The Ghanaian Times 14th June, 2011
By Cameron Duodu
Why do teachers occupy such a dominant position in our psyches? Long after they’ve passed through our lives, we can still hear their voices as if we last saw them only yesterday. And, of course, we can picture their faces and their bodies as accurately as if they were standing right before us.
Teachers are often what psychiatrists call our “super-egos”. Yet our parents have very little say in who our teachers should be. If you go to school, they are there when you get there. You inherit them, and for better or for worse, they will stay with you as long as you live.
Is this because when we first encounter teachers, our minds are practically empty, and it is teachers who fill them with anything worth remembering? I suppose that must be it. Plus the fact that we are in the hands of teachers for the longest time in all the periods that we spend as part of an organised body. We may be employed by organisations, but never in as continuous a stream as in educational institutions.
Speaking for myself, I acknowledge that my Class One teacher, Teacher Kwasi Akwa, dominated me so much that he was almost like a god in my eyes. He was a magnificent specimen of a young man; tall and handsome, he was alert and “full of beans”. A scoutmaster, he always [unnecessarly] wore his scout uniform to school. This alone made him stand out. But his scout shoes also made a stylish “kah-kah-kah” noise when he walked, and since he was always in a hurry, his presence attracted attention wherever he went.
The Second World War was just about to end when I first went to school, and I am sure Mr Akwa was secretly peeved that because of his profession, he hadn’t been allowed to enlist as a soldier. The way he could be heard as he made his way on the cement floor of the school veranda, even when he was far away, indicated that he would have enjoyed taking part in military parades, where the soldiers are required to deliberately stamp their boots very hard on the ground — making an ear-splitting GBRAH! sound in unison.
Mr Akwa’s method of teaching was also based on the military principle of do not: “you must not wipe your slates with saliva”; (this was hard to obey, for the instinctive thing to do when you make a mistake on a slate is to wipe the mistake away with spittle!); “do not wet the chalk with your tongue before you write with it” (this too was against the natural order of things, for one did not wet the chalk because one wanted it to write better, but because one was very nervous whilst trying to produce the correct answer to write with the chalk); “if you are using a pencil, you must not press it hard on the paper”; (again, this was not easy, for when you’re using a pencil for the first time, you press it as hard as if your life depended on it — so much so that the tip of the pencil often broke and you had to find someone who had a razor blade — or more likely, half of one — and borrow it to “sharpen” the pencil, often cutting your finger in the process!); “do not rub out anything but cancel it neatly”; (cancel the mistake neatly so that the teacher could read it and know how stupid your original answer was?); “you must take special care not to use your fingers to rub out what you have written in pencil, as it will leave a black mark in your exercise book;” (ha! some kids were so overpowered by the instinct to rub mistakes out that they naturally rubbed them out — hard enough to tear a hole in their exercise books — before they remembered the injunction not to rub with the fingers!) And so on.
Mr Akwa could detect every breach of these rules and administer lashes to punish the rule-breaker. Sometimes, I wondered whether we went to school to cry rather than to learn. For everyone wept — except those who managed to obey all the rules, or were lucky enough not to be found out..
Teacher Akwa also insisted that we must be neat: he forbade us from using our school uniforms to erase from our slates, what we had written with chalk. He even beat us if, by accident, our shirt-fronts got smeared with chalk from the slates of other pupils — yet such accidents were bound to occur. “Pah! Pah!” – the voice of the hard but pliant raffia cane – was never absent from our classroom.
I must say this for Teacher Akwa, though: he was a very enthusiastic teacher. He took pains — talking and talking and talking, doing his best to to ensure that we all understood what he said — and he also never failed to inspect our work to make sure we practised his precepts. What he could never get into his head was that some of the kids could not perform because he overwhelmed them and made them so terrified of him that even if they knew the answer to a question, they were too nervous to bring it out coherently. Many developed fits of stammering in class, but could speak smoothly once they got home!
I personally was so terrified of him that when my younger cousin, a particularly obnoxious girl, somehow discovered my awe of him, she could bring any argument I had with her promptly to an end by merely mentioning the dreaded name: ‘Teacher Akwa!’ I would belt her after I had overcome the automatic reflex, but it was such a good — and effective — tease that she she kept using it on me! It always worked, I am ashamed to sau.
