This originally appeared on misteragyeman.blogspot.com on March 31, 2015.
I got this title in my head, and decided to try and write a children’s book to fit it. It was a fun project, and I enjoyed the nostalgia it brought. But then my brave veteran laptop gave up the ghost, and I sort of let the enthusiasm grow cold. So here’s as far as I got.
The new teacher came on Tuesday. The children watched him through the windows as the headmistress led him to his assignment. He was to be the class teacher for 5A. On Friday, the class said goodbye to their previous teacher Sir Justice. There was much crying, and promising. The children had cried because they loved him. The teachers had felt like crying, because the children obeyed him. But Sir Justice had left to get his Master’s degree.
His replacement should have showed up on Monday, but he called to say that he had malaria. So the children had to be supervised by the headmistress of the primary department. Of course, she was too busy to stay with them, and the children soon forgot their promises to Sir Justice. There was some talking. There was a little incident as well, involving ink from a broken pen. When Miss Baah came back, she pressed her lips together in that way she had. Then she made them put their heads on the table, and picked up the long wooden pointer in the corner. As she walked up the aisles, sharp squeals of pain marked her progress.
The children didn’t much like Miss Baah.
‘And here we are’, Miss Baah was saying. The new man hesitated in the doorway, patted his thighs nervously, and walked in.
‘Good morning, class’, Miss Baah said. The man patted his thigh again, and waved a little wave.
‘Good morning’, the class said. They sounded polite, but they were really feeling mutinous.
‘Class, this is your new teacher.’ He was quietly standing behind her, but she held his arm and pulled him forward. ‘Class, say hello!’
Children only say hello when they are very happy indeed. They mumbled ‘Good morning’, and the new man beamed from behind his glasses.
The headmistress told the children to be quiet, because they were leaving- but their teacher would soon come back, and then they’d all get to know each other. Then she asked the new man if that wasn’t right, and he nodded and shook his head all at once, still beaming weirdly. Then they left.
The class soon began to buzz with rebellion. That man couldn’t possibly replace Sir Justice, they said. This is what came of being so good this past term. People had forgotten who they were.
They talked about the look of this new man. He looked ordinary at first, but his sideburns were just a bit too thick. His belt was just a bit too high. His head was a little bulbous, and his brow slightly heavy. Also, he leaned forward as he walked, and his arms swung outwards. If you didn’t know what to look for, you would think he was perfectly normal- but Class 5A wasn’t fooled. They knew they had been given a weakling.
The discontent grew, and still the new man did not return. Soon, First Break came. The children generously waited for two minutes after the bell, and then they shrugged and went out.
With the break-over, all the children returned to their classes in the warm glow of good nutrition. The new man was writing at the board when 5A came in. They gathered behind him and watched broodingly as he decorated his ‘Hello!!’ with green and pink chalk.
When he turned around, he flinched a little at finding thirty-five blank faces observing him. Then three voices jumped out from the mob.
‘You are supposed to write the date.’
‘And the subject.’
The teacher raised his hand to speak, and paused; they had a point. He pinched his nose, consulted his new timetable, wrote ‘SOCIAL STUDIES’ and ‘Tuesday, 4th May’ at the top of the board, and underlined it with one nice wiggly line. Then he turned again. They were still there.
‘Let’s all just sit –‘
‘What is your name?’
He felt he had been disrespected somehow, but he couldn’t be sure how. He pinched his nose again and considered.
‘What does your father call you?’
Okay. That was definitely disrespect. But the girl who had said it looked so sweet and helpful. The new man decided to fix things with laughter. He believed in the power of laughter. He also believed he was funny.
‘Well’, he said cheerfully, ‘my father calls me Junior!’
The children muffled little giggles, and the new man grinned confidently.
One short girl didn’t laugh. She shot him a pitying look of disappointment. ‘Junior is not a name’, she informed him.
Behind her, a young man gasped. ‘But my name is Junior!’ The girl turned and shook a tiny fist under his nose, and he fell silent.
