I wish I could just go back home. Schola thought to herself. Why did mum insist I go to school today of all days? She had been sitting in the toilets for the last 15 minutes trying not to cry. From the first day she walked into her 11 grade class the whispers had followed her. It wasn’t just that she was currently one of just about five black students who attended St. Patrick’s Preparatory School, a school which had to be the cream of the crop of private schools in the wealthy Chicago suburb of Evanston, she was also African. African with an atrociously long name. The curious stares of her classmates had changed to snickers when they heard her name.
Ngengenenge Scholastica Mbaya-Nfor.
The name was irredeemable. During her first week of school she had tried to think of ways she could shorten it. That had proven unsuccessful. Her name was a mess of double consonants that were simply beyond the linguistic ability of the staff and students of her school, it seemed. Even her Christian name was no better. She wished her devoutly Roman Catholic grandmother had picked another name. Elizabeth, maybe. Then she could just be Liz, or Beth. But she was Scholastica. After trying and tripping over Ngengenenge countless times, her teachers and school mates had taken to calling her Scholastica, almost always accompanied by the barely suppressed laughter. She’d quickly started referring to herself as Schola. The name had caught on and she’d just started to develop a thick skin to the ridicule. Then Ebola epidemic happened.
Suddenly, she was now Schola-bola. She heard the name whispered in the halls as she walked to her locker. It didn’t matter to the students that she was from Cameroon, a country not anywhere near the current hot zones. She was African and that is all they needed to know. It also didn’t help that she’d just arrived the US from Cameroon, that summer. Being newly arrived meant an added layer of perceived threat. Her classmates shied away from her and even Kate, her lab partner for chemistry, who Schola considered her only friend had begun to act funny. She probably thought Schola hadn’t noticed that when they were in chemistry lab, she constantly wiped down their work surface with acetone, even when there had been no spills.
When Schola had told her mother what was happening, her mother told her to develop a thick skin.
“People in this country will always find something to accuse you off as long as you’re not from here,” she had said. “You have to learn to live with it.”
Her mother would know. She was a Gynecologist/Obstetrician and was currently embroiled in a malpractice lawsuit. A patient of hers had died during childbirth and even though all indications pointed to the fact that the patient was a high risk patient: a woman in her late 40’s with un-diagnosed cardiac disease which the autopsy had revealed, she had also been the wife of a wealthy Evanston investment banker who had lost a wife and an unborn baby. The husband was deep in grief and had even deeper pockets. He was convinced that her mother’s incompetence – stemming from the fact that she had completed her medical education in Cameroon and not in the US – was the reason why his wife had died.
This morning, Schola had woken up with an itchy nose and throat. When this happened to her back in Cameroon, it usually meant within the course of the day she would develop a runny nose, start sneezing and possibly a fever and a head ache too. She had begged her mother not to let her go to school but her mother had been convinced she was just trying to get out of going to school and had refused to listen to her explanations. Schola had asked her to call her grandmother in Cameroon, who had raised her while her mother tried to get into a residency program and establish herself as a doctor in the US. Mama knew Schola’s aches and pains well and would have confirmed her claims, but her mother had refused adamantly. Schola had donned her uniform and tried to keep her tears at bay as her mother drove her to school. Surely enough, she’d begun sneezing and blowing her nose during English class and predictably, her classmates had acted like she was patient zero for the Ebola apocalypse.
She’d excused herself and made for the bathrooms, where she now sat. She heard the bell go off for lunch time and then the rush of footsteps and animated sounds of students leaving class. She wondered how long she could stay in the bathrooms before someone would notice she was missing. The door opened and girls poured into the toilets. Snippets of conversations swirled around her. The conversations ranged in topic but they were mostly about boys, peppered with “ohmigawds” and “totally” and “Snapchat” and “Facebook.” Schola felt like an alien at this school. Her world was so different from theirs. By all accounts she had been born into the lap of luxury, compared to her peers back in Cameroon. Between her mother who was a doctor, her father who even though divorced from her mother, had stayed in her life showering her with gifts, and her doting grandparents, she had never wanted for anything. But the students at St. Patrick’s took luxury to another level. They vacationed in the South of France, their parents had homes in exotic locations around the world and even owned private jets. Even their pencils had some designer label attached to them. Their conversations sounded like the conversations of regular American teenagers until you realized that the “Uncle Larry” the girl next to you was talking about was actually Larry Page of Google fame.
