The Darkest Side of Neoschool
Lola ran happily, her bag bouncing on her back and the fresh wind blowing in her face. It was Neoschool's first day of opening and she was extremely eager to learn all about Neopia. She loved reading books, and the prospect of going further with her studies and becoming one of the cleverest pets in Neopia Central, maybe even in the whole of Neopia, delighted the young blue Aisha so much. She felt as if there was a fountain bubbling up inside her, filling every bit of her with joyous ambition. Neoschool was finally open, and it was a great start for every young pet around. Books lay calmly in her bag, waiting for the moment when they could be opened and release their wisdom to the reader.
She rounded the bend, hearing the buzz and chatter next to the newly opened Neoschool, around which pets were gathering like little satellites circling a parent planet. Lola stopped and looked with admiration at the new building with its gates open and ready to receive all who came; the building stood tall and proud to be serving such a noble task. It looked down at the pets in the playground like a mother looks over her children. Lola felt a new surge of elation as she stepped through the gates, looking out for her schoolmates. Everything for her future was here, stored away like ingredients for a potion, waiting to be combined and release their powers. It was up to her to use them.
Her eyes strayed over a group of four pets and those joyous thoughts faded. Her ears curled uncomfortably when she heard their giggles, and when one of the pets took out her makeup, Lola looked away in disgust. Girls like that always made her fade into the background. Lola believed that only things that could not be touched, like knowledge or friendship, were of any value, but those pets only thought of clothes, makeup and stuff for their Neohomes. The little Aisha walked past the group, hiding her eyes and clutching her bag of books close. How could these light-headed pets, which had neither her intelligence nor sophistication, be popular? They couldn't even behave themselves! She quickly went inside and took refuge in the library until the bell rang.
Lola learned quickly and eagerly, absorbing information like a sponge. Her favourite class was Language and Grammar with Mrs Owen. It amazed her how complex and amazing words could be and how powerful they could be if used right. In her thoughts, she often compared language to the blade in the hands of Jeran, her favourite hero. She worked hard on her skills, so that she would be able to use words with the same precision and power. However, her success in language classes didn’t impress her classmates much, and least of all the group of four popular pets. Lola learned more than what was taught by teachers in Neoschool, particularly, that being intelligent and having good grades usually meant that you would be alone. She couldn’t help looking at the popular pets and wondering what it must be like for them to have lots of friends and go to parties.
She wasn’t completely friendless, though. Mrs Owen was always there for her when she needed it and usually Lola would stay with her during lunch to discuss theories of language and history of grammar. Her fondest moments at Neoschool were when they talked about the future development of language. Once, when Mrs Owen had brought fresh cookies which they ate together, they discussed what the word ‘cookie’ might sound like in the future. Some of the suggestions made both of them laugh.
Even though her books and the conversations with Mrs Owen provided comfort, Lola still wished for some friends of her age with whom she could share her achievements and joys. There were a few other intelligent pets in her class, of course. The brightest of all were two brothers, Myonin and Gurig, but they were only interested in maths, computers and spaceships. They were also very shy and would only talk to each other, and anyway she couldn't think of anything she could share with them. Lola also quite liked Sotopha, a brown Lenny girl who kept concocting explosive potions in Chemistry, to the delight of their teacher, Mr Leer. A couple of times she and Sotopha had fascinating conversations about magic spells, but just as Lola thought that she was finally making friends, the Lenny suddenly had to return to her home in Shenkuu, to take care of her sick brother. The loneliness in Lola's heart then consumed her until she could no longer stand it. She cried into her pillow at night because none her other classmates would even talk to her; all they'd do was call her a nerd and walk away.
Lola was so unhappy that she thought perhaps she was wrong about the popular pets. True, they didn't make any effort with their studies, and so they couldn't go on to Neoversity and have interesting and challenging jobs in the future. But who needed the future if they were, seemingly, having so much fun now? Lola decided: she was going to try to be like them. After all, maybe they wouldn’t be as nasty and boring as she imagined. Picking a quiet recess, Lola walked over to their group, her steps echoing her trepidation. It was as if some primal fear told her not to go to them, but she ignored it, putting one careful foot in front of the other in a walk that seemed to take forever.
Finally, she stood in front of them and coughed politely to gain their attention. One of the pets, a rainbow Gelert, whipped her head around and glared at the Aisha as if she was a mutant.
"What do you want, bookworm?” she snapped and her eyes, rimmed with eye shadow, narrowed into two lines.
“I just came to say... I want to be... like you,” Lola stammered, trying not to look too proud in case the Gelert decided to just dismiss her with the wave of a paw. Another pet, a well-groomed and well-dressed Faerie Krawk, spoke this time.
“If you want to be like us, you have to prove yourself first, nerd,” she said with an air of spoilt royalty. Clearly, she had a rich owner who loved her too much, but Lola kept quiet: she didn't want to mess up her chances of ever being accepted by them.
“What do you want me to do?” she asked, keeping her eyes low and her voice submissive. However, a little excitement began to creep in. She stood a small chance. The Krawk tossed her a bag full of grooming products and regarded the Aisha with a strange sort of curiosity.