In order to avoid being caned by this teacher who ruled my life, body and soul, I turned myself into a walking ‘Teacher’s Notebook’. Whatever came from Mr Akwa’s notebook to his mouth and thence into my head, stayed there for ever. I would repeat it to myself silently on the way to the river to bath before going to school; I would repeat it while waiting for my plantain to get broiled in the fire so that I could have something to eat before going to school; I would practise it on my way to school; and I would repeat it during school exercise time, so that often, while others were marching left, I would march to the right, distracted by sums I was working out in my poor head. The only time I stopped the flood of information from playing in my head was when Mr Akwa was imparting new knowledge to us.
As if I were a parrot, I reproduced all that Mr Akwa had taught us on to my slate, and later into my exercise books. When I did this, Mr Akwa became exceedingly pleased. He praised me to the high heavens. On one occasion, he gave us 20 sums to work out in a test. I managed to score all 20 correct. The boy who got the next highest marks got only 18. So Mr Akwa put me on a desk all by myself and put the guy who got 18 behind me. In other words, he was conveying the message that no-one was fit enough to sit next me.
It didn’t worry Teacher Akwa that this might make me seem cocky and an insufferable snob in the eyes of my classmates, no matter how unaffected I myself was by his attitude towards me. Luckily, some of the strongest boys in the class were also the dumbest, and he advised them to attach themselves to me so that I could give them private tuition. I thus avoided the attentions of the more wicked and envious boys, who would no doubt have set upon me in lonely, dark corners and taught me a thing or two which the “favouristic” teacher wouldn’t be able to do anything about. Being with the big boys also meant I could accompany them to the market and eat with them, delicious things to which, because they knew how to earn money, they often treated themselves.
After I had score 20/20 in the aforementioned test, Mr Akwa opened my desk and wrote on the lid of the pocket in which we deposited our books, “DANGER DD BOY”. I never fully grasped what it meant, but he was so excited that he went and brought some boys from Standard Three – our most senior class – to exhibit me to them and show them what he had written on my table. He told them, “He is a ‘Double Danger’ Boy.” What was “danger”? I didn’t know and couldn’t ask. The Standard Three boys, however, understood him and nodded conspiratorially, and said nice things of appreciation, before going back to their classroom. I was never bullied by a Standard Three boy or girl in the school after that.
But all that attention meant that I became extremely self-conscious and existed as if I were in a daze most of the time. If it were these days, I would say I lived in a ‘bubble’ of sheer euphoria. I began to think that knowledge gained in school was the only thing of importance and it began to show in my life at home. I employed a piece of charcoal to write all over the floor of my mother’s kitchen — and this was after she had taken great trouble to polish the floor beautifully with special red clay that she could only obtain from the banks of a river, far away in the bush. This beautiful clay was called ntwoma. My mother never said a word but long-suffering as she was, quietly re-polished her kitchen floor whenever I set to work on it. When she complained, I precociously quoted a Bible text to her: “Jesus bent down in the temple and wrote on the floor!”
Meanwhile, I too polished and constantly re-polished my slate beautifully to please Teacher Akwa in school, using a black dye that I made out of seeds collected in the bush. In my over-enthusiasm, I overdid the polishing sometimes, with the result that the chalk screeched when I wrote on the slate with it, and produced only faint writing.
One day, however, my mother’s patience snapped — as down-to-earth and long-suffering a person as you could ever want to meet, she nevertheless asked me, “So that school you’re going to, can it turn your eyes into those of a whiteman?” This was heavy sarcasm and quite unanswerable, for it was whitemen who made motor-cars; they created money; they healed all manner of diseases in their hospitals. Was the charcoal rubbish with which I was smearing her polished kitchen floor capable of doing any of that? Was I l;earning that sort of knowledge? If not, then why was I making a nuisance of myself, giving her such a hard time and ruining the beautiful work she had made of her kitchen floor? Her cutting remark put into perspective for me, the difference between absorbing “school knowledge” and doing something practical and useful with it. And I stopped writing on her kitchen floor — whether it was polished or not.
Halfway through our class one course, Mr Akwa decided that I had learnt everything he had to teach me in class one and that I should be promoted to class two. Well-meaning though this decision was, it was one of the most harmful — and stupid — he ever made about me. For the school syllabus could not be easily circumvented. When I went to class two, I soon discovered that there were things in the math texbook, Larcombe’s School Arithmetic Book Two, which we in class one hadn’t yet studied, using Book One as we did. For instance, we hadn’t yet learnt long division, but it was in the class two book. We had’t also been taught fractions. And however clever you are, you cannot do fractions without being taught, Because of the gap in my knowledge, I couldn’t cope with many of the sums in Book Two!
