I got the text message late on Monday night at 10:23pm. As messages go it was pretty short, “Just seen obituary of Sr Paula of PB. She was quite old 86.”
I hadn’t thought about her in years but now a rush of memories swept in. She was a nun, the headmistress of Precious Blood Secondary School in Riruta which I attended from 1986-89.
She taught us CRE. I sat at the front desk for most of my high school years, forced there by Mrs Chege, our class teacher. I suspect that’s why I’ve always preferred to sit at the back since then – in university, at church, social and family functions, in movie theatres – I’m always the backbencher.
Other teachers would move around the class while teaching or at least pace the front but not Sr Paula Wagner. She would lean her hip on the left side of the teacher’s table, cross her arms over her chest and talk in a monotone for 30min. She never raised her voice even during assembly. The only way to tell that she was angry was her lips – they got tight making them even thinner than usual and her forehead would wrinkle.
But she was very strict. And she didn’t have distinctions when it came to class or social status. I have seen prominent politicians standing before her, looking sheepish like whipped dogs as this white robed woman spoke her mind. Rules were rules, no exceptions.
Didn’t matter if you could buy the whole of Uchumi for your daughter. The only things allowed were two packets of plain biscuits (shortcake if I remember correctly) no fancy brands or flavours and one jar each of margarine and jam. Everything else was confiscated and shared out with the rest of the school.
But while she was great at levelling the playing field so that all her girls felt equal, some of the rules were simply cuckoo. No walking on the grass. Absolute cleanliness including washing plants (I kid you not). I learnt how to make hospital corners in this school. Making beds properly was taken so seriously that a prefect could pull you out of class because your bedcover didn’t have hospital corners. After enduring the walk of shame back to the hostel to make your bed properly, no one ever committed that offence again.
This school is also where I learned to hate prefects who seemed to have even more authority than teachers. In truth, I’ve always had a problem with authority especially because I’m the type of person who needs to understand why I’m doing something. If a rule doesn’t make sense, chances are I’ll defy it.
Precious Blood had plenty of those. No applying jam on biscuits. Really? If the biscuits and jam are both mine, whose business is it how I choose to consume them? That one got me into trouble plenty of times. Eventually I learned the trick- use pineapple jam mixed with margarine and no one can tell you have jam on your biscuits.
Another rule was no reading novels. During preps I would hide a novel inside a text book that I was pretending to read. Only problem is I would get so engrossed in the story that I wouldn’t even hear the prefects walk in until they were standing right behind me. Every Saturday I was on the list of those to be punished for breaking the rules.
After my first term in the school, I went home and announced that I wouldn’t be going back and asked to be transferred to another school. My dad didn’t argue, so I enjoyed the holidays only to be shipped back to the school come the following term.
I eventually learned to get by even if I didn’t thrive. I always thought of the school as a barracks with Sr Paula as a general.
I did see the general soften once though. We didn’t get to watch TV at all. But every so often Sr Paula would bring a movie for the school to watch. They were usually tame, most with a Christian theme naturally. But when Germany (her country of birth) made it to the World Cup final in 1986, Sr Paula cheered them on along with the entire school (well those who liked football like me). I remember her face, smiling, animated with excitement. The fact that Germany lost to Argentina did not detract from the atmosphere. Everyone was on a high.
Today, my memories of Precious Blood are tinged with more fondness. There was no bullying, prevalent at so many schools. I wasn’t exposed to drugs, alcohol or other substances that lead so many young people astray in their teenage years. I obtained good grades and got into a good university. The strict discipline got me to where I am and I’m grateful for that.
Even today, I try to find a paved path rather than take a shortcut across a lawn. I still can’t litter no matter how much other people try to justify it saying it’s no big deal. When I get off a bus, I keep my ticket until I can find a bin to put it in. When travelling in a car, I will put bottles and food packs in plastic bags and wait to throw them into the dustbin at home. Which makes me a nightmare to travel with. Throwing things out the window earns my fellow passengers a long lecture – just ask my family and friends.
So RIP Sr Paula. You did a wonderful job. You steered and guided thousands of young Kenyan women like me who will forever be in your debt. You taught us life lessons that remain with us today. You taught me that indulging children doesn’t always lead to good results. I know I will be a better parent one day partly because of the example you set.