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An 'A' student's struggles of coping in top national school

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Her struggles started with the heavy congestion at the school that stretched every room to the limit.

Photo credit: Samuel Muigai | Nation Media Group

When Stacy Moraa* scored 432 marks in the 2019 Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) exams, while the top candidate in the country scored 440 points, she knew she had aligned the stars in her favour.

She would join the school of her dreams. A top national school.

“You can imagine the excitement, not just from me but my friends and family. They were proud to know me. From there on, I felt like everyone would be watching my every move. The wild celebrations only intensified my urge to succeed,” she tells Lifestyle.

True to her desires, she received her admission letter to one of the very top schools in Kenya.

“I’d desired to join the school, that year they had performed so well with about 76 As. I was very optimistic that, come my time, I would also be counted among the top performers in Kenya,” she says.

Upon admission, Stacy began the daily grind of high school life.

Being her first time in boarding school, it was not going to be as easy, as she had imagined. But she had not imagined that bullying, mockery, and a desire to be expelled would push her to self-harm.

“They say experience is the best teacher,” she pauses, “well, she [experience] has taught me her fair share of lessons.”

Her struggles started with the heavy congestion at the school that stretched every room to the limit—the dining hall, dorms, classrooms, library, laboratories, you name it.

“I was hit by culture shock. There was a big contrast between my primary school which was private, especially with the population now in a public school. There were so many students to the point that it was uncomfortable. At the dormitory, the beds were so cramped, it was so difficult to even move around,” she says.

Aside from the congestion everywhere, Stacy also points to an intoxicating culture of unhealthy rivalry. She had joined the school with all the innocence of a teenager, eager to easily blend in with her peers and focus on learning, aided by supportive staff.

She started seeing faults in the teaching.

sexual abuse

Bullying is the deliberate act of hurting someone in a power imbalance; it can be physical, verbal or psychological.

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Not for her, she says, but for slow learners. The classes were overcrowded and most teachers only moved along with those who were quick to grasp concepts, shunning the slow learners.

“Personally, I thrive under pressure and that was key to how I performed, the teaching was quality only just that the teachers did not take into consideration that not everyone learns at the same pace,” she says.

The whole school system was also focused on a single mission — nationwide recognition as an academic giant.

Like every rose has its thorns, Stacy says there were a lot of things she was grateful for about the school.

“The exposure to different students. While in primary school, Id only interacted with Nairobi classmates; we spoke the same way, acted the same, knew the same things...but here I was with students from all over the country,” she says.

Her top school coping woes started when she was picked as a class prefect.

Weeks into the first term, Stacy’s class teacher nominated her to be the Form 1 class prefect. She saw it as a new adventure because she would deal with classmates from different backgrounds.

“But there were a lot of my classmates who were against me being made a class perfect because I wasn’t elected. I feel this was the beginning of my progressive despair,” she says.

There is a misconception that students from Nairobi are proud, she says, and strained relations with other students.

“While in Form 2, it got to a point where my classmates got confrontational. They would say I’m boastful and that is not the person that I am. At first, I was understanding of the fact that we all come from different backgrounds but they kept spreading rumours about me, shouting, yelling, and insulting me,” she says.

It simmered down when she first told her class teacher, but the noise had already started affecting her mental health, and her grades started slipping.

As the months passed, she became an easy target for bullying and mockery. She became isolated.

“When I reached Form 3, I was promoted to a higher position in student leadership. I became a dorm captain. My grades picked up again; so I was performing well in class as well as being a dorm captain. I guess that did not sit well with some of my classmates,” she says.

Making and sustaining friendships proved to be a difficult task.

“I still remember this particular girl with whom we had an on-and-off friendship, she was just very difficult and jealous. One day she said she was going to tell the principal of my boastful behaviour. I told my class teacher about it and also decided to say it in front of the whole class. I just wanted the lies to end, for my peers to know I wasn’t boastful,” she says.


Parents who can't have open conversations and end up getting so emotional and frustrated that they don't handle the information well, the child ends up being victimised yet again.

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However, her courageous confrontation only fuelled the hatred and bullying.

“The girl joined forces with others whom I thought were my friends. They retaliated,” she says.

Stacy’s dream school was rapidly changing. She was not looking to succeed anymore, but to survive long enough for the school holidays to reach.

“After that meeting, everyone in my class decided to isolate themselves from me. Nobody would walk with me, and nobody would talk to me. It was terrible. Even when we were having joint practical classes like in Biology and Chemistry, nobody would want me in their groups, so I would end up doing the practical alone," she says.

Stacy says her class teacher also soon neglected her.

“My class teacher was not supportive at all; if anything, she was inciting them. She taught us English and we would have double English lessons. Through the double English lessons, there would be a discussion on ‘why we don’t like Stacy.’ I’m tall, so I sat at the back of the class, I would be at the back crying but she would not care. For about two weeks, I was the topic of discussion at every English lesson,” she says.

Did she speak to the guidance and counselling patron?

“Students knew that if they spoke to the guidance and counselling people, they would rarely help you. Rather, they’d report you to the principal and you would be suspended. Things about mental health in the school are seen as cultic, so it was never an option for me. I had seen so many students suspended,” she says.

Her self-esteem and self-confidence were in tatters.

“My classmates would go through my journals since I resorted to writing because I could not talk to anyone and it got to a point where I felt hopeless. They’d tell everyone else in my school about me,” she says.

Stacy found solace in the school chapel. She would go there during break time since no one wanted to talk to her.

“I remember one time two of my classmates found me at the chapel crying and they laughed at me. That’s when I knew that I couldn’t continue staying at the school. My brevity had waned and I knew that I had to leave to remain sane,” she says.