Schola wished for her days at G.B.H.S Bamenda. At G.B, as they had fondly referred to their school, it would not have been so bad. She would have fit right in. Ebola would have been a minor worry to most Cameroonian students, despite the fact that the country was probably at a bigger risk for an epidemic than the US. They would have made jokes about it too, but the jokes would have been lighthearted. Less vitriolic, not intended to make anyone feel like a subhuman being – an outsider. Also, there were a few children with more complicated names than hers. Even by Cameroonian standards, Ngengenenge was a complicated first name for a girl but she had shortened it to Ngenge and that had been easy enough for everyone. She’d caught some teasing for her English name but it was so rarely used that had not lasted long. Besides, there were Banso children with names like Hilaria, Chrysogonous, Kizito or Relindis to tease. As a very Roman Catholic tribal group, the Bansos were notorious in Cameroon for giving their children the names of saints – more esoteric the better. Coupled with the fact that regular Banso names were tongue twisters in their own right, Banso children almost always were the targets of teasing. There would be Fondzenyuys and Mbiydzenyuys. She’d actually had a classmate called Chrysogonous Ndze Mbiydzenyuy. She remembered how they had laughed at him and felt a twinge of guilt.
I need to snap out of this. She thought to herself. The bathroom crowd had thinned out with just two other girls in the bathroom. She could hear them talking about some girl named Cheryl who apparently had herpes. She unlocked her stall’s door and stepped up to the sink to wash her hands. The girls paused their conversation when she stepped out. She didn’t recognize them but they recognized her. One of them took an exaggerated step away as she reached for paper towels. Schola sighed deeply. Simply going to the school nurse, telling her she did not feel well and asking for permission to go home would be a better solution right now. There was no way she was sticking around to be laughed at. She dried her hands and made for the door.
The first shot rang out as she stepped into the hallway. She watched in stunned confusion as a girl, about 5 feet away from her fell to the ground after a spray of red emanated from where her head used to be. Around her students screamed and pandemonium ensued. The shots continued and Schola stood rooted to the spot, fear and shock rendering her paralyzed as she watched the carnage unfold. He wore their school uniform. Tall and lean with wavy black hair and the glowing tanned skin of the American upper-class, he would have been just another boy in the halls, if not for the gun in his hand. The gun with which he was methodically shooting his fellow school mates as they tried to get to safety. Schola found herself counting. He fired fifteen times, and then stopped.
The fire alarm was ringing, the water sprinklers had been automatically turned on when the alarm was pulled. It sprayed water everywhere drenching everything in the vicinity. In the distance, Schola could hear the sound of screams, running feet and doors slamming shut. Police sirens sounded in the distance. The smell of heated metal hung in the air, mixing with the equally metallic but more organic smell of blood. Around her students lay on the ground, motionless – dead or unconscious. Others rolled around groaning and crying having either been shot or trampled upon during the stampede.
Schola stood frozen, directly opposite the killer. He slid the apparently empty clip out of the gun and put in a new one, reloading with small economical movements. She watched him, paralyzed, unable to run. It felt like a nightmare. One of those nightmares where you knew danger was imminent but you somehow found yourself unable to move. The part of her brain that had not been shut down by fear ran a commentary in her head.
He’s going to look up and see me. Then he’s going to shoot me. Why can’t I run? Why won’t my legs move? Oh my God, why can’t I move?
He finished loading and looked up his eyes locking on her. He blinked slowly, looking surprised to see her. Schola closed her eyes, tears running down her cheeks. She knew what was coming. Under her breath she began to say the Lord’s Prayer, in Cameroonian pidgin.
Our Father, whe you live for heaven, your name must be holy, make your commandia e come for we, how you want, so e must be for ground like for heaven. Give we chop whe enough for we for this day, and excuse we bad, like we too, we excuse the people whe them do we bad, no lef we go for bad road, but move we for bad thing.
“You’re the new girl, the one from Africa,” his voice came from directly in front of her. She hadn’t heard him move. She nodded, eyes still tightly closed, still praying, now sobbing.
“Open your eyes. I’m not going to hurt you. I promise.”
Scholastica shook her head no. She couldn’t look at him – wouldn’t look at him. His was a face that would haunt her for the rest of her life if he really let her live. She didn’t need to see it up close.
“OK. That’s alright. What’s your name?” he asked, his voice gentle.
“Ngeng – Scholastica” She managed to say between sobs.
“Scholastica,” he mused. ” A Roman Catholic saint. Twin sister of St. Benedict of Nursia. They say she prayed and summoned a storm, so her brother would stay and talk with her. She must have been a very lonely woman.”
He paused as though waiting for her to respond. She didn’t.
“I know they laugh at you, because of Ebola. The dumb fucks don’t even realize you couldn’t possibly have the disease.”
He paused again, and then continued.
“They laugh at me too, because I am smart and I see through their entire pretense.”
He laughed then, sounding genuinely amused.
“They’ll never laugh at me again after this. They’ll say my name with fear and anger but they will never laugh at me again.”
Schola heard him walk away, his steps loud in the water puddles that were beginning to form from the sprinklers.
“Hey,” he called back at her. Her eyes popped open before she could stop herself and she stared into his blank grey stare. “I’m really sorry you had to witness this.”
With those words, he turned and walked away towards the cafeteria.