I was 12 or 13 the first time I took watermelon. It was at school. The new school management had decided to improve the quality of our food. Fruits were added to the diet. The variety increased. A bit. I don’t know about the quality though. Pity they couldn’t have paid more attention instead to the quantity.
I was seated on Table 1 of my school’s dining hall. We called it a dining hall but it wasn’t exclusively for dining purposes. We had our assemblies there; in my first year, it briefly served as a classroom; and we had conferences there too. It was amazing the kind of transformation the dining hall could undergo for these events. The general consensus was that Table 1 was a poor table to get. It meant that you liked food since your name was one of the first names that were thought of when the table list was being drawn. Sitting at Table 1 also meant that everybody who walked in saw you, since Table 1 was just by the entrance. You were also under a lot of scrutiny on Table 1. It was easy to pick you out if you didn’t have the right cutlery, if your uniform was dirty, if you were not wearing socks on the day or the required footwear.
In time, I discovered Table 1 also had its benefits. One of the most important was that you didn’t have to walk the length of the hall just to get to your table. Have you ever tried to walk into a hall full of people? You begin to walk funny cos you suddenly lose all knowledge of how walking is supposed to be. You put your hands in your pockets and out again. You search in vain for a familiar face to serve as an anchor in this sea of faces. But you don’t. And everyone just stares at you. At Table 1, you just slide into your seat as you enter the hall. I can remember once sitting in the 40s. I had to walk the length of the hall. That’s not as bad as sitting in the mid-20s and 30s. It’s like being a model on a walkway because you’d have to walk between two rows of tables. Table 1 was also the first point of call for teachers who would occasionally pass through in order to observe dining hall proceedings. That was a new rule too. We later found out that the teachers were not being altogether altruistic. They usually had their meals reserved for them. Most of them just passed through the hall for a few seconds on the way to consuming the voluminous amounts of food reserved for them in the school kitchens.
The watermelons were served on a Monday morning, I think. We usually took a loaf of tea, a spoon of stew and a cup of sugary water that passed for tea as breakfast. When these big green contraptions were passed along to everyone on the table, I briefly wondered what they were. I am not wont to show my ignorance in public though and I soon caught the word “watermelon”. It looked imposing. I mean, how was one supposed to fit that big slice into one’s mouth? Couldn’t they cut it up into smaller pieces or something? And what about those seeds? The ones I saw on the outside were clearly not the only ones. What about the ones inside? Do I pick them out with a fork? Do I eat the watermelon and spit out the seeds? Isn’t spitting in public a faux pas? I can remember once dipping a slice of my bread in my cup of tea in the first year. A senior sharply rebuked me, warning me never to repeat it. I felt I had broken one of the Ten Commandments.
Looking around, I could see that most people were divided between using a fork and well, going au naturel. Eager to seem sophisticated, I decided to use a fork. I had hardly taken a bite when an imposing figure cast a shadow on me. He was our Sports Master. He had this very yellow complexion, as if he was a few melanin shots away from albinism. He had this special instrument he used to instill discipline into recalcitrant students. It wasn’t a long cane as usual but like a string or rope with a really think handle. It looked benign, like something one would use to swat a fly, until it landed on any part of your body. The man was a legend in the school. When we were preparing for our first Inter-House Sports Competition in like a century, this man practically constructed the tracks all by himself. A year later, after his passing, a medley of University graduates tried and failed to construct tracks as accurate as his. They looked ridiculous with their compasses and protractors, trying to get the curves on the track right, something he had managed effortlessly.
I can still remember how he looked at me, almost in wonderment at what I was doing. He then asked a simple question that has come to define my watermelon consumption since then,
“What will you do about the seeds in the middle of the slice?”