Being in elementary four has some dignity that goes with it. I remember my uncle saying, “You’re a big boy now.” whenever I told him, my class. Not that I trusted him but I took those words to my heart.
I mean how can I trust him. He always asked me this same question whenever he comes visiting. Sometimes, he would even call me ‘Cheta’, a girl’s name. I don’t like him for that. Such name makes me think that I am a girl. I have learnt to take to heart all the good things he said about me since I always do the same whenever he said a bad thing. I called it ” equals to’ even my teachers doesn’t know that was all we do in maths.
Apart from having nicknames like Greenie, nwa mummy and Indomy, I have no disturbing problem at school. It’s not like I like these names. They all do not make me strong. Greenie is a fragile baby grasshopper. It used to die away before we got home after catching them in the school field. As for “nwa mummy “, I believe strong kids are named after their father. Being named after a noodles brand has its appealing side since Santa Maria Primary School takes noodles as the richest type of food you can carry for lunch. But I think that indomy has a soft touch. Ifeanyi was called “akpu” sometimes mainly because of his rounded figure but I think it also has to do with strength. It doesn’t make sense to call him indomy when he can beat all his classmates.
I had grown close to my class teacher. We call her “Anty Ebere.” She was tall and fair like my eldest sister. I think they are of the same age. She made me the class prefect the second day in her class. She even drank from my water bottle since I am the only one that comes to school with a chilled water. I really liked the way she walked. I have heard Ifeoma call it “catwalk”. She use to imitate her but she can’t. Even my sister can’t walk like that. We started calling her Madam koi koi because of the sound her shoes made while walking. I never liked that name. Anty Assumpta should have that name since her shoes made the biggest noise. I wondered why she looks so red.
“She is rubbing bleaching cream.” Ifeoma confided to me one day after school.
“What’s that? ” I asked. I know cream and I know bleach for washing toilet but not bleaching cream. The two doesn’t belong together.
“It’s a cream that makes you yellow.” Ifeoma nicknamed I-too-know said. She was very sure of her self.
“But she is more red. Maybe orange but not yellow.”
Ifeoma laughed. “She is using akuraku, local made. My mum has the original one. I rub it sometimes. Look at me, am I not yellow small?”
I looked at Ifeoma Orji. Only that her I-too-know character was too much she should have been nicknamed Charcoal. In reply I just nodded my head. Anxious to leave her. My best friend told me that if I spend much time with girls, I start behaving like them. I don’t believe it. Obinna, the most handsome boy in Santa Maria is always seen moving with fine Sandra and he still behaves like a boy. Even my father was always with my mother and he could still beat the troublesome mechanic that was disturbing my sister.
“Have they teached you algebra?” Chido my best friend asked on our usual long trek home. I rolled my eyes because that’s his way of saying your teacher is bad.
My Sweet Anty Ebere is bad?
It was a relief when Chidozie announced that he was changing class from elementary 4A to 4B. He said that his mother thought Anty Ebere was not qualified enough. Sometimes, I wished my mother knew all this but since I started school she has never crossed the school gate. My dad bothers just enough to drop me off at school when he feels like doing it. And on those rare days, he would also squeeze the fun off the ride by stacking the car with students – girls, all girls, from the girls college near my school.
“Not now. She would start teaching algebra next week.” I know I am not ready for an argument.
“Uncle T would be taking you from next week,” Chinenye said. I thought she wasn’t listening. Ever since Egodi, my sister, graduated, Chinenye seems alone especially when we are going home. She thinks she is our senior and so would not join in our small talk.
“Uncle T! That wicked man.” chidozie shouted.
“is it Tea, like drinking tea or just T? ” I asked.
“You no understand self. That wicked man that flogs for breakfast is going to be teaching us maths.”
I can see the terror in his eyes and I can understand why he was afraid. Uncle T ‘s skill in flogging students was well known, together with his infamous five-hundered question assignment. Woe betide you to fail up to fifty questions. But I saw pass all these report.