‘So we should call you Sir Junior?’
The new man frowned gently at the annoyed little girl. He didn’t like this game, and he disliked that ‘Sir’ thing. He had hoped he wouldn’t have to deal with it.
In the little silence, some of the children giggled uncomfortably. But the sweet girl piped up again.
‘Just write all your name on the board’, she offered.
The new man turned to the board, and the children watched as he wrote ‘Xavier Quarshiga’ and underlined it.
Somebody mumbled, ‘How do you spell that?’
The patient man demonstrated, drawing out the syllables one by one as he drew another line under the name. He turned back and nodded encouragingly, expecting the children to sing it out back to him. They did not.
The little girl shook her head. ‘You can’t say it like that. You can’t say the ‘X’ like that. It has to be together.’
The teacher frowned, then shook his head helplessly as the children decided to do with that ‘X’. Finally he clapped his hands together and said, ‘Class! Just call me Mister –
‘It’s not Mister. It is Sir.’
‘… call me Sir Quarshiga, okay?’
Everybody considered this proposal for a while, and seemed to like it. But the young lady with the disapproving eyes shook her head. ‘It’s too long.’
He stared at her.
‘It’s too long. You have to do, like– Sir Paul. Or Sir Justice.’
He stared at her some more.
‘What’s your name?’
She stared back at him. With little giggles, half the class murmured, ‘Jessica’, and the other half said ‘Mama Jay’. She turned and threatened this other half with her little fist.
Mister Xavier Junior Quarshiga laughed. ‘Oh? I see.’ He turned and picked up the chalk again. ‘Then you can call me… Sir Q.’
Everybody giggled quietly, but the girl’s eyes glinted. ‘Okay, your name is Circle.’ She looked around at her mates, who dutifully giggled.
Sir Q’s nostrils flared as he quietly said, ‘That isn’t even funny. Do you want to go outside?’
Miss Baah had told him to do that in emergencies. Children found outside were sent to Sir Frank, the school’s whipping champion. Jessica said nothing after that, but her silence was the silence of a martyr.
Sir Q realized he had made his first enemy.
Things did not improve on the second day. At Ascension Primary & JSS, Wednesday was both PE Day and Worship Day. When he heard the children galloping through the corridor after one hour of stamping on the Devil and two hours of military exercises with Sir Frank, Sir Q’s stomach felt funny.
Jessica appeared in the doorway, and headed straight for his desk in the corner. She wore a smile that made him feel small.
‘Good morning sir!’
‘Good morning, Jessica. How are you?’
She ignored him. Jabbing a finger over his head, she said, ‘What is that?’
He followed her finger to the wall behind him. ‘Oh yes, Jessica. That is the Ghana map.’
‘You brought it?’
‘Yes, I did. And that is the human anatomy. Do you like them?’
Again she ignored him. ‘Has Miss Baah seen them?’
He watched her carefully before answering. ‘I’m sure she will see them soon.’
Jessica smiled mysteriously and skipped away. Arriving at her desk, she said, ‘Your Ghana map is removing.’
The walls of the classrooms were painted with a special kind of emulsion which seemed to hate Sellotape. Sir Q had used up a whole roll in putting up four posters. Now he sighed as the Northern region of Ghana brushed his hair.
The plump boy from yesterday jogged up, with his face dotted with a million beads of sweat. He had such a helpful look about him; he seemed to be saying, ‘We have to stick together, we Juniors.’ Now he stuck out his tongue and removed a large wad of chewing gum, which he kindly offered to his namesake. Sir Q’s eyes went wide.
‘Sir, try it. It can stick anything.’
Sir Q shook his head gently and asked him to not to chew gum in class. Junior slapped at his mouth in regret because he had forgotten this important rule. He nodded vigorously and he jogged back to his desk, under which he firmly placed the gum. This went against another important rule, but Sir Q didn’t notice; he was meeting all his pupils as Class 5A slowly filled.
