EMAIL FROM AMERICA: Flashbacks: For the potter’s wheel

EMAIL FROM AMERICA: Flashbacks: For the potter’s wheel

Catholic boarding
school was a difficult experience. I felt like Charles Dickens’ Oliver
Twist most days. You never knew what the day would bring, other than
trouble. I remember severe punishments and I associate the Catholic
Church in Nigeria with child abuse. As little boys we attended church
at least twice daily. Our church was not a sanctuary from abuse; we
were required to confess in church. This was tough for little boys;
there was not much to confess to. We made things up so the fathers
would not be upset. Once our principal priest slapped my friend in
church and the blood formed a beautiful crimson arc from his nose to
the floor. Perhaps it was not the slap; my friend was prone to
nosebleeds. Boarding school taught me to negotiate every human being
very carefully. Each time I enter a church I remember my friend with
the nosebleed.

In terms of
academics, we were sorted like eggs; grade 1, 2, 3 and discards. If you
were not good academically, you were most likely beaten and humiliated
for, in essence, being wired differently. These days I live in a place
where advocates fight fiercely to ensure that all kids are given an
education that matches their aptitudes. Still, America has a long way
to go; children of color lag way behind white and Asian children
academically. It is still a struggle to find the right supports for
children with special needs. It is savagery to teach to the test of a
single intelligence. There are multiple intelligences and they should
all be nurtured.

There was a
library in our school. The library saved my life. I spent as many days
as I could inside that library and I read voraciously. In the books, I
travelled to other countries and met other restless boys like myself –
in places like India, England, and America. I read virtually all the
‘Williams’ volumes by Richmal Crompton, about an 11 year-old-boy and
his gang called the Outlaws. There must have been at least three dozen
of those books: ‘William the Bad’, ‘Just William’, ‘William Again’,
etc. Books are powerful; the first time I stepped foot inside London it
was as if I had been there before.

Many of our
teachers beat us up at every opportunity and I learnt that the human
being has an infinite capacity for administering punishment on others.
I also met amazing teachers. There was a Nigerian priest who put a
smile on our faces each time he entered the class. He was our English
teacher; he had travelled all over the world and he was a great story
teller. He never hit us, which was quite unusual. Our senior tutor
taught geography. He was a walking demon. He would walk in to our class
with a whip and growl at the victim of the day, “You! Show me
Saskatchewan!” Invariably, the nervous kid would point at the wrong end
of the map and the whip would descend on him. Many of us would wet our
pants from waiting for our turn. One’s turn always came.

I learnt to tell
the changing of the seasons from the church hymns. Certain hymns, when
they were sung, I knew meant soon I would be going to see my mother.
When the holidays came, I would get in a taxi all by myself and go home
to the waiting arms of my mother. It was not all bad.

There were social
events, dances and plays. My favorite teacher of all time was Mr V.O.
Thomas. He was my literature teacher. He absolutely adored me, he loved
playing tennis and during evenings while my peers were performing
manual labor, he would make sure I was at the tennis court with him,
picking balls. He called me Fat Head affectionately.

He would walk into
class and go, “Fat Head! Read! Read Abiku!” I did not like reading
Soyinka’s ‘Abiku’; it was too complex for me. I preferred ‘Abiku’ by JP
Clark’s (as he was called then). I understood it better. He knew that
and he loved to watch me start reading the wrong ‘Abiku’. I always read
JP Clark’s ‘Abiku’. They don’t make them like him anymore.

I have been reading Chukwuemeka Ike’s ‘The Potter’s Wheel’ again.
Ike is one of the most under-rated and under-celebrated writers in
Africa. In ‘The Potter’s Wheel’, a bright young boy who is doted upon
by his parents is sent off to a disciplinarian teacher in a faraway
village to learn some discipline and get an education. As a teenager I
enjoyed that book immensely; it is such a lovely book. Re-reading it
however has been painful: the scenes of physical, verbal and emotional
abuse against this boy Obuechina Maduabuchi (Obu) and other children is
just too painful for me to read. What makes me really sad is that there
was a time I thought what happened to me and boys like Obu was normal.
No child should have to suffer like that. Pray for the “child witches”
of Akwa Ibom.

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