My parents, in their infinite wisdom, sent me to a variety of schools, in search of the proverbial Golden Fleece, and wherever I went mischief followed like the shadow at noon. It was the early 1980s, at the 6th form Irwin Academy in Leicester, England. I was just at home in the city as I had been in all the numerous places I was before then. The school itself was a small, middle-class private affair for the 100 students or less that could afford 8,000 pounds or more for Margaret Thatcher's British education. Run by the upper-crust but innately driven John D. Williams, and managed by the inscrutable, H. Sezer (I never found out what his first name stood for). With an assortment of students from places as far as Eritrea, Bahrain, Hong Kong, America and of course, Nigeria, Irwin Academy, as it was then called, was like the United Nations College.
I shared a rented room with Mick (not real name), a lecherous but funny Nigerian. During the days we went for lectures, at break time we played football at the park adjacent to Leicester University, sometimes with the team members of Leicester FC, starring a then little known Gary Linekar. Then at night, which is the truly interesting part, we laundered our parent's money at the night-clubs. Restless then as I am now, I also joined the Leicester Athletic Club, and the Leicester Taekwondo Academy, as well as the Cheh Seh Dau Kung Fu school. As I already attained the Black Belt in Taekwondo, I was assistant instructor (with no pay) to Master Ron Mason. At the athletic club I ran all the short sprints, long jump and hurdles in the junior men category.
Lunchtime at Irwin was rather odd. We would line up for the buffet each day at 1.00pm quietly trying to eat dry, cold, chicken with potato chips and baked beans, with blunted period cutlery that could not even pick the dry chips, speak less of the hard chicken. I refused for the first shy days at school to participate in that charade by spending my pocket money on expensive lunches at the corner sandwich shop. Then I got broke and had to carry my plates like Oliver Twist, along that quiet, dreary line. That first meal was also the cold chicken of major fame. I sat down and looked miserably at my meal, remembering instantly the joy of Nigerian pounded yam with efo, vegetable stew. Then, my grumbling stomach brought me back to the present. I sighed, and ignoring the shining, grotesque cutlery which the English gloat over, stuck my fingers in the plate and fished out the chicken thigh and dug my teeth in it.
First there was silence, then a few audible gasps, and then a clang of metals as everyone else dropped their utensils and joined me along my merry way. Lunch became fun after that. The meals became better too, and I the Pimpernel. I started lunchtime conversations, usually by creating an argument with Principal Sezer and then watching as everyone else took turns at taking swipes at the hapless man. I did like Sezer, he had his eye on the job and concerned himself with our academic welfare, even if we were such nuisances. I also liked school proprietor D.J. Williams, who was trying so hard to retain his essential "Englishness" amongst such a collection of 'other persons'. I also took to school secretary, Mrs Thorpe, my A'Level math teacher Mrs Cottrell (who by the way asked me never to forget her if I became famous. Well, if this qualifies, here's to you. Wherever you may be) and then my pretty, young, biology teacher, Mrs Brown, who taught us so many intricate details about reproductive biology.
Then came the incident that almost led to the burning of the chemistry laboratory. Because of my hyperactivity, I was always doing too many things at once. That fateful afternoon, I itched to get into the football pitch. We would be flinging balls with a Leicester City FC reserve side, in an off season training session. At practical chemistry class, quantitative analysis is a system of calculating the molecular and empirical formulae of acids, diluted by base to form chemical salts. This involves the systematic titration of the acids by pipetting base into a beaker until a pinkish solution emerges. Usually, we had to perform this process three times and then get an average set of results. We also had to follow this experiment with the qualitative analysis, where unnamed, solid chemical substances were handed over to us. We had to determine what substance it was through a series of tests and analyses. All these experiments would take about four hours. Chemistry labs usually started at two in the afternoon, and football was at five in the early evening. And I badly wanted to play football that day.
So, I set up three individual stands instead of one, for my quantitative analysis, and simultaneously lit up a Bunsen burner gas light. Right next to these, I had poured benzene, a flammable hydrocarbon, on an open saucer-like crucible. Between stirring the three beakers, which were being titrated into, and getting the colour and properties of the liquid burning on the crucible by what is called a flame test, I spilled the container with the benzene near the flame- and set the lab on fire. A chemistry laboratory could explode and disintegrate in mere seconds if a fire is not brought under control almost immediately. But there I was, telling everyone to keep calm, while everyone was scampering out of the exit. Mrs Neal, my class teacher, was shouting Fire! Fire! She pulled out a thick blanket from nowhere, and matted down the fringes of the fire, while another quick thinking student applied the fire extinguisher to the core of the fire, avoiding substances that react with water. The upset woman cancelled chemistry lab. I got to play football, but had to face Sezer later, and he practically told me the story of my life. After that, everyone gave me a wide berth at chemistry lab.
I wasn't surprised to read in my end of term academic report, a slew of dastardly remarks:
"George is maddeningly under-achieving. If only he would work harder and stop looking for the easy way out'"
A Level Pure Maths
"George's high marks are not a reflection of his input in the class'"
A Level Physics
"George nearly burnt down the chemistry lab due to avoidable carelessness'"
A level Chemistry
(c) George H Ashiru, 2009.
From "Irons In The Fire"