We must have been 12 or 13 when James brought the bag to school.
I was one of those kids who had to take remedial classes. Every week day from 4 to 5pm, and then on Saturdays from 8am to 1:30pm. So was James: which was why he strolled into the science lesson with that bag.
It was made of denim. To be specific: someone had cut up an old pair of light-blue jeans and turned them into a shoulder-bag.
And we laughed.
Our teacher picked up the bag and held it in front of the class. Took a deep breath, and spoke. “What is so funny?”
“It’s weird!” One of us declared.
“How is it ‘weird’?”
“It’s embarrassing!” Someone else added.
“How is it embarrassing?”
“If it wasn’t embarrassing he’d have brought it to school during the week, and not on Saturday,” someone else said.
“Why are you laughing at him? The person who made this bag is talented.”
“More like ‘cheap’,” one of the girls snorted. “And James isn’t poor, so why didn’t he bring a proper bag to school? He’s looking for attention. So he wanted us to laugh at him. And we are. He deserves it.”
“Proper” bags were the store-bought ones. Made in China, looked sleek and which were always washed on weekends. Were featured in newspaper advertisements and “the best school gear” in numerous Back-to-School offers. Some came with English football club logos, or were coloured to resemble Arnold Schwarzenegger in ‘Terminator’.
“Proper” bags were backpacks, not single-strap shoulder-bags.
“Proper” bags were placed in larger bags when they were bought. Plastic (polythene) ones with supermarket labels on them. Because “no one” wished to be seen in public with those plain black plastic bags. The ones that showed you went shopping at a “cheap” place.
“Proper” bags looked fancy. We weren’t the “rich kid” school, by a long shot. But we were middle-class enough to want to look rich all the time. An occupation that was seriously stupid, considering those “proper” bags we made a point to buy would disintegrate after one school term.
But that didn’t matter, since we’d have brand new bags after the holidays anyway.
The truth was that it made no sense to carry a large book-bag when we only had 3 classes that morning. 3 classes meant 3 exercise books. And textbooks which we kept in our desk-lockers anyway. If anyone deserved to be mocked it was not James.
Even at 12 or 13 we were “consumers”. And the first proper pangs of adolescence were starting to be felt, so everyone was self-conscious.
Thank the Goddess we wore uniforms, or the crappiness of school would have been orders of magnitude greater for someone like me, who didn’t fit in anywhere.
Except for when I, like most of the remedial class, laughed at James’ used-to-be-a-pair-of-jeans bag.
It didn’t strike me how creative the person who made that bag must have been until I was in high school, and learning to really build things for the first time.
“The person who made this bag,” said the Science teacher, who was never one to hit us or use derogatory language (an oddity in that school system), “took an existing pair of trousers which were probably too damaged for someone to wear, and turned it into a very functional item. Look at the pockets. They can fit important things like a bus pass, an ID card, maybe some spare coins in case someone stole from you.”
We were not convinced.
“Look at the buttons used to close the pockets. If someone was trying to steal from this bag they could not do it without the owner noticing.”
We didn’t care.
“Look at how pieces of the front pockets were used to make padding for the shoulder-strap so it would be more comfortable to carry.”
She might as well have been talking to a still image of some crows sitting on a telephone wire.
But crows were smarter than we were back then. More resourceful. A crow would not have taken that bag for granted.
Crows would not have grabbed that bag at break time and ran about the school squawking “look at James’ bag!”
All the kids laughed. All the kids made fun of a fellow kid because of something awesome. And we didn’t even know what the hell we were doing.
And I went along with it: because I was glad that someone else was getting picked on.
Schadenfreude can be thrilling.
The “remedial classes” crowd hated my guts because I didn’t have to be there. I had excellent maths scores from the moment they introduced geometry. I didn’t need help with science, cos I loved it. I was only there because of GHC (Geography, History and Civics) and Kiswahili, anyway. Two subjects everyone excelled at, but which I failed because I asked questions.
That school system was NOT built for children who asked questions.
James had looked happy when he walked into the classroom. But since then he looked sad, defensive. Embarrassed. And we never saw that bag again.
Shame on us for what we did.
And shame on me for playing along.
- NEXT CHAPTER -Shadows