“Put this on, first of all. If you want to be like us, you have to make yourself pretty,” she said with indifference. Lola looked at the bag in her hands and slowly put her hand in, as if waiting to touch something horrible. She closed her paw around the first thing that her fingers touched and took it out; it was a red lipstick and a very expensive one, too. Blinking and pausing to ask herself why she was doing this, she took a deep breath and put the thing to her lips.
It wasn’t too bad. Lola was amazed by how steady her hand was considering everything, and how amazing she looked in the mirror that she next retrieved out of the bag. She thought that she was, indeed, wrong about these pets, and that their way of life might not be as horrible and disgusting as she once believed. Reaching into the bag again but this time with less trepidation, she pulled out an eye shadow and applied it with care. By the time she had finished and looked at herself in the mirror for the final time, she was looking almost like the rest of them. Holding the makeup bag carefully, Lola returned it to the Krawk who no longer had that evil look in her eyes.
“I guess you can be saved from nerdiness, Aisha,” the Krawk said just before the bell rang. Lola turned on her heels to run to class but remembered who she was trying to become now and instead walked with a relaxed attitude trying not to care whether she was late or not. The Krawk gave her one last look which had a hint of approval.
“Meet us at lunch, Aisha. Then we can discuss your ‘induction’ further,” the Krawk said before her and her friends headed off, Lola following behind them. “And get rid of those books; only a nerd would carry them around. Instead, ask your owner to buy you some pretty clothes, and none of that Thrift Shoppe stuff you are wearing now. After all, you aren’t a nerd any longer, are you?”
Lola nodded a yes as she walked through the entrance of the Neoschool.
Over the next couple of months, the Aisha became more accepted with the four pets that she came to know by name. The Krawk who was the leader of the group was called Rraechell, while the Gelert that had first spoken to her was named Ozinona. The other two, a silver Kougra and a striped Kacheek, were called Fyirah and Lgosi. Lola was almost like one of their own and she quite forgot about ever being a nerd who read a lot. In fact, she hardly paid attention in class now, spending her time instead chatting to her new four friends about the latest fashions and grooming products. She forgot all about her books, her grades and the friendship she had with the teachers. Every single one of them, and most of all Mrs Owen, was sad about having this brilliant mind lost to the pressure of her peers. Little did Lola know that her teachers started conspiring to bring her back from the wrong path because they just couldn't let a pet as apt as her to waste her talents on makeup and fashions.
It was one Wednesday in the Month of Eating that Lola was asked to stay behind my Mrs Owen. She yawned, making sure that Mrs Owen saw it, but something inside her stirred, a long-forgotten regret that Lola had until now ruthlessly suppressed. When the final bell rang, she remained sitting while the others went out.
“Good luck, Lola,” Fyirah said as she picked up her bag and walked out. “Don’t die of boredom.”
Lola smiled at her in a confident way, but her heart gave a small twinge when she heard that. Old loyalties came to haunt her once again. Mrs Owen returned to her desk and gestured at a chair next to it, inviting the Aisha. For once, Lola complied without any remark at all and Mrs Owen smiled encouragingly. When Lola sat down, the teacher turned to her and spoke without any malice or anger, only sincere sympathy in her voice.
“Lola, what happened these last few months? You used to be so polite, intelligent, and not like your current company at all. Now all I see is that you are nothing like your former self. What went wrong?” Mrs Owen asked kindly. Lola just looked her in the eye.
“It is none of your business! Now let me go!” she retorted and tried to make a dash for the door but Mrs Owen’s next words stopped her in her tracks.
“Lola, even though it wasn’t in Neoschool, something similar happened to me too when I was your age." The Red Pteri sighed, crossing her wings on her chest. Lola returned to her seat. For the first time, she questioned what she had become.
“Please tell me, Mrs Owen, that is, if you don’t mind,” Lola said kindly, surprised and glad to hear her voice with the polite tint of her old self. The normally stern Mrs Owen looked at her compassionately and smiled.
“Alright, I will tell you. It was on a trip to Mystery Island and I was just like you back then: bookish, quiet, and bright. However, there were pets who weren’t at all like that, and more like your ‘friends’ who just walked out. They laughed at me and teased me until I could stand it no longer; I gave in and tried to be accepted by them. At first it was great, until I realized that being one of them wasn’t how I was meant to be. This truth is bound to catch up with you, too. Be true to yourself, Lola, and you can do anything. Trust me, I should know. I’m glad I stopped lying to myself and accepted what I was before the web of lies I had spun around my life caused me harm. You should do so, too.”
Lola blinked as if awaking, and in a way she had.
“I see,” she said sadly and looked down in shame. “Could you please pass me a bit of cloth; I need to wipe this stuff off my face,” she whispered, and Mrs Owen beamed.
“You see, it's not that difficult, Lola,” she said as she passed a clean blue cloth to Lola, who took it carefully but impatiently and wiped her face and fur thoroughly until not a speck of makeup remained.