I could have grasped the work if anyone had taken the trouble to bring me up-to-date. But the class two teacher was a lazy old sod who kept shouting “Keep quiet!” and did little else. He wasn’t going to spend extra time on me to make sure I fitted in. In fact, he hardly ever taught anything at all, but left it to his ‘big boys’ to set work for the rest of us. And these big boys resented my presence and so went about their business as if I didn’t exist. The fact that I wasn’t prepared in any way whatsoever before I was pushed into class two increased my discomfiture. It was just assumed that because I was good in class one, I would be good in class two — at mid-school, not even the beginning of a new term.
So I became even more dazed than I had been in class one – but this time, not with euphoria, but its opposite — sheer bewilderment. Fortunately, my inability to cope was only too noticeable and I was soon sent back to class one. I have never been so happy to be back anywhere as when I returned to my familiar hunting ground. Of course, I was a bit embarrassed that I had let down Mr Akwa and not been able to shine in class two, as he had hoped. But the feeling soon left me and I enjoyed the rest of the year, conquering everything that the teacher threw in my path.
But unknown to me, Mr Akwa hadn’t finished with his “Danger DD Boy” stuff yet. At the beginning the next year, he had me jumped from class one straight to class three. This meant that I had to re-congregate with the same class two pupils who had outclassed me the previous year. But this time round, we were all on a level playing field: we learnt the same things from the same teacher from the same textbooks at the same time. So, in our first examination, I topped the class. I was very sorry that by then Mr Akwa had been transferred elsewhere, and so couldn’t see me, justify at last, the faith he had so abundantly placed in me. To go from class one to class three and top the lot? But I am sure he heard about it, for teachers often corresponded with each other and asked about pupils in whom they were interested.
Our class three teacher also appreciated my ability to do the work he set us, but he loved caning even more than Mr Akwa did. My unwanted blessing was that because I had topped the class, he assigned all the ‘important’ tasks to me – taking the class register to and from the headmaster’s office; collecting new chalk; wiping the blackboard; and even going to sweep his sleeping quarters — something I hated doing, as it meant I had to wake up extra early.
It also meant that it was I who had to go and cut raffia canes for him from the school “store” to enable him to whip my classmates. Now, every time I brought him a new cane, he ‘tried’ it on me first before using it on his main victims! Ostensibly, he wanted to be sure that I had not engaged in a sleight of hand and cut him a cane that was not ‘in good shape’ for the job in hand. But the real reason, I surmised, was to make sure that I did not become complacent enough to enjoy being the instrument by which others received punishment.
Whether that was his reason or not, I hated it when he beat me! First of all, it wasn’t I who asked him to tell me to go and cut the cane for him; secondly, because I didn’t like to be caned, I made sure I spent inordinate hours chewing my tables by heart and reading my textbooks ahead of time, in order to be prepared for any questions that he might ask. And yet, after all my efforts, I still got to taste the cane.
I used to cry my eyes out at the sheer injustice of this. To be caned when you have done no wrong: it was a monstrous bit of wickedness on the teacher’s part.
Well, we moved on. Our standard one teacher was, professionally speaking, one of the worst I ever encountered in my whole school career. Worse even than the class two teacher. He doubled as the head-teacher, and being s a fussy character, he was always leaving us without a teacher and going off to deal with matters in other teachers’ classrooms. His house was also close by, and he was always leaving us untaught and making off for home to do God knows what. We laughed when we saw him going and coming, for he had very thin legs and the long hose he wore under his khaki shorts, turned him into a veritable figure of fun. To complete the picture, he had a mis-shapen head, upon which he had the effrontery to place a pith-helmet, whose white colouring had faded — as if the blanco used to paint it had been mixed with ochre.
I soon discovered that I could leave this man’s classroom for long hours on end without his noticing that I was absent. So I spent most of my standard one year hiding on top of a tall orange tree that produced very sweet fruit. My school uniform always smelt of oranges; but then, almost everyone else’s uniform smelt of something or other, and no-one saw anything strange in that. I mean, orange smell wasn’t worse than the smell of koobi (salted fish) or nane (salted pig’s trotters) or kotor bommone (rotting crabs) which some kids brought to school to arouse the envy of their classmates. One boy was so fond of bringing smelly crabs that his true name, Kwaku Hen, was replaced with “Okotor” or “Crab” by everyone who did not fear to engage in a fight with him. Fort if you called him “Okotor”, he would try to slap you. Yet he kept bring cooked crabs to school in his pocket.