Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1189, (20 - 26 March 2014)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1189, (20 - 26 March 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Once upon a time - The Coca Cola School

The woman who is telling this story was only 11 when it happened. Faika Tawfik was in fifth grade when her father, who was an irrigation engineer, moved with his family from Beni Suef to Damanhour.

Being an irrigation engineer brought a lot of prestige, as well as of constant travel, to one’s life. Before Egypt built the High Dam, the Nile was regulated by a network of lesser dams that had to cope with the annual flood, and the engineers flitted back and forth to ensure that the water conduits were safe and sound. Agriculture was the country’s biggest money earner, and an irrigation engineer was as essential to the country’s welfare as an internet provider is now.

The first order of business, once the move was completed, was for the irrigation engineer to get his child into the right school. This was 1958, and the school system was still rigorous and strict – rules were made to be followed and infractions were not tolerated. This went for students as well as their families, Faika recalls.

Her father went around asking about the best school in town. His colleagues said the best school was the Coca Cola school.

Of course, this wasn’t the real name of the school, just the nickname it acquired because it bordered the local Coca Cola factory.

The Coca Cola school occupied a villa in the middle of a big garden that served as the school yard. Faika remembers that the principal’s office was on the ground floor, as were the six rooms that served as classes for the six grades. A hall in the middle of the floor served as venue for the school assembly when it rained outside. The villa had a multi-purpose room in the basement.

It wasn’t a big school, but its reputation was pristine. The principal, a woman by the name of Zeinab Hassan, was known to be a strict disciplinarian. Unmarried and utterly devoted to her work, Hassan made sure that her school ranked first in performance in the entire governorate. She was respected, dreaded, cherished, and feared.

And she turned down her father’s request to enrol his daughter. The school was full to capacity, classes were 25 students each, and one more student would disturb the process, distract the teachers, and bring down the level of education – she insisted.

The father, a powerful young irrigation engineer on whose work the entire governorate, or at least part of it, depended pulled a few strings. He called the chief education inspector who called Hassan and pleaded the case.

Faika’s father, the education inspector explained, had no other choice but to move his family from one place to another every year or so. He is here to serve Damanhur, and Damanhur cannot let him down.

She was accepted in the school, and hated it immediately. Being the one student who came in, apparently uninvited and perhaps breaking the rules, written or unwritten, of this great establishment didn’t help. And being eleven, and in a new town, was hard already.

Every night Faika would claim to be sick, headaches were splitting and stomach was upset – she just cannot possibly go to school the next day, she would tell her mom.

The family saw through it – Faika’s physical complaints were but a symptom of the unease she felt at school, perhaps something has to be done.

The father went back to school. This time he didn’t pull strings, aside from the strings of the heart. He sat with Hassan and told her that his child was miserable and her school was the reason. Can they treat her better, made her loved? After all, was it the child’s fault that her father was running around the country fixing dams and all?

Hassan got the point. The strict disciplinarian, behind the steely facade, had a soft spot.

Faika recalls being brought into the principal’s office right after her father left. This was scary, and when Hassan asked her to state her complaints, the child was tongue tied.

Not a word came from her, frightened she sat facing the principal, looking lost and wishing to disappear. It was at this moment that everything changed. Hassan, instead of pressing the questioning took the child in her embrace and pulled her tight to her chest. Faika, for the first time in this school, felt loved and wanted.

From then on, things changed. Faika did well at school, excelled in classes, got on well with her peers, and never again asked to skip school.

To this day, Faika remembers Hassan as one of the greatest educators she ever met, and she has nothing but fond memories of the Coca Cola school.

 Hassan ran a tight ship, Faika recalls.

“In the morning we had to walk into class in an orderly fashion, and we left in the same way. Before going into class, we had to stand in line and extend our arms in front of us, setting a distance of one pace between the student and the one in front of him or her. All the lines had to be straight, and the students were told to place their bags on the ground next to the right foot while the school assembly was in session.

The teachers would pass in front of students to make sure that our outfits complied with specifications. Our overall coat, resembling a nurse outfit, was called a maryala, and it had to be clean and ironed. We wore beige socks and dark brown shoes. Boys wore a red necktie and girls wore a bowtie of the same colour. The width of the bowtie was strictly regulated, equal to the width of four fingers. Girls with long hear had to wear their hair in two braids ending in red ribbons. Each student had to have a white clean kerchief, which had to be folded like a square. And we were made to hold out our hands for the teachers to inspect our fingernails. We also had to keep a rag in our bags to clean our shoes before standing in line at the end of the day.”

Hassan supervised the shoe cleaning ritual herself at the end of the day. And Faika rather admired the discipline.
“We didn’t think of these regulations as excessive or arbitrary,” she says.

One year later, in 1959, Hassan reached retirement age. A big party was thrown in her honour and she said goodbye to the place that meant so much to her.

Immediately after that, the school name officially changed to Zeinab Hassan School.

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