At that time her grades had started plunging again, she says, and now it aroused the teachers’ interest.

“I was a top student, that is what concerned them. They only cared about the grades,” she says.

Self-harm seemed like an option.

“It was during PE [physical education] and my classmates had avoided me as always, so I went back to class, took a pencil sharpener, crushed it with a dictionary and slashed my hand. I waited for my classmates to come back to the classroom so I could show them. I wanted them to report me to the teacher so that I get expelled,” she says.

Self-harm was nothing new at the school, she says, it was a tactic used by students when they wanted to be dismissed for good.

“When I was in Form 2, I had my friends in the upper classes who had also had enough of the school and they wanted to leave. How they got out of school was by self-harming. A lot of students did that as well so they could leave. Same reason as me, the competition in the school was toxic, we did not value each other, it was a toxic system,” she says.

The students were aware of how to use the sharpener to get the sharp razor off.

“Looking back, it was such an out-of-body experience, it was like watching myself go psychotic, I lost it. I just wanted to cut myself, the psychological damage was so deep that I did not want to be at the school,”” she tells Lifestyle during an interview, her mum seated nearby.

Stacy sounds too brave for her age. Her mother rarely interjects.

As is customary at the school, the teachers would carry out regular checks to see who had self-harmed. The afternoon after getting the news, Stacy’s class teacher made the checks.

“My parents were called the same day. I remember my mother crying. My father didn’t talk much, he was disappointed. I also remember my principal shouting that she had no room for depressed students.

"I was no longer the daughter they knew, the tenacious girl who yearned to broaden the horizons of her mind, but a dejected shell of her former self. I was leaving my dream school. It was easy, emotionally. I was so downcast,” she says.

I went home with my dismissal letter and my parents’ questioning awaited.

“My parents wanted to know why I self-harmed. I had told them countless times since my first year that I wanted to leave the school, but they never thought it was serious. Now I had to explain to them in detail what had been happening.

"They called the school. The principal investigated the story and found out that I was not the problem. I was just a victim of bullying. I was called back to school to resume my studies," Stacy says.

When the apology call came from the school, Stacy thought her parents take her back.

“My parents decided to transfer me to a small, private school near our home where I was enrolled as a day scholar. A fall from grace, some would call it,” she says.

But the fire in her to be a top performer even in high school had not died out.

“I had a new zeal; to triumph in my KCSE and trample over those who tormented me at my former school and those who doubted me,” she says.

But there was one thing holding her back.

“I realised that the more I sought revenge, the further away I drifted from achieving healing from the traumatic experience. I reconciled with the fact that I had lost my dream school but not my dream. I resolved to begin on a clean slate, choosing to forgive those who wronged me and starting to work for my betterment,” she says.

The new school was a polar opposite of the national school. It was small, unknown, and not prestigious, but had well-equipped laboratories and libraries.

“I kept reassuring my parents that their having to readjust their daily routines to accommodate me was going to pay off. More significantly, I realised that I would not achieve much without a firm belief in God,” she says, “My new teachers were exceptionally supportive. It was truly a breath of fresh air.”

Years later, a student who was viewed as a failure for exiting a prestigious academic school to join a nondescript private institution defied the odds.

“I attained an A in my KCSE exams, securing all 84 points and emerging among the best students nationally. I can now confidently say that my dream to pursue a career in the medical field has been validated,” she says.

Her advice to parents?

“Parents, consider the well-being of their children in school away from the prestigious name tag attached to a school. Listen to your children's complaints about their schools and try to put yourself in their shoes.

"For students, you do not necessarily have to study in the top schools to be among the top performers. Provided you put in the work and have the correct mindset, you will excel whether from the loftiest buildings or the lowest floors.

"Remember, it is not where you are at present, but where you eventually would like to be. To the government and school administrators, by all means, address the unbearable congestion and toxic competition in our schools,” she says.


Bullying is a problem that most parents do not take very seriously

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What do psychologists say about school bullying?

Loice Noo, a psychologist, says bullying is a problem that most parents do not take very seriously.

Bullying is the deliberate act of hurting someone in a power imbalance; it can be physical, verbal or psychological.

"Bullying is common. I have worked with students mostly for reasons of indiscipline. Institutions are also not clear about what it means to bully and the reporting systems for bullying. So students end up not having anywhere to report such cases," she says.

Loice is adamant that parents often tend to arterialise trauma, especially in young people, when, in fact, it has a real impact on them.

"When we see a wound or a cut, we sometimes pay more attention to it, but the traumatic wound that affects a child's brain is much deeper and more dangerous than anything that can be done to help them physically."

"Nothing is more important than the mental health of your child. If something has affected their mental capacity in a particular environment, it doesn't matter how prestigious the school is, you have to move. Schools are like a system, and if a system is not working for you, it does not matter how you try, because you cannot correct the whole system,' she adds.

"Every other visit and every holiday, when children come home, parents need to have a conversation about what is happening at school, how they are feeling, their friends and other things. The child's response should help any parent or carer have a better conversation.

"They should preferably also ask people in the school, it could be their subject teacher — class teacher, or, in other cases, even the subordinate staff — to just give them insights about their children.

"Parents who can't have open conversations and end up getting so emotional and frustrated that they don't handle the information well, the child ends up being victimised yet again.

"There is a need to have a counsellor do the physical check probably every year and if they cannot access a profession, then there is a need to have a mentor who can interact with them, especially regarding the child's interest, it could be sports or any of their talents," she advises.

People train themselves to know how to handle their pets, so parents should also make it a habit to understand their children.