I saw a man in his prime. His fine hairstyle I latter knew was called punk by Ifeoma. The thick yet shiny beard that covers his lower jaw. And his English. He speaks like the white people. Soon the pupils started wondering whether he was Nigerian. He was always neatly dressed in ironed shirt and trouser. I undoubtedly knew what I will like to have for my Christmas clothes. I hope they will have a smaller size.
“He likes bright students. You two would not have any problem with him na.” Chinenye told us.
“It will not tey before we fall into his trap. ” chido answered her. I smiled.
The next weekend I read only mathematics. I was prepared to impress Uncle Tea. I know if I answer his questions correctly, he would like me. Anty Ebere would smile also. If he decides to buy sweet for me and not for Ifeoma, it wouldn’t be my fault. The way she always talked about him made me know that she liked him. I liked him too, even more. All the pupils liked him. He always looked neat and speaks like white people. In fact, I was burning to meet him.
On Monday, when I reached school, Chijioke rushed to me inquiring about the rumour he heard concerning Uncle Tea taking us mathematics. I told him I heard the same news but that I am not sure yet. I can see the fear in his face. The monstrous man. Then it struck me, Uncle Tea had chosen his name from the popular slogan “give hot tea ” which means to flog. I almost laughed. I was sure he wouldn’t have any reason to flog me. But lord, lord, Chijioke needed to fear.
That morning assembly was great. Uncle Tea was on duty. His voice was surprisingly loud though I was in the front I felt it’s heaviness. He moved from one end of the assembly ground to the other. He gave his speech with the occasional mix of big English words that got us shouting. Apparently, this was his only sense of humor. He called one guy, “Oliver sativar”. I sure don’t know what he meant. Oliver must be someone that has done bad things.
He still crouched sticks to his left hand, about four of them. I traced the bulged veins that lined his hands from his fingers up to his elbow and to the point where his folded sleeves hid the rest of his hand. I imagined his hands with the same feature, and his legs too. My brother has them. He had a ring. With his long strides and serious hand waving he plunged into a song.
“My hands are filled…with the blessings of the lord…anyone I touch…surely must be blessed.”
I indulged my self as being the only one that noticed the sarcasm in that song.
I loved his English, his beard and his voice. And the way he sang. And his white shirt over the black trousers. He was someone I would aspire to be. I would tell my mom the kind of clothes she will buy for me during the next Christmas Holiday. Am so done with Jeans. I want Uncle Tea’s kind of trousers. And the shirts.
Can I change my voice? No, but I can sing ‘my hands are filled’.
As we marched in, my mates sang to ‘Oh my home’ but I have a better marching song.
Anyone I touch… Anyone I speak…
Minutes later he was in our class. Hopefully, the class was neat. I watched him closely. Well, I shouldn’t have watched. He would have punished me for not paying attention.
Mathematics, he wrote.
Apart from Ifeoma and Ifeanyi that received a few strokes, the class went well. Ifeoma was all curses when he left. She spoke ill of him. She said that his mates were busy hustling in the main market but he was here enjoying torturing little creatures for chicken change. I never thought of him like that. She even accused him of starring at Mrs. Ebele the whole time.
On my way home that day, I thought of the implications of Uncle T starring at our teacher. What would happen next? Maybe, just maybe, they would become father and mother. And me, their child. I saw us holding hands in a beautiful house. I knew the dream was wrong but I enjoyed it.
The next day was bright as usual but I was a bit late. My father fancied picking and dropping girls on the way rather than taking me to school on time. Aunty Assumpta delayed me still. Just like I thought it won’t get worse. She gave us a five minutes lecture on how we can try and be early to school with her fake British accent.
The whole time my mind was on the assembly ground. Uncle T was putting on a white shirt folded to the elbow. A sign of man at work, or maybe teacher on duty. I just wanted to be like him. He had started with the “My hands are filled” chorus. This is about the only time a grin appeared on his face and it made him glow. I was burning with admiration.
Aunty Assumpta dismissed us and we ran to the assembly ground. I had my motive for running so I outran the rest. I managed to get my self to the fifth boy in our class line. Uncle T is now making a speech which sound more like an admonishment.
