By the time I was in Standard five, I had a well-developed nail routine. I carried around a metal nail file and during downtime—while the rest of the boys were playing football or running or throwing things or boying as boys do—I’d sit under the nearest shady tree, pull out my file, and labor over my nails. In this endeavor, I was joined by a boy a class ahead whose name I don’t remember. Together, we’d pull out our individual nail files and file away. Somehow, we knew not to file too sharp or to leave ragged edges that would catch on sweaters. We also knew how to file to develop strength. Again, I’m not sure how we knew this. We whiled away time filing our nails.
And avoided sports.
Yet, what might have seemed quirky in std. five became dangerous in std. six. While we had a few “early bloomers” in std. four and five, std. six marked the transition to puberty: we were ten or eleven, going on eleven or twelve; our bodies were “changing,” as the books so delicately put it; the home science textbook featured discussions of sexually transmitted diseases; the science textbook featured diagrams of the reproductive system; and the agriculture textbook featured diagrams of equipment used to castrate bulls. A classmate described with relish the sensation of sticking her arm up a cow to inseminate it.
Our bodies were unruly and had to be controlled. One teacher insisted that we could not wear any sort of scent, not even scented body lotion. Books like Sweet Valley High were pronounced pornography. Rumors swirled of male teachers whose eyes and hands roamed too freely—one was fond of entering the girls’ changing room at the pool. And I still had my nail file and my nails.
The std. 6 teacher had asked me to cut my nails a few times. It was an unreasonable demand, so I refused. Until she snapped. I was at her desk, handing over an exercise book so she could mark something, and she noticed my nails. There might have been a short exchange.
The next thing I knew, she asked for volunteers—two to hold me down and one to slice my nails off with a razor. Boys can be cruel. The volunteers came easily. A razor was quickly found. I struggled against the boys who held me, probably scratching them a few times. The one who held the razor was the official class bully—he was excited at the thought of inflicting violence. He grabbed a hand, held the razor, and I got even more desperate.
Perhaps there was laughter in the class, perhaps this was dismissed as the routine violence we considered schooling. I don’t remember.
I must have shouted stop. I said I’d do it myself. I rejected the razor.
For however long it took—it felt like forever—I stood in front of the class, facing my classmates, chewing off my nails, and when I was done, I had to show the teacher that she had won.