Class 5A was a proud class. They often won football matches against other classes; last week, they had even drawn nil-nil with JSS 1. The members of the team were rewarded with honourable nicknames. Their captain was called Agama, and the keeper was called Spiderman. There were other animals and superheroes in the collection too. The class clown was a special case: he responded to many names, including Umbrella and Kakalika. Most of the names had something to do with the interesting shape of his head. Then there was the confident, quiet young man with the beginnings of a moustache who was respectfully known as Killer.
Nicknames often spell trouble for a teacher. If you insist on calling a proud young man by his baby name, he might decide to hate you. But Sir Q was amused by the names, and won many hearts by asking for the stories behind them.
These introductions went on until Jessica- called Mama Jay by the brave and reckless- primly asked if it wasn’t time for Spelling. It was, of course. Sir Q cleared his throat and asked everybody to sit down, and called for the book monitor. Jessica gracefully arose and glided to the cupboard at the back, from which she began distributing exercise books. The class grew quiet; 5A and spelling didn’t mix. Sir Q soon got to know this.
‘Spell angrily’, he would say.
A few heads would duck down and their pens would furiously write. Jessica was in this small group. But many more heads would snap up and look at the blackboard. Then they would look at the ceiling. Then they would try very hard to look at somebody’s work while pretending to be deep in thought. Junior was in this category.
‘Angrily’, Sir Q would gently repeat.
Junior and his kind would mouth the word, nod, and carefully write. Then they would tap their pens against their pens, chew the cap a little, and make a correction. In some cases they would stare angrily at the word on the paper, wondering how it got there, and angrily scratch it out. Then the process would begin again.
It was a slow process, and Sir Q became absorbed in it. Things moved quite slowly, until he had to speed up at the end. Jessica noticed. When she brought the books to his desk, she asked him why he went so slow. He resented the question, and told her so. She arranged her mouth in a prim line and informed him that spelling has to be fast. That’s how Sir Justice did it. She glided back to her seat as he began to mark.
Sir Q began to think that he didn’t like this Sir Justice.
As he marked, his heart sunk. He was a lover of English, and these children seemed afraid of it. Often the children would make a close guess, cancel it, and go on to create a very surprising thing. Children who don’t like spelling use phonetics. This can be a dangerous tool in the hands of a desperate child. Instead of ‘pieces’, one girl wrote a very rude word.
He called each child to his desk and gave them their books, with a little advice for some. When he called Jessica, she bounced up cheerfully and asked loudly, ‘What did I get?’ Sir Q told her to look inside. She informed him that Sir Justice always let them mark. He tapped his pen against the table and told her to return to her desk. She’d gotten 18 correct, the second highest in the class.
With a soft sigh, Sir Q checked his timetable. Next period, French. He cleaned the board and put away his books, then went to the doorway to greet a cheerful little man in a bowtie. As the children chorused ‘Bonjour Maysway’, he went to see Miss Baah for some comfort.
Miss Baah had a small sanctuary, next to the staff common room. It was a comfortable place with a little television and a computer on a table, and a small neat cabinet beside it. Children never went in there; all their problems stopped next door. Even teachers rarely went in there.
Sir Q could sense that he wasn’t exactly welcome, but he persevered. He asked for wisdom concerning spelling (yes, of course you do it fast – that’s how you know they know), ‘Mental’ (even faster – keeps them sharp), and the children of his class.
‘Jessica? Jessica Sarpong. Any problem?’
‘Hmm. I don’t even know.’ Sir Q leaned in confidentially. ‘You see, I don’t even like lashing, but –‘
‘– You can’t lash her’, Miss Baah hissed, fiercely wagging her forefinger.
‘I don’t want to, trust me. But she keeps –‘
‘– Hmm. Mister Quarshiga, that girl is a special case.’ She nodded primly and whispered, ‘Sickler!’
‘Yes!’ The prim nod was repeated. ‘You can’t touch her.’
