17 Nov 2012

Debriefing of an NYSC Teacher: Held Back

She seemed unstable; her eyes were soaked in tears. The tears brimmed over the edge of her lashes but did not roll over. She threw her head back to stop the tears from rolling down. Her hands frantically wiped at the tears. As she walked away, her steps were clumsy and she looked like she would fall over in a moment. The staff room was quiet as we all watched her leave.

The teachers shook their heads. The murmuring started all at once, almost as if we had watched her cross a line indicating she could not hear us anymore.

“I hear she is repeating for the third time. Her younger sibling met her in the school and left her here. He was a very brilliant boy. He finished his WAEC and NECO with distinction” One of the teachers’ voices rose above the other to give the narrative.

“So if she is repeating for the third time, why not tell her to take up an apprenticeship?” I asked.

Mrs. A looked up from her desk, “Nooo, she is not ready for that kind of thing. How do I put this? Hmmm…she does not know how to say no to men. She was learning fashion designing before and we heard that men near the shop set her up for a few games during that time. In fact, when her younger brother was in school, you know the one that just graduated, he used to shepherd her everywhere. He was her chaperone; making sure she did not get into any mess.”

“So she needs the structure and protection of school.”
“Yes, yes, she does o!”

We had barely finished getting a background story before one of the vice-principals walked in  “We just saw Kemi in our office o! In fact, I have told her to sit there.”

“Hmm, I think she is the one walking there…”I chimed in as I looked out the window and saw Kemi walking across the field.

The vice-principal, Mrs. O, ran to the window and yelled across the field “Kemi go back to the office now and sit down there with the other VPs. I am coming!” Mrs. O turned back to the staff, “Her case is really delicate. You all remember that she swallowed poison here last year. What are we going to do?”

“Call her younger brother! I think he is in the junior school,” the English teacher, Mrs. F suggested.

“I saw her and her brother getting off an okada this morning,” I said. Mrs. O walked to the stairs leading to the courtyard and called a random student. “Call me Kemi A’s younger brother. Just go to all the classes and announce that we are all looking for him.”

As the vice-principal entered back into the room, her face looked distressed. “I am really worried about her. She has started saying she has nowhere to go. She just stood there like she was in a trance. She was talking about her younger brother.”

“You better call her father and tell him to come and pick her up.” Mrs. F said from her desk.

“I don’t even know what we are going to do. There are too many of them. In a class of 90, only 23 have been promoted. We are still waiting for results. There are some that will still go back to SS3 but most of them will be held back.” Another hush felt over the room as the news sunk in once again for the teachers.

The Friday morning had started as normal in the school. I had been running a little late after dealing with a bit of a debacle at home in the morning. As I walked into the staff room, I did the customary kneel and greet dance that I do each morning while the older female teachers complimented my dress.

“Did you sew this one too yourself?” Mrs. A asked of my purple dress
“Yes ma, I did” I replied
“That is really good!” Mrs. Z, the new language teacher, chimed in from behind the bench I was sitting.

As my outfit for the day started a discussion on the merit of apprenticeship as part of the service year started, I noticed that the morning bell was unusual. The bell was announcing an emergency congregation of students. Only the students awaiting final news on their promotion to the final year stood at the assembly area. I could see Mr. K admonishing them for unruly behavior and asking that the student line up properly.

I walked out of the staff room to the food area to get a small loaf of bread and boiled egg for my breakfast. As I sat down eating, I watched the assembly out of curiosity. As my curiosity was piqued, I turned to the teachers around me and asked what was happening. No one seemed to know exactly what was happening. Eventually, the lack of information bothered me enough and I abandoned my breakfast to head out to the assembly area. As I descended towards the students, I noticed that the principal was on stage speaking in very serious tones to the student. I moved over to Mrs. J and asked, “Is this assembly for the promotion?”
Mrs. J looked at me and nodded. I looked closely and realized that the students had already been split in two groups. It did not take much to realize which group had gotten good news. The promoted students stood in lines proudly. There were smiles on their faces. The other group of students cluttered around. There were a myriad of expressions on their faces. Some had blank faces. There were worried looked. Some looked like they had cried a thousand years already. And a few actually chatted with friends while smiling.

Mrs. J said to me “Some of those kids don’t even understand what is going on. I mean some of them can’t understand that they are being held back. Some of have gotten it but some of these kids…” She trailed off as we both began to point out faces.
I pointed to the boys who I was not surprised to see in the “held back” zone. I talked about the fact that the promoted area seemed to disproportionately hold more boys than girls. The girls’ ratio was high in the “held back” zone. I spotted one of the troublesome boys in my class in the ‘held back” zone. Then I spotted his partner in crime in the lines. The partnership had been broken up. I pointed out to Mrs. J that the teachers had been counseling the two boys to end their friendship and now the promotional exercise had put a wedge between them. As I scanned the “held back” zone, I spotted one of my intelligent kids. He who had a good handwriting and neat note; he who had been one of the few to pass my literature exam properly was now he in the “held back” zone. My eyes welled with tears.

