The first time I experienced depression was around the summer of my first year at University. It was a time when the world should have been painted in vibrant hues, bursting with life and possibilities.

Instead, it felt like my soul bore the crushing weight of lead, each step a laborious descent into the unyielding grip of sinking sand. And Waves of melancholy crashed over me, drowning my spirit in their stony grip.

I had worked so hard to earn my place at this esteemed institution. Yet, as I walked through the old halls of the university. The weight of loneliness clung to me like a shadow, whispering in my ear that I didn’t belong.

For two years prior, the picturesque city of Oxford had been ‘home’. It was a place where the cobblestone streets sang with history, and the ancient spires pierced the heavens. It was a city where the very air seemed to shimmer with knowledge.  A place where I had found not just education but a family of kindred spirits.

My closest friends, came from my home town of Port Harcourt or Lagos where I had attended boarding school. We were all in the same tutorial college, studying foundation or A-level courses, our eyes set on the horizon of British universities.

Our circle  grew like ripples in a pond, with every new arrival from Nigeria joining our “family.” My older brother was there too, and his soothing presence was a time-worn quilt enveloping me.

We weren’t just students; we were explorers of life. When the weight of academia or life bore down on our shoulders. We sought solace in the small African church nestled in Barton. There, amidst the joyful hymns and spirited praises. We found respite for our weary souls, our hearts dancing to the rhythm of tribal drums.

But it wasn’t just church that breathed life into our spirits. The nights out on the town, dancing our cares away at Bridge and Lava, were as common as the Kilali beads gracing the neck of an Iriawo. Those nights, cast their vibrant glow upon the canvas of our existence.

Our friend, Onyia, would start the countdown for Friday partying on Wednesday morning.  With an impish grin on his face and his hands on his knees, as if to stretch, he would scream, “Double up, double up guys.” As if the mere thought of Friday could breathe life into the rest of the week.

Our journey through education had begun long before Oxford, back in Nigeria’s private boarding school system. A system steeped in the traditions of the schools set up by British colonialists to educate Africans. It had also borrowed a lot from secondary schools set up by the Nigerian military. Discipline was the cornerstone of this world, and emotion was a luxury we couldn’t afford.

Each day started at the crack of dawn, our bleary-eyed faces illuminated by the pale light of morning. We assembled in the common room for morning devotion. Within the common room, our voices, like melodic birdsong, soared with praises. As our hands, clapped in unison, mirrored the beat of the African drum.

Yet, when the moment of prayer enveloped us. Our voices, akin to fragile whispers of reverence, descended to a hallowed hush. In that sacred stillness, a chosen student prayed for all with the fervour of a griot. A griot weaving their words like tales spun from the loom of the heart.

“Then, as we readied ourselves for the day ahead, our breakfast was a mix of bread, eggs, and butter.  This was accompanied by a peculiar brew masquerading as tea. But this tea, if one dared to call it such, was a tasteless elixir. It was an unfortunate marriage of excess water and forlorn cocoa powder. Its hue reminded me of the mud water that formed on pot-holed streets after nature’s torrents had run their course.

With breakfast in our bellies, we trooped to school, our steps falling in rhythmic harmony. Our school day kicked off at 8 a.m., not wrapping up until 3 p.m. We had two breaks. One lasting 20 minutes in the late morning, and another, a 40-minute interlude at midday, just enough for a quick snack.

After the school day, it was time for lunch, followed by a one-hour siesta to recharge. Then, we delved into the world of books during our reading period, took care of laundry, shared dinner, and settled down for more reading. Our day reached its end at 10 p.m. This schedule was our life.

The school system also had its biases, favouring the sciences over the arts. For gifted students, choosing the arts was to swim against the current. Those who entered that realm were like pioneers navigating a complex maze of uncertainty. Their way lit by the fleeting glimmers of fireflies in the midnight forest.

Meanwhile, for students with weak grades who chose the sciences. Their path drew raised eyebrows from teachers. They saw these students as shading the brilliance of the sun. Most of these students ended up in the Art class. After finding it difficult to cope with the academic demands of the science class.

In this world, discipline was not a choice but a way of life. The cane was the instrument of order, meting out punishment for offences as trivial as “making noise” or as grave as “poor grades.” At my school, and in most schools, they ranked us every term based on our exam performance, from first to last. 

At my school, we had an honours list and a dishonours list. The Honours list was for the top 5 performing students in the year. While the dishonours list was for anyone who had an average score of less than 50. The honours list was usually announced on the assembly ground in front of the entire school at the end of the term. 