Sir Q said of course he understood; the poor girl. So what were his options?
‘Try to understand her better’, Miss Baah wisely offered.
Sir Q nodded slowly.
Next, he casually mentioned his new posters. Miss Baah looked nervous. She said ‘Hm’ and scratched her knee, and asked why he had done it. He said he hoped it would inspire the children. She said ‘Hm’ again and fell into thought for a bit.
‘We have some, you see’, she finally said. ‘Plenty posters. We had them in every class. But they are faded now. And now if you… You see, what do I tell the other teachers?’
Sir Q wasn’t sure he understood.
‘Some of your colleagues are concerned by your attitude. Already they say your children have a nickname for you?’
‘Oh that’, Sir Q rushed to explain. ‘You see-‘
‘I have heard the story. But what if they start calling Sir Frank ‘Sir V’? Or what if they call me ‘Miss B’?’ She shuddered at the thought. ‘And now, you have gone and bought posters. You think children don’t observe these things? It can cause problems for other classes.’
‘I never meant to –‘
‘I know you didn’t. That’s why I am telling you, Mr Quarshiga.’ She reached forward and gently patted the table as though it was his arm. ‘You told me you used to teach nursery in your uncle’s school?’
‘I have been trained for Upper Primary.’
She waved off the training with a knowing smile. ‘You need to understand how to control children. You need to watch and learn. I wish I could have started you with Class Two. They are still quite nice in Class Two.’
Sir Q thought longingly of Class Two.
‘You just be careful. It’s just one term, after all. Then we’ll see what we can do.’
And with that, Miss Baah turned her attention back to her many foolscap notebooks. Sir Q nodded gratefully and backed out of the office.
When the children said Oray-vwa to May-sway, it was time for Social Studies. Nothing of note happens in Social Studies. The teacher just struggles bravely to instil a consciousness of civic duty and social responsibility, while the children struggle bravely to stay awake. Sir Q received Jessica’s prim answers with a mixture of sympathy and gratitude. He vowed to love this brave little girl.
The children were called from sleep by the wonderful sound of the Second Break bell. They leaped outside, desperate for some real action before Religious and Moral Education. Alas, Sir Q hoped for some action during RME. It was not to be. The demonstration of Islamic prayer, the legend of Okomfo Anokye, the legend of King Agorkoli- Sir Justice had gotten all the good bits already. He was left with the hopeless pit of tribal naming ceremonies to run through, and actually sighed in relief when it was time to sing ‘Now The Day Is Oh-oh-ver’. Sir Q said goodbye to his pupils and stayed behind to remove his posters.
He left the ‘Flag of Ghana (with National Anthem)’ though. Only a traitor would remove the flag.
Sir Q’s sudden transformation into a model teacher was not lost on the children. Two weeks into his tenure, Junior reported to Class 5A that he had seen Sir Q talking with Sir Frank after school the previous day. The significance of this wasn’t lost on anyone. A few brave ones directed accusing glares at Jessica. She merely sniffed and pranced away. It was easy for her. She would never know if their teacher grew wise in the ways of the cane.
He did not.
Children have their theories about teachers who exhibit special prowess with the rod of correction. Some teachers are believed to soak their canes in various liquids to enhance their power- water, pepper and alcohol, among others. Some make their canes themselves apparently. After all, what does a teacher do when he goes home? It makes perfect sense that they would have sophisticated carpenter sheds dedicated to the perfection of torture.
Junior was an expert in this matter. He nursed a dream of becoming a teacher himself, and he was diligently developing his own technique. Once, he tried to make a cane, but the wood didn’t coöperate; so he made do with store-made ones, which he walked around twirling. Or at least he did, until the day a teacher spotted him and borrowed his cane for the cruel treatment of a JSS 1 boy’s bottom. Naturally, after school, the favour was amply returned. Junior limped home in a thoughtful mood; he had discovered the wisdom of leaving certain lights under the bushel.