Documenting an event or an experience that is 50 years old, in the heat of its celebration, without a previous consideration, is a hard job any day. So it is, recalling the beginnings of my Alma Mater and my pioneering studentship therein, on the occasion of the School's Golden Jubilee. It is not any easier, particularly because the memory has indeed become-in large parts- a blur, nostalgic though sweet!
However, as a matter of fact, the founding of Esan Grammar School has become a part of my family history. This is because my own mother, too, was a pioneering councilor of the Uromi-Uzea District Council that brought (or rail-roaded) the School into being in 1956, and she remained so for the first three years of its teething establishment. That fact, however, did not feature nor guarantee for me a place among the first students, whose selection was done by the pioneer principal, the Reverend Father James Byrne, in the decisive interview of successful applicants that was conducted at the Catholic School (now Okpuje Primary School), Uromi. Besides, I was already prepared to attend the older, more established, far-away Urhobo College, Warri, which had earlier admitted me, but my mother who doted on me-her first son in a brood of older female siblings-wanted me nearby where she could keep an eye on me and thereby have her peace of mind!
In a couple of weeks thereafter, the first 24 of us were shepherded into a single block of the Local Government Primary School at Ubierumu village as boarders-some seven kilometers from the town-centre, in the evening of 24th September, 1956. The adjoining smaller block was partitioned into a bedroom and car park for the principal! Nothing could be more earthy and rural than such a setting and circumstance. Yet, frankly, we were unable to make the distinction at the time, due to our innocence and the giddiness we felt at that moment of a unique educational establishment. Two weeks later, our number swelled to 66 with the arrival of another batch of fresh students to form a stream of two classes.
We 'barracked', as it were, at the Primary School for about two school terms before moving across the old Uromi-Agbor Road to the permanent site of the college the following year. The only remarkable recollection and incident during the period, beyond my previous primary school experience, was the sad expulsion of a classmate through the betrayal of another intolerant and exuberant school mate who ignored all entreaties to the contrary! Our teaching staff was decidedly small, because I cannot recall any other faces beside those of the Reverend Principal and the late Mr. A. U. Okokhere, who both did all the teaching!
THE TEETHING PERIOD
Our relocation to the permanent site in the middle of l957 brought with it a lot of realities and challenges which came to the fore. The new premises was a vast hectarage of grassland and woodland which practically secluded us as if in a hermitage. With foresight, the school authorities had ensured that an appropriate percentage of the student body consisted of men to whom physical work or exertion was commonplace. Otherwise, the rest of us of normal school age would have been overcome by the great number of stumps that needed to be uprooted to create free space and playing fields. Predictably, by the end of the third year, when they had apparently fulfilled their physical promise and one could ironically actually then see the trees for the wood, most of these mature men had been rusticated for their academic inability, as their brawn invariably failed to support or supply the brains required for grammar school education!
Another handicap was that the School had no water in the premises, nor was there any nearby stream or river for us to fetch water for cooking, washing, planting or gardening. There was an underground tank though, dug and cast in concrete, into which a motor tanker infrequently pumped water sucked from a far-away stream. Daily therefore, each student had to make do with a bucket of water that provided no more than a gallon and half. Without exaggeration, in the early days, many of us had to supplement or economize our water usage by gleaning early morning dew from the grassed football fields to wash our hands and feet for school! Indeed, sometimes, sharing water from the tank to the students was invariably the cause of many a fight, bad blood and indiscipline between and among them.
OUR EDUCATIONAL RESOLUTION
In the midst of these realities, it began to dawn on us to compare our general circumstance with what obtained in other schools whose students corresponded with us regularly. After subsequent interactions with such colleagues during holidays, self-doubt and a sense of self-worth began to gnaw us as to the quality or usefulness of our education and self-sufficiency.
This veneer of concern, fortunately, rather than depress, instead challenged and motivated us to develop a strong culture of personal studiousness to be worthy of an extraordinary standard of secondary school education!
Innovating, I was in the vanguard of students who formed an informal reading club whereby we exchanged all kinds of available literature-personal, borrowed or from the school library-to acquire not only knowledge per se but also to develop reading speed, such that in a short while we were each capable of charting or preparing and determining an appropriate time-table for any amount of reading we needed to accomplish for our pleasure or examinations, under any circumstance without apparent strain!
The result of this struggle for self-actualization was soon fruitful because, by the fourth year of the school's existence, a crop of us had privately, ably written and obtained the London University's General Certificate of Education (Ordinary Level). In fact, three of us, without additional private tuition, went on to write and passed the Advanced Level of the GCE, about the same time our classmates wrote their School Certificate Examination (equivalent to the GCE/OL)! By then, the toga of inferiority that might have haunted us, vis-a-vis the older Schools, was shed forever.
