the outside, the new school looked a picture. It was in the center of the village and was situated amidst lush vegetation. However, the inside had been swallowed up by an arid desert. It had no trees, no flowers, no birds, and no soul—just a concrete playground that was covered in yellow sand and hemmed in by fancy walls. It was new and flashy, but its ambience bore more resemblance to that of a graveyard than a school.
My old school, the one with the dull yellow on its walls, was the exact opposite. It lay in the middle of the urban jungle and was surrounded by gray buildings, but as soon as one went through the entrance, it transformed into a green oasis. It contained a beautiful garden teeming with all kinds of colorful flowers. Before going to bed every night, we students positively relished the prospect of sitting in our wooden chairs the next morning while our teachers imparted their agricultural knowledge to us. We also looked forward to playing in the palm and camphor grove, whose mighty trees were as old as the school itself.
I went to the principal and asked him to pledge that he would consider signing off on my appeal to transfer back to my old school. That got him all riled up, because he couldn’t stand any competition from other educational institutions. He had even bought a set of loudspeakers to plug into the radio so that the school’s station would be directly broadcast into the ears of my old school’s principal. Apparently, they were at each other’s throats and amused themselves by getting each other peeved while simultaneously rendering everyone else deaf. However, when he realized how remarkably pigheaded I was, he gave in through gritted teeth. He sighed and said, “Here’s my signature. Now piss off. I don’t want to hear another word about it ever again.”
Before long, my father got wind of the campaign I was waging to transfer back to my old school. Suffice to say he was not impressed by my efforts. Scowling at me and spitting the words out of his mouth, he instructed me to quit doing whatever it was I was doing. He wanted me to stay at the new school, not because he bought for a second the avant-garde image its owners wanted its outwardly appearance to project, but ironically enough, because he wanted me to succeed in whatever academic field I should choose and knew that my chances of attaining good grades on my exams would increase if I stayed at the new school, for most of the teachers working there were in some way related to us.
Eventually, I had to forge my father’s signature. I remember being scared shitless of getting caught. I had never done anything like that in my entire life. Finally, a letter with an official seal arrived, inviting me back to my old school. Like a bird that has been set free from its cage, I hoisted the victory banner and took off like a bat out of hell, headed to my beloved old school. I didn’t even wait until the next morning.
My return came as a bolt from the blue to my former teachers, and everyone at my old school kicked up an awful fuss about it. I soon became a sensation. All my teachers pulled me aside to ask time and again why I had left my new school, which featured desks with lockable drawers that enabled pupils to cease the practice of toting their books back and forth between home and school every day. Knowing that your school books would stay under lock and key on a campus with a cutting-edge security system was a great boon, yet I had chosen to go back to my old school, which was inexorably going to pot.
They were floored by my decision, because they saw only the practical perks that transferring to a ritzier school offered. No doubt everything looked better maintained, but at the same time—and this is exactly what they failed to grasp—it was also less inviting. The underlying reason for my obdurate demurral to the idea of staying in the new school, which I certainly never dared to reveal, was that I missed the friends I had made at my old school. At the time, I couldn’t bear the thought of seeing our friendship fade over the years. I know now that back then I was hardly dry behind the ears. Later on in life, they would stab me in the back, and today, thirty years after we first became friends in school, we cross to the other side of the street to avoid bumping into one another.
Written by Ali Fathi.