“Thank you, Mrs Owen. It feels wonderful to be myself again.” Lola smiled and began to stand up, but her smile then faded. “Oh no, my low grades! All the things I've missed, and the end of year exam is only a week away!”
The Aisha looked at Mrs Owen horrified. The Pteri looked back calmly, as if she had seen this before.
“A bright young pet like you should have no trouble catching up. The teachers will be happy to see the real you back and will surely do their best to help,” Mrs Owen said with a kind smile. “I would be more worried about your so-called friends and what you are going to tell them.”
Lola sighed. It was definitely not going to be easy.
“May I go now?” she asked, and Mrs Owen laughed heartily.
“Of course you can! Don’t let me hold you back, and remember that it is better to be true to yourself than living with the consequences of a lie. I know from experience!” she said as Lola walked out of the classroom and in the direction of the school yard, rehearsing what she would say to the four pets who used to be her company.
She was not afraid of them, but it didn’t stop her heart hammering away as if it was playing the drums in her chest. They were all standing around as usual and chatting about things Lola was horrified she once found interesting. At least, she tried hard enough. Ozinona turned around and saw her.
“Heya, Lol! Did that Pteri lecture you about nerd stuff? Hey, what happened to your face?” she asked absentmindedly and Lola twitched.
“No, she didn’t lecture me. As for my face, I just rubbed off the gunk you call makeup. Mrs Owen made me see the truth, which is that I am not one of you. I never was and never will be. Goodbye,” Lola said without hesitating and turned around with indifference, not even pausing to look at the stunned faces of the four pets. From now on she wouldn’t care what they thought and what they were going to do; she would stay true to herself forever. Only her own opinion of herself mattered. She just hoped it wouldn’t be marred by her exam results.
Over the next week Lola ignored Rraechell, Ozinona, Fyirah and Lgosi, instead choosing to focus on studying for her exam. Mrs Owen was right when she said that all the teachers would be supportive, and she used all of her free time to catch up with the things she had let past her ears while chatting away at the back of the class about the latest fashions. She focused on the work until she felt that her mind was full to the brim, and even then she kept going, always finding extra space for yet another bit of information.
Her perseverance paid off, and on the day of the final exam, Lola wasn’t as clueless as she was a week ago. The paper was challenging, but, carefully working through it step by step, she did her best to use every last bit of knowledge that was crammed into her mind over the past week. Occasionally she glanced over her shoulder to look at her former ‘friends’. She noticed that all of them were struggling and fiddling with their pens like Goldies out of water. The sight made her so happy that she was her true self once again. Had Mrs Owen not set her right, she would have been just like them. But Lola didn't let those thoughts distract her for long, and she got back to the questions, again hopping from one to another until the bell signaled the end of the exam.
She spent a painful week waiting for the results, prepared for the worst. Doubts flooded her mind like a tide which she couldn’t stop. What if she didn’t make it and all her efforts were in vain; what if she truly was like Rraechell and her gang. Lola just had to wait and see, but that wait seemed to drag on forever.
The day when the results were announced, Lola was doing everything to suppress the pangs of fear and excitement in her stomach, which came at her like surf waves on a beach. Mrs Owen walked up to the front of the class, a sheet of paper delicately held in her wing. She cast a brief glance at Lola, but the Aisha couldn’t tell what it meant. Mrs Owen opened her beak and words rolled out.
“My congratulations to Gurig, Myonin, Sam, QT, Ki, Faey and Rainy for getting an A in this test,” Mrs Owen said amiably and Lola’s heart sank a little. She hoped she would pass, but she really wanted an A, and now those hopes were dashed. However, Mrs Owen had not finished yet.
“My congratulations also go to Lola who went from a D minus grade in her class work to a B plus, one of the best improvements I have seen,” the Pteri said and beamed in Lola’s direction so much that Lola felt as if she was flying above the clouds. Happiness filled her from the tips of her tail to the ends of her ears. It was magical to not have all her hard work wasted. Meanwhile, Mrs Owen continued.
"This time, we had one pet who submitted her exam by Neomail, by special permission. You might remember that Sotopha left us early this year because of family illness. Despite this, she kept studying at home, and, like Lola, she has achieved a B plus. With her paper Sotopha also sent a note saying that her brother was much better now, so I'm pleased to announce that she will be rejoining us next year." Mrs Owen smiled and a few feathers on her head stood up at the joyous news. It was clear how she felt about Sotopha’s result.
When Lola heard this, she struggled hard to hold back the joyful tears from her eyes. Not only had she done well in the test, but Sotopha was coming back, too! She might not yet be the cleverest Aisha in the whole of Neopia, but that day she was certainly the happiest.
Mrs Owen then read out the grades to the whole class, and when she finally announced that Rraechell, Ozinona, Fyirah and Lgosi got Es, Lola felt pity and sympathy for the four pets, and thought how good it was that she had gotten away from them. In her heart, she would always be a nerd, no matter what.
Her musings were then interrupted by the melodic ringing of the bell.
“Study hard! Neoschool is here to stay!” Mrs Owen called after them and Lola beamed. Neoschool proved to be a great and joyful experience for her. She would have loved to see any silly girly pet challenge that.