”Mic check. One-two-three,” clears throat.
“Good morning girls, welcome to Madame Cecilia’s Finishing School for Ladies.You are here because you were carefully selected after a rigorous process and…”
I give a side glance to the empty chair next to me as I scoff and mutter “vigorous process indeed”.
The woman we’ve all come to know as Madame Cecilia within few minutes of our arrival, stops her opening speech and glares at me.
“Young lady, please stand. Do tell us what you’ve found so displeasing.”
She flashes pearly white teeth at me in an attempt to look like she is smiling, but her hazel eyes – the first thing I noticed when mom introduced us – are steely and eerily still behind the clear lens perched on her large nose.
My classmates – the girls – have all turned back to look at me with unsmiling faces. I had chosen to sit a row behind them, ignoring the empty chair on their pew.
I feel a bead of sweat making its way down my spine. God! How I hate attention… and honestly, I didn’t realize I had scoffed out loud.
Trying to stem the panic rising in my chest, I wring my sweaty hands and squeak, “N-No-No-thing, Madame Cecilia. I-I-do not find anything displeasing.”
I fight the temptation to bend my head in shame as she maintains eye contact with me. I don’t want these girls thinking I’m a mouse. Spending six years in a boarding school with petty girls has taught me the dynamics of power and strength. They must never think that I’m scared of Madame Cecilia.
Unblinking, Madame Cecilia says to me, ”Very well then, you may sit…but move up to the front seat. Madame Cecilia does not encourage loners in this school.”
With a sigh of relief, I cautiously pick up my red schoolbag and walk to the chair. The girl sitting next to me does not remove her eyes from Madame Cecilia. It is obvious she doesn’t want to acknowledge me and as much as I would like to say it doesn’t bother me- it does.
Satisfied that I’m sitting with my mates, Madame Cecilia blinks repeatedly, takes three paces left, then turns and smiles quite brightly at us. She continues her speech like there was never a pause.
“a thorough investigation of your academic records and personal achievements’’
“And daddy’s bank account”, I couldn’t help but interject in my mind while trying not to smirk.
‘’you are here because your parents believe that you require certain skills which will enable you navigate the ever changing world of social values. But to be clear, no matter how much values change, grace- social grace and etiquette will always remain constant even in times of war. Most of you will leave this country for your university education, so your parents and I deem it fit that you understand the role you play in your families as a daughter and as a woman,” She looks pointedly at the twelve of us before continuing.
“You will be taught how to think, when to think, why you should think what you think, because every thought must be for a purpose. You are expected to live a purposeful life, a life with a target…This school will help you nurture your intelligence and intellectual prowess for the benefit of a greater good-in this case your family. Do not fear, Madame Cecilia’s one year programme is also designed to be fun.” She giggles at this point and somehow, we find ourselves smiling at her. She looks different when laugh lines appear on her face. Her bronze skin seems to brighten up and she looks…well, almost pretty.
After gaining her composure in a few seconds, she resumes her speech in a new deep voice “Girls, before you leave here, you will be expected to understand what it means to be a woman, you will understand the power, dignity and shame of a woman … but you will learn how to yield your femininity as a weapon in the face of adversity and all times.”
Madame Cecilia takes five paces towards us and orders us to stand. Filled with apprehension at the personality change we have witnessed in just a few minutes, most of us jump to our feet.
She inspects us from head to toe as she paces back and forth our pew. Without breaking stride, she starts again, “For the first 3 weeks, you girls will stay in one room together and share amenities. This is to allow you get to know each other. I want you to look out for your strengths, weakness and prejudices; It will help you in the tests that are to come. On your individual beds, you shall find Madam Cecilia’s prospectus. Your parents have a copy and have formerly relinquished their rights to you for the duration of your stay in this place.”
She stops pacing and faces us.
“Do not fear, there shall be visits-supervised visits. You will find all this in your prospectus. Meanwhile…” she pauses and looks pointedly at the twelve apprehensive faces, ‘’drop your hijabs, Korans, Bibles, rosaries, amulet and whatever item of worship you own, in the baskets you shall find beside your beds. I shall not tolerate any sort of prayer or worship in any form. In Madame Cecilia’s Finishing School for Ladies, there is no religion, there is no god.”
Madame Cecilia steps up to me, and just as she gently lifts my chin; I resolve not to break eye contact with her. Her hazel eyes bores into mine and despite my resolve, I lower my eyelids. I feel her exhale on my face before declaring in her signature deep voice.
“I, Madame Cecilia am the only religion in this place and I am your God.”
Something loosens inside of me as she lets go of my chin, and I believe the other girls felt it too. Before I can process what just happened, I hear her say, “Pioneer class of 2016, Madame Cecilia’s Finishing School for Ladies, You are welcome on this journey…Now, queue up, he will show you to your room.” She nods at the elderly man at the door who seems to have appeared out of thin air.
As we file out, she adds “Further instruction awaits you in your room. Good day, girls”
To be continued next week…
Written by the closet and reluctant writer,Ada Onwudiwe.