LEARNING SOCIAL GRACES
Our pioneering experience as boarders was a chartable learning curve, not only in academics but also in social behaviours, especially table manners which were taught and supervised strictly by our successive reverend principals and their assistants, as well as other missionary and expatriate white or coloured teachers who continually formed a visible part of the teaching staff. From the beginning, the expatriate staff took turns to sit at table with us during dinner and they showed us how to handle or use cutlery in every circumstance and on all occasions. Our pioneer principal, Rev. Byrne, was certainly a Roman Catholic saint, who taught us the fear of God and moral certitudes which have remained our signposts in life. He would literally weep, were we seen to waste food! But his successor at the end of our third year, Rev. J.J. Dunne, was practical and a class of his own. Tall and ramrod, he was a doer and sportsman who brooked no nonsense. Yet he was humane. An Oxford blue, he was vast in the ways of the world; he inculcated in us the spirit of boldness and the values of truth, integrity, loyalty and uprightness in all circumstances.
On memorable occasions, he went out of his way to defend us against external intrusions, even on matters outside the school's purview. We owed him a lot of what most of us have excelled in today.
OUR EARLY MOULDERS
There were other memorable teachers, mostly young Africans: precocious and ambitious, even though they were just recently graduated West African School Certificate holders who were themselves preparing feverishly for higher education. Fortuitously, we constituted their testing grounds and guinea-pigs to concretize their own formative and burgeoning knowledge. They bombarded us with quotable quotes in the various subjects (raw and hot in the manner they had themselves been taught) and thereby fired our young, receptive minds in similar pursuits. Among this group of teachers were the Akumabors, one of whom is a Professor of Medicine, late Pius Eigbiremolen, lsichei (a nationally acclaimed professional Accountant), Umeh and Omoregie of the "aimbic pentameter" fame and now retired University Don (both of whom were pioneer under graduates of Nigeria's first full-fledged University, Nsukka in 1960), Fidelis Oyakhilome (now a Retired Deputy Inspector-General of the Nigeria Police and one-time State Military Governor) and (Dr.) John Aire, a former University Don, ex-transnational Industry Captain and still a Board Player in the Nigerian Capital and Industrial Markets. In the midst of these effervescent, academic rookies were the brilliant occasional but seemingly cleft-mouthed Indian Teachers whose peculiar English phonetics was a delightful stream of competitive malapropism, and the inimitable English couple, Mr. & Mrs. Benson (or was it Mencer?), whose skimpy dressing left little to the imagination and kept us gawking and distracted most of her excellent teaching periods!
A HEALTHY MIND IN A HEALTHY BODY
Sport was an integral part of our total education. It was not optional, and no student suffered ridicule on the state of his academics for his sporting activities or involvement therein. In fact, the Latin maxim "mens sana in compare sane" ( a healthy body incorporates or engenders a healthy mind) prevailed as a general consensus. So, sporting excellence was as rewarded as academic brilliance among staff and students and neither discipline nor inclination suffered one for the other.
Practically, the principal, especially Rev. Father Dunne (true to his background), was wholeheartedly involved in promoting and sustaining the sports culture. Indeed, every year's sports calendar was faithfully followed and executed to fruition. For an example, if it was the football or athletics season, the Principal would hire a bus from the public park for the school team and he would personally drive it to all the venues throughout the duration of the competitions or matches. To us (Sports Argonauts indeed!), his personal involvement was sufficient inspiration, endorsement, motivation, encouragement and assurance for us to perform at a peak while, pari passu, it engendered and nurtured an atmosphere of camaraderie between him and us - creating a harmony, as it were, of genuine purpose and good result! And the results showed: as young as Esan Grammar School was, our performances in Sports as well as academics were instantly notable and they indeed reverberated throughout the then Western Region of Nigeria.
There is no better platform than this occasion of our Golden Jubilee to record for posterity some of the outstanding pioneer students who set the Sports Arena alight in the days of yore!
• Re-enforcing that Charity begins at home, I was the Sports Captain – a title or designation that truly reflected or embodied my multi¬dimensional participation and performances, as the school records would authenticate.
• Late Foreign Service Career Diplomat, Fred Osobase, was a striker par excellence whose positioning and acceleration, that belied his short but sturdy build, remain a challenge in modern football.
