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Why didn’t he affirm that her red is of fire and power, of energy and strength, of warmth and vibrance, of love and life?

She looked at them keenly. She searched for nonexistent answers on their faces. Their eyes returned the gesture but with a tint of disgust. She remembers that it hurts looking at them. She could feel a tightening sense of inadequacy around her chest, enough to make her gasp for air. It was obvious Mr. Kene was oblivious of what was happening in his classroom. This was evident from the loud applause he, and only he, gave her whilst saying, “Wow, Esther! You really exceeded my expectations this time”. This could have
been her crowning moment in secondary school; having Mr. Kene, the man who could never be pleased, applaud her work so loudly in front of her peers was a rare moment but far was it from blissful.

She arrived at Merit Mixed Secondary School, Sapele with a suitcase in hand, a prayer in heart, and a task ahead, the task of proving to her pessimistic parents that their ten-year-old daughter would not lose herself in a city far away from home. At the time, she had only one dream (okay, maybe two); to make her parents proud and to work on her self-esteem. Ese, her best friend at the time would always taunt her, saying, “Esther cares too much about her parent’s opinion of her even though they could care less about her existence”.

Ese taunts her this way because, after their dormitory’s welcoming orientation on menstrual hygiene management, she confided in her that her parents could not afford to buy her menstrual sanitary products. Ese was, however, of the opinion that there is no justifying reason for a parent to neglect providing one of the basic necessities of life for their girl child. This is an opinion I imagined she formed from years of sitting on the high pedestal her parents so “generously” provided her with. Anyway, one would expect that Esther would give her a good beating for her foul mouth but she never did. After all, she was right to some extent, and most importantly, the school’s code of conduct for scholarship students explicitly stated that fighting leads to an automatic scholarship withdrawal. She could not joke with her express ticket out of her hometown where nothing ever happens now, could she?

Just so you know, Ese and Esther were not always best of friends. In fact, they had their falling out a few times too many but this narrative changed for good when Ese offered to give Esther some of her menstrual sanitary pads every month. She decided to do this because she was scared for her health considering that she used pieces of old cloths for her menstrual hygiene management. Because of her generosity, Esther continually blessed the day she met her, that is until she left her to go abroad with her parents. She couldn’t remember for sure if her loud weeping was due to the fact that her best friend was leaving or because her free sanitary pad supply had come to an abrupt end. Either ways, she was back to square one and her tear glands fully expressed how she felt. To forget her woes, she drowned myself in perfecting Mr. Kene’s project assignment before the next school day which happened to be the much-anticipated exhibition day.

On the morning of the exhibition day, she woke up all gloomy, not knowing what was wrong. “I gave my best to this assignment but why don’t I feel so good”, she asked herself. With no answer in sight, she dragged her slob of a self out of bed and into the dining hall. Immediately, she sat down at the dining table, she felt it! That monthly red reminder, the one that tells her she is a woman, was beckoning at her door. “Oh no, I hope no one saw the blood stain? Calm down Esther, if they did see it, everyone, especially the boys, would have left the table for you”, she said under her breath. You might think she was overthinking the situation but she was not. It was 2014 and menstruation was a huge taboo, not to be spoken of, and the product of which was certainly not to be seen. So, she excused herself from indulging in breakfast that morning and she ran as fast as she could back to her dormitory.

She must have spent over 40 minutes having her bath. This is longer than usual because she had to take extra care in washing the red abomination off her. Since she had discarded all her old menstrual cloths when Ese was still around, she took the only available option, a piece of tissue paper, folded it into the shape of a pad and wore it. She remembers nodding to herself with so much satisfaction and saying, “not today, devil, not today”. I guess it was actually “today”.

“Esther, you can go back to your seat now. See me after the class for your grand prize”, Mr. Kene said, jolting her back to reality. As she walked back to her seat, Mr. Kene had a rude awakening of the situation while everyone else started laughing at her. Her seatmate excused himself from their seat ostracizing her like a widow who had just been caught with another man two days after the death of her husband. Moments later, Mr. Kene walked up to her and gave her a scarf to cover her blood-stained white skirt. Then, he asked her to go wait in the toilet while he fetches a female teacher. She tried, she really did try to move but her knees were weak and her frail body failed her.

She blinked back the tears welling in her eyes to clear her blurry vision but eventually, she gave in to her lacrimal glands. It was in that moment, not a second after, that she clearly understood what people mean when they say, “I wish the ground just opens up beneath me”. She prayed fervently to God to make her disappear into thin air but I guess it truly was a day for the devil.Her weary body was on the verge of crossing the finish line, one that had witnessed the downfall of many before her who got hurt on a race track meant to be benign.

As the gest from her classmates died down after months of progressive bullying, the feeling of her not belonging in that school never went away. This feeling was strong enough to make her sit out five consecutive school days during her menstrual period every month. She would hide in the dormitory toilet until everyone had gone to school. Then, she would reveal herself, heave a sigh of relief and fall asleep on her bed. No one could account for her whereabouts on those days and in fact, no one cared.

Why didn’t Mr. Kene do more than ask her to go wait in the toilet? Was he ashamed of her too? Why didn’t he scold those mean kids? Why didn’t he shout it at the rooftop or perhaps in his Basic Science classes that menstruation is a beautiful preamble to life? Did he understand this himself? Why didn’t he assure me that I would never have to recount the events of that moment in third person? I wish he didn’t leave me with so many unanswered questions.

On the next parent visitation day, I begged my mum fervently to allow me change schools. But she said, “This is an unreasonable request, no other school in Delta State is better than Merit and most importantly, who would offer you a full scholarship at midterm?” She was right! I reckoned that I would be trading in my future for a shot at not being “Miss Unpopular” at school. So, I let it be. However, I ended up spending the next 6 years of my life, ones I will never get back, as an outsider looking in, a spectator in my own life story, a “she” not an “I”.

There are a lot of things I would have changed about my secondary school experience but nothing comes close to the utter lack of provision of menstrual sanitary products for girls in my school, and the unpreparedness of my teachers to handle sensitive situations involving students. The grandeur of self-esteem diminishment that comes from standing in front of a class full of unkind children who did not understand the beauty of menstruation, the power or the message behind it, is close to none. It breaks you no matter your resolve, and it ruins you, making you see life from a lens you shouldn’t even have at age ten.

Oh, how I wish I can go back and change that moment but since I can’t, I can at least change the future.

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