The dishonours list was also announced on the assembly ground. This time, instead of basking in the spotlight of public applause from the entire school. You found your back feeling the sting of a cane. The welts on your back stood as a walking billboard to all on the consequences of failure.  They also stood like scars etched into our very souls.

The system also had its own hierarchy. Seniors held a position of authority and prefects even more so. And in my penultimate year, I became the Head Girl. A position vested with a lot of power, a power I wielded in ways that sometimes bordered on a mild dictatorship.

I rang the morning bell at 7 a.m. with theatrical flair, announcing ‘that it was time for breakfast’. I enforced punctuality as if it were a sacred ritual. Those who failed to make it to the dining hall by 7:10 a.m. lost their breakfast. A fate that was only often softened by the pleas of the cooks and the Housemistress to pardon them.

For those I caught “making noise,” a whimsical form of punishment awaited. I made you write essays on political figures. I still recall an essay that claimed Barack Obama had ‘herded goats for his grandmother in Kenya’. The source of her story eludes me. But I have a sneaky suspicion that it sprung from the loom of a well-known American cable network. 

In the rearview mirror of my memory, I recognize the value of the discipline instilled in me during those years.But I also glimpsed some truth nuggets.  One. Strong discipline reinforced by the cane is not the right way to raise kids in the modern world. Two. A society full of pseudo-military-raised children lends itself towards authoritarianism.

It is why I suspect that Nigerians still elect old generals into power even in a democracy. They remind us of boarding school and its semi-military traditions. However, this culture has softened, as my younger siblings had a milder experience. Also, from my stint as a teacher in a government secondary school in Abuja- Ngeria’s capital city. I also saw that it was a much kinder environment.

However, at the Nigerian Law School, where future lawyers were sculpted for the bar. I was amazed to discover a bewildering time capsule.  A place where the old ways were alive and well.  They enforced a strict dress code—mandatory all-black or black and white. And insisted upon the use of ‘the law school tie’ for men and ‘scarves’ for women. They also required women to wear low-heeled black court shoes. 

Your hair also had to be packed neatly in a bun and your earrings had to be stud-sized and shouldn’t hang past your ear lobe. All these requirements reminded me of the uniforms we had to wear in secondary school.The presence of  Marshalls made it even worse.

At the lecture hall entrance, Marshals scrutinized our attire and hairstyles. As if the fabric of our garments and the strands of our hair held the very key to justice.

The sea of sombre attire and the daily reminders from our lecturers that “Law was a noble and sombre profession’. So we had to behave like people worthy of serving as ‘Ministers in the temple of justice’. Combined to form a spectacle in my mind that teetered on the edge of absurdity.

This was happening in a nation where corruption oozed into the highest echelons of power including the judiciary. A country where elections were tainted by fraud. This obsession with rules and appearances felt like a tragicomic farce to me. But rebellion came at a steep price, a ten-year ban from the bar exams. A punishment that silenced any urge stirring in me to challenge the status quo.

Within this realm of legal elitism, even the mighty bowed before the altar of uniformity. I found myself among powerful older classmates- members of Nigeria’s elite. Yet, they too followed the rules. The law school was a rare oasis of equality in a land where the elite revelled in their rule-breaking.

It was also secretly thrilling for me to watch them submit to the regimented rhythms of the school. Perhaps they complied because, within these hallowed halls, their privilege did not quite matter as it did outside. Or maybe because, like me, they were once moulded by the rigidity of the old-school discipline system. And here, within these sacred walls, the echoes of that discipline still reverberated.

Back in Oxford, our close-knit “family” began to scatter, like leaves carried away by the autumn wind. Leaving first were those who had completed their foundation year.  The last of our “family” and I left the following year, bringing the cherished days of unity and laughter to a close.

My path led me to a prestigious university in London. But the relentless pursuit of success had left me feeling burnt out, a hollow echo of the vibrant spirit I once had. It was then I first realized the cost of instilling an unyielding drive to succeed in children. It stifles creativity and douses the flames of happiness.

And so, I turned to writing as a way to reconnect with my true self. To break free from the fetters of old-school discipline. Writing became my refuge, and my laptop – a canvas where I could paint my emotions. Where I could be free and unsequestered.

Abbiba Ivy Princewill is a Nigerian Lawyer based in the UK. She was a 2021/2022 Hillary Rodham Clinton Global Challenges Scholar and an aspiring writer. She came 4th in the 2020 Global Peter Drucker Essay Competition. (Manager/Entrepreneur Category).