• Victor Ezenwobi was a natural left-winger whose cross-field passes and corner-kicks were a delight-they showcased the weighted passing technique
• Peter Ukpetena, once the Football Captain, had a mountainous enthusiasm about the game that infected his colleagues to superlative performances
• Pascal Okoduwa, now a University Don, exhibited a relaxed masterfulness as an overlapping ace at the left side of defence Macaulay Akhimien, the reigning Onogie of Ekpoma, was a solid back, indifferent to tackles and unmindful of any dangers to his eventual royal inheritance
• John Mogbolu-an all-rounder, who was a gazelle in the sprints as well as a remarkable soccer midfielder
• Late (Major) John Okundaye, a virtuoso and wizard of dribbles, whose displays seemingly orchestrated unforgettable tapestries of actions-in-motion!
• Jafaru Unuane-a master header of the • ball whose versatility ensured he was the ready substitute for any positron of play in emergencies, especially the crucial goal-keeping in any send-offs.
• Francis Okoh, first-choice goalkeeper (nick-named FODO), who defended his posts rather suicidally with all parts of his body, even as he often wept concurrently in pain!
• Theophilus Okojie, alternate goalkeeper, whose full-stretch saves and clutching of the ball seemingly out of the thin air were artful, as he was similarly silhouetted uncountably, in his sparseness and leanness, during his flighty jumps.
• Wellington Okirika, the middle distance running marvel, whose entire body seemingly oxidized with such a refreshing coolant that he manifestly ran his races with tireless exuberance. He was a nightmare to rivals.
• Peter Omeike whose horsy gait in the sprints intimidated rivals no end, and
• Late young Oni Omoregie, the most naturally gifted sprinter of our generation.
A cherished memory of my life in college was the reputation or appreciation I won or earned as a truthful student – a fact that was often showcased by especially new expatriate staff. I wasn't aware of the regard initially. But it stemmed from living the advice my mother had given me when I was leaving for college.
She had admonished me, "My son, I hear your principal and some other staff will be white. So whatever happens in your college, always tell the truth because white people hate lies".
I took the advice to heart, and my faithful conduct of it also marked my general relationship with co-students and my fond justification and defense of juniors whenever they became victims of bullying seniors.
What developed was the pattern that every new expatriate teacher who came into the class always, inexplicably, first established my identity before requesting my classmates to introduce themselves! I got to know later from one of the Nigerian Tutors that they did so on the advice of the School Principal.
Indeed, I enjoyed being on the side of the so-called underclass but carried such identification at school to an unbecoming elevation in certain group practices. As unexpected as the participation might seem, I infrequently served at Mass. Therefore, imitating its purpose as a symbol for the purgation of sinfulness, our group – before the prep class period some days of the week-would pretend to be father – confessors to cooperative, fun-loving students who came to us in the open field to confess their imaginary sins for our forgiveness. After 'absolving' them, we would serve them communion with the stolen unleavened bread which Francis (alias FODO), as the school's sacristan, brought for us! lnfact, I was a 'bishop' to whom grave sinfulness was referred for consideration, if they were considered to be beyond the remission of the ordinary student 'priests'! No wonder that in the midst of such juvenile aberration, the principal, the reverend Father Byrne, would not baptize four of us, including late Fred Osobase and Theophilus Okojie, for our perceived rascality, until our third year, when we had practically recited by heart the hundreds of answers to the questions of the whole Catholic Catechism booklet! It was not that our role as rogue priests was ever discovered!
As it was, our aforementioned foursome won continually all the religious exams that were conducted at each term's end and, rubbing insult into injury, we would, in the very presence of the reverend principal, distribute our prizes like books, periodicals, rosaries and crucifixes to his beaten favourites!
But we thank God that we have become born-again, although on reflection, whatever we had done, weren't malicious but sheer manifestations of burgeoning adolescence.
THE END JUSTIFIES THE MEANS
Space here constrains reminiscences and a lot has to be left to the imagination. But hindsight reveals that youthfulness is the greatest period of humanity. Our, my period in Esan Grammar School was unforgettable for many reasons, not least of which was our cloistered environment cum upbringing and the joyful innocence of our constant communion with the villagers of the host community of Ubierumu, over which experience I often chewed the proverbial curd. How could one forget and not relish the vivid and toothless mirthfulness of the granny who observed and acknowledged us one evening at 7.30 p.m. during our outing to the village: "These beautiful children, how wonderful that you are able to speak English at night!" 5O years on, that is still a remarkable statement, if only for the progress that has been made all-round since then!
End of Story by OLD BOY, ANDREW MASADE