Too bad it was question time. Chijioke was the first to leave the line. He nudged me forward as he squeezed himself behind. Ogan in the first position never wanted to exceed the second position. They all needed someone to be in the forefront but just one person. Ogan offered me the front position which I was more than willing to accept. I was deft in moving to the front position. It just happens that the people behind Ogan weren’t willing to step an inch backward.
I heard Uncle T’s thunderous voice with his refined accent calling us to prayer position from the other end of the assembly line. We are expected to put our hands together and close our eyes but most especially close our mouth. Silence. But elementary four boys are busy struggling for a line position. Who does that? Not when Uncle T was on duty.
My heart beat faster as his voice approached. Just like the sound of death, I thought. I was ready to disappear only if God will grant me the power instantly. He must have heard the slight upheaval for the voice approached steadily.
“I don’t follow.” I pleaded with my mind.
He approached us with a mean face. He was standing right in front of me. I had never been this close to him. I even smelt his perfume. Smells like that of our neighbour though his was a bit cleaner. My heart was beating fast and loud as a talking drum, I could even taste the blood that rushed to my mouth.
Will he flog me? It’s not my fault. They are pushing from behind. I know he was smart enough to see it.
“You…” he said, almost in rhythm with a stroke on my head. It echoed so hard, or better still hurt so much, that I thought I might have heard my pains instead.
“You, you, you and you. Kneel down there. ” He was pointing to a cleared spot. Of course, we are expected to kneel on the sand with our bare knees. I felt the tears accumulating from all over my body. I needed to stop it. No one cries over a stroke of the cane. Unless I want to be given the most unkind name in school.
Can’t he see I was pushed about from behind?
I was visibly angry. I could try to accept this if it was another person but not Uncle T, my idol. My model. My mentor. I had answered all his questions in class. Successfully creating a nice impression on the first day we met. The other teachers have not even seen my best comportment and disposition yet they adore me. I haven’t been in serious trouble ever. Or had I been disgraced like this in the assembly ground?
Be him whoever he thinks, he had no right.
Uncle T rounded up the morning assembly a bit fast like always. He approached us to pronounce the last judgement. Part of me still believe he would let me go. My face, they say, confessed innocence. I hope he was smart enough to read it. He should be.
I once glimpsed those veins that marred his bare skin where his folded sleeves did not cover. A sign of strength, I am sure. I would have adored it once before or convince myself how it was necessary I have those on my hands in the near future. His face was serious but was still comely to look at. I seethed in jealousy.
I watched him give six strokes of the cane to Nnadozie on his head in quick succession. He gave out a sharp and short wail. Robbing his head vigorously with his hands. I feared he might have gone mad with pain. Dread erupted in me. I knew the feelings will come. It was hatred.
Ogan danced even more vigorously. With his two hands on his head, of course. Some of the children marching in was laughing. I know better than follow their breakdance.
The strokes came like a thunder. I heard and I felt. Like the gods are taking a quick stride on my head. Rain accompanied thunder. My tears was uncontrollable. He was quick, at least, allowing me to mourn at once. My hands were already on my head. It even caught the last stroke. The pain was much. But I have decided not to dance. My body shook violently, notwithstanding. I was sure to be in another world.
The shouts of the students was quietly drowned into a rhythmic drum beats which drew me into the other world. A world where time dragged on its tail. I had worshipped him as a mentor. With all I have, I had respected him. I believed somehow he knows of my thoughts and how I revered him but chose to humiliate me. I was disappointed. Disappointment mixed with anger. Somehow I know I can never go down this road again. They might all bring me out on the assembly ground and strike me on the head. My father, my uncles, my brothers, my friends, all of them. I was burning inside.
Slowly, I came out of this other world. The drum beat and noise was more of laughter now. Some where pointing as they match past us. I stood and left the scene. I am sure not even Mrs. Ebele can get me to believe her on any level. They were all laughing at me. They claim to be at your side but would laugh their hearts out when you miss a step. I know better than to trust now.
Agbalokwu Chibuike is certified biochemist that, however, has a penchant for writing. He has written many short stories and movie scripts. He is very passionate about telling the African story.