My very first day of school, I was excited. I couldn’t wait. I proudly put on my school uniform – white dress, white socks, white shoes , school badge – and went off. My mother hovered around the door waiting to see if I would join the chorus of sobs around me.
“Go home, no need to stand by the door. I’m alright Mum. Go home!” I said, and sent her on her way. I was five years old.
My second first day of school was a little different. I was 14 years old, wearing a tie and blazer for the first time in my life, my hair neatly tied back into a tight braid, like I always did at school in Pakistan. I sat outside the principal’s office, waiting. My mother asked if I wanted her to stay with me, and I said no, I would be alright. The truth is I desperately wanted my mother to stay.
But I knew that it wouldn’t make my life any easier if she did. I’d still have to go to a new school on my own tomorrow, so I cut to the chase and decided I might as well jump in the deep end. I remember thinking how cold it was for May. Just a week ago, I’d been in the blistering heat of a Pakistani May. The school uniform I was wearing now was a world away from my white cotton shalwar kameez. I liked it, though. I felt very smart in it.
The principal came and escorted me to my new class. I smiled expectantly at my new classmates. I was met with a sea of bored faces. No one smiled back. I was sent to shadow one of the other girls in my class until my own class schedule could be prepared. My teacher, Mr Yates, found me a free seat and sent me to sit down. Next to a boy. More details of my horrified reaction here.
Even though I spoke the language, I found that first day of school incredibly hard. I tried desperately to act like everything was fine. I asked a few times when school finished. “Twenty to.” came the reply. I’d never heard time told like that. Twenty to what? I felt I should know that, so I didn’t ask.
I was used to classes that began at 7:30 and finished at 12:30, with 40 minute lessons crammed in back to back and one 15 minute break. I couldn’t believe how long the school day was in England. It just went on and on. And you had to change classes. We didn’t do that in Pakistan either – there, the teacher came to us. It felt like a madhouse. So much noise, so much talking, such a big school, so many corridors. Just pure confusion.
And the kids – my peers were so rude, both to each other and to the teachers. I stared in shock as they answered back. They chewed gum in class. At my old school, we were not allowed to have our hair loose. Here, the girls wore it any way they liked, and in all sorts of colours – had my tight, frizzy braid been a mistake?
I spent most of my day with my cheeks burning red – the language! The profanity! And I didn’t know 14 year English boys were so burly. They were not kind or polite at all. They were crass, and rude, and HUGE! They stomped around like giants. Some of the meaner girls wanted to take a detailed history of my love life, and when I had absolutely nothing to report – no first kiss, no first anything – they looked at me like I had just arrived from the moon.
My brain was going into overdrive, trying to take notes for things that might be useful for me to settle in and find a place in the social order of the school. But by the afternoon, I’d given up. There was simply too much ‘new’ for my brain to register and file away.
I came home with a pounding migraine after that first day of school and burst into tears. I insisted my parents had made a mistake. This was all too much, we should go back to Pakistan. But after I calmed down, I got up the next day and went back to school again.
And eventually, it wasn’t so bad. Whereas under the Pakistani school system I was an average student, under the British system, where you were encouraged to think a little more freely and not just memorise texts, I was considered above average smart. This was a huge confidence boost for me, and I flourished academically.
I’m thinking of all this today because today refugees around Greece will start going to school. This will be a combination of special schools just for them and integrations into the Greek schooling system. I’m remembering my panicked, blushing, horrified, exhausted and tearful 14 year self, who could at least speak the language, and hadn’t come from the incredibly difficult backgrounds they do. I’m wishing them all good luck and this little message from me:
Stick at it. I hope it’ll get easier.