Posted in Personal Posts

The Teacher, The Girl and The Evidence

0903 Blog StudentsI remember the first truly exceptional thing that I ever wrote. I was in Standard 6, 11 years old and in a proper-English speaking school. One day during the English lesson, the teacher walked into class with a stack of compositions that we had written a few days earlier. It was mid-afternoon and there was an uncomfortably warm, stuffy atmosphere in the classroom. We were drowsy, having just come from lunch-break. Nevertheless, we did our best to pay rapt attention because when assignments and examination  papers were returned in this school, there was a 50% chance that somebody was going to get their arse whooped.  

The teacher (I don’t remember his name) began to call out the names of pupils as each walked to the front of the class to collect their books. The atmosphere had now morphed into one of subdued chaos. Subdued because, again, impromptu canings. Within a few minutes, everybody had their book. Everybody that is, except me.

I remember the cocktail of emotions that passed through me when the room had settled down, every pupil holding their book in their hand except me. I knew with absolute certainty that something had gone terribly wrong! Had I forgotten to hand in my work? Had I forgotten to write my name? Teachers in this school were not big fans of pupils who didn’t write their names on their work. It gave them the additional task of having to decipher the owner either by elimination or handwriting. I knew I was in serious trouble and I sat there, furtively trying to wipe the sweat off the palms of my hands; because we had somehow adapted the belief that the drier your palms were, the less painful it would be. I could already envision the rubber thing-ie (you know the one…what was it called?) that teachers used for such “disciplinary” purposes. I envisioned it slicing into the air, making that dreadful, whooshing sound, before finally landing on my little, sweaty, outstretched palm. 

And then I saw it. A solitary exercise book lying on the teacher’s table. Well, at least I hadn’t forgotten to hand it in. Just as I was about to raise my hand and point out that I hadn’t received my book, the teacher picked it , flipped a few pages, and started to read my composition out loud, to the class. Out loud! The entire class sat still as a story was unravelled to them. A story about a man named Christian; a man with a heavy burden on his back and an ardous journey ahead of him. I looked around at the rest of the class, and noticed that they were quiet; listening. My desk-mate, who had noticed that I didn’t have my book, mouthed the words, “Is it yours?” I nodded, still unsure about whether to be nervous about  not having written my name, or proud about having written the first ever English Composition to be read out to the class. I was trying hard not to beam like…well, like a kid whose composition is being read out to the class! Trying to act modest because even at the age of 11, I had somehow learnt that it is important to not seem too pleased with yourself; a concept I have since outgrown :).

The teacher read the final paragraph and set it down on his table. He did not seem pleased. I mean, there I was, stealth-beaming like a schoolgirl over how proud I was of my work, and my teacher had the nerve to not seem pleased?! Suffice it to say, this took the wind out of my sails…but only somewhat. 

He looked up and asked who had written the composition that he had just read. My hand shot up. I was that kid; the kid whose hand shot up. I didn’t do it gingerly…just wasn’t my style. With my hand still poking the air, he asked me to stand, which again, I did without hesitation. A big part of me was still hoping that he was calling me out in order to commend me for the good writing because, darn, it was some gooood writing. But no.

And no, he wasn’t calling me out to berate me for not having written my name either. His next question was a bit…presumptuous and my sails completely flopped down altogether.

He asked me where I had copied the composition from. What?!! Why would he assume that I had copied it? Was he saying that it was too good for me to have written? And what kind of teaching-strategy is that anyway? The one in which you tell your pupils/ students that they are not good enough to have done something exceptional?!

Nonetheless, in a humbled, shaky and thoroughly-confused voice, I told him that I hadn’t copied it. I explained that I had adapted it from a book that I had read over the school holiday, The Pilgrim’s Progress. After a bit of a he-said-she-said tug-of-war between the teacher and I, he instructed me to carry the book to school the following day and take it to him. By the time I was taking my seat, not only were my palms extremely sweaty, my cheeks and ears felt incredibly hot! If I weren’t so dark-skinned, they’d have been a bright-red. I was angry!

Being asked to carry the book to school as evidence, effectively thrust me into the throes of a dilemma. See, my mom had a policy in our house, which stated that we were not to carry any Home Library books to school. Maybe it was to prevent the books from getting lost or tearing. Or maybe it was just so that we wouldn’t get carried away and also carry her’s and my dad’s books to school too. And to make things even more interesting, I didn’t want to tell her why I needed to carry the book. Where would I even start? So I did what most 11-year-olds would do if they were in my shoes. I snuck it into my school bag while my mom was in the kitchen preparing supper.

1.0903 The Pilgrim's ProgressThis took serious guts because The Pilgrim’s Progress wasn’t just any book. It was a graphic novel that my mom had bought for me. I loved it! First, because, it was a graphic novel! And also because it was a truly captivating story.

My love for the book was only part of it though. With two younger brothers, it was generally held (and enforced!) that any books that were bought for me would not be bought again. I was responsible for taking care of them; to ensure that they were available and in good condition when my younger brothers needed them. (Thank God for syllabus changes because a lot of books fell through the cracks.)

But this was bigger than that. This was about honour. I had been singled out in front of the entire class as a thief! He had called me out, and I wasn’t going to take this turnishing of my name without a fight! 

The following morning, I didn’t even wait for the English lesson. I looked for him and handed him my copy of The Pilgim’s Progress. And…that was the last time I held it in my hands. He lost the book!!! I don’t remember this teacher’s name or even his face, but I do remember that he stole/ lost a book that was precious to me!

A few weeks after handing him the evidence, I walked up to him and asked for my book back. He had absolutely no idea what book I was referring to. He opened his cabinet and rifled through some of the books and papers therein. From where I was standing a little off to the side, I could see my beloved graphic novel, peeking out from underneath a bunch of other books. And, it didn’t even have its cover! What did he do with the cover? The fact that he didn’t even know what book I was referring to, would automatically mean that he hadn’t even read it, right? So how did it get so roughed-up that it no longer possessed its clothes? I was rather pissed. But as an 11-year-old, you’re not really “allowed” to be pissed at adults, or to wonder where their sense of responsibility is, so I smiled and told him that it was all cool. {It wasn’t.}

I reckoned that I’d just have to buy a new copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress when I grew older and had my own money. 

A few weeks went by and eventually, the next composition-assignment came around. I was profoundly motivated. I needed to out-do myself. I needed to show my English teacher that I was no one-hit-wonder. I needed to show him that I had not just scored highly because I had adapted a story from a book. As I put my pen to paper that day, I wasn’t just writing a story; I was going to war. I was going to show him that it wasn’t a fluke, show him that I was good. And I did; with that composition, and the one after that, and the one after that… I topped my class in English composition writing until a new transfer named Yvonne joined my class and stole my thunder. Then eventually, my thunder and I transferred to a different school. A girls’, boarding school that was run by nuns; but that’s a story for a different day.

All this while, my dream was to be a doctor. I only knew of a few professions, and Doctor Caroline Wangeci just seemed to have a beautiful, resounding, almost musical quality to it. Years later, here we are. I’m a writer; paid to put pen to paper and tell stories. Sometimes in 1500 words, sometimes in 140 characters; but words nonetheless. And in a roundabout way, that Standard 6 teacher who stole my book (and whose face and name I have long forgotten) played a part in making this happen.

I salute you, teacher mine, for giving me the motivation, eighteen years ago, to out-do my own writing. I haven’t forgotten about my graphic novel, though. My mommy bought me that book, dagnabbit!

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