“I am going to go see which of my kids made it,” I told Mrs. J as I walked over to the promoted lines to find my class. The line was so short. The boisterous class had been cut down to a select few.

“Aunty, are you not going to tell us ‘congratulations’?” One of the boys in the lines asked me. They always seemed to crave my approval. I could not reply. I was too heartbroken that I appeared to have lost some of my brilliant minds. I turned around and headed back to the staff room.

The buzz in the staff room all day revolved around the promotion exercise. Each visit to teach the final year student elicited another round of stories. As we sat in the staff room lamenting the bad marking and the failing students, one of the boys that had been promoted walked by the staff-room. A teacher called him in.

“Mummy,” he said referring to Mrs. A in the respectful manner adopted at the school, “this is the kid I was telling you about” While Mr. G was busy making slight introductions, the boy, Temi, had prostrated himself flat on the floor in Mrs. A’s direction. He remained there for a minute and got up.

Mrs. A looked at him and said, “So, our prayer has been answered right?” Temi nodded and prostrated again “Thank you, ma”

Then Mrs. F got up and looked at him. “If someone had told me that this boy would be promoted I would have laughed. But look at him now.” Then she turned to Temi who was now in the middle of the staff room and prostrating in front of each teacher. “I hope you know you are lucky. Now is the time for you consolidate on your blessing and work hard. You need to focus on your education and read. God has shown you he can perform miracles, you need to do your part.”

Temi once again said “Thank you, ma.” He performed another round of prostrations, lying on the floor in push-up position and rising again. Mr. G found the whole thing funny and told him it was alright. Temi moved in his direction and performed another prostration in front of him before he exited the staff room.

“So, on the last day of school,” Mrs. A started her story as Temi walked out of the room, “Temi said he was going to follow me home. He had just gotten his results from the school’s internal exams. He said he had not been promoted and he did not know what to do. He said he had nowhere to turn to and he was going to live with me. I told him he could not do that. As I entered into the taxi, he gave the driver my fare. I told him he could not do that and extended the fare back to him. He moved towards the car and I asked the driver to slow down. Alas, he jumped into the taxi beside me instead of collecting the money. He was crying saying he did not know what the next step was. I cradled his head and held him close. I prayed for him. I told him to have faith and believe that everything would be okay.”

The staff room was speechless. “When we resumed this term and he saw me, he prostrated as he was just doing and thanked me for the prayer again. Look at him now, he has been promoted based on the external test.”

As the conversation geared towards many incidents of miracles over the years, Kemi’s father was spotted leaving the school alone. Mrs. O returned to the staff room to update the teachers on the crisis. “So Kemi’s father just left the school. He told us the reason she had been so paranoid is because he had threatened to discipline her if she came home with bad results. We looked into her case and discovered that she has four credits in her results and three outstanding subjects. She is likely to achieve one more credit in the outstanding ones. We have advised that she return to class so that she is not so disheartened.”

“Why was she crying so hard? She has four credits including English Language.” Mrs. F said.

“By the way, why is it the father that was called? What about her mother?” Mrs. Z inquired.

“Her mother left the family years ago. She was supposed to be taking a course but she met another man and ran away with him. She left the children to be raised by their father. What a useless woman!”

I had a class scheduled with the final year students so I proceeded to head into the classroom. As I walked into classroom and noticed the near empty state, I felt a chill come over me. I was sad but I wanted to challenge my students. We were due to read the final three stanzas of Ambassadors of Poverty by P.C. Umeh. The seventh stanza went well. I actually had a student who broke down the stanza line by line and did the analysis accurately. I was impressed. The eighth stanza of the poem led to a discussion on figures that inspire. The students did not have any modern references. The Herbert Macaulays, Wole Soyinkas and Awolowos were the names that they recited. I was quite disappointed.

I decided to give them an impromptu lecture on the importance of having inspiring personalities to look up to. The discussion disintegrated into a classroom filled with snickers. I was quite upset so I challenged them to give me details on their five-year plan. One of the girls said she would be living in London. I asked her what she would be doing in London, she laughed. She said she was only joking.

I said, “Alright, what will you being doing in five years?”
“I will be a lawyer”
“Okay, how long does it take to be a lawyer?”
“Seven years.”
“So, how will you be a lawyer in five years? Think about it”

With that conversation, I began to ask randomly for a five-year plan. Most did not have anything concrete.  A boy said he wanted study theatre arts. I was quite impressed.
“Where do you want to study theatre arts?”
“U.I.,” he said, referring to the University of Ibadan.
“Okay, who is your favorite playwright?”
“Eddie Murphy,” he said. I told him to go and research theatre arts. Then I told the class to write me four-page essay on their ten-year plan as an element of their assessment for the term.

When I arrived back in the staff room, Kemi was there. I could see she looked settled. Her eyes were still swollen from the crying fits from earlier in the day. The English teacher, Mrs. F, was counseling her.

“So you yourself have said that your brother, three years your junior, finished school before you. Maybe you should use this an opportunity to re-focus on the books. Start reading! It is possible for you to get good results like your brother.”
As the words sunk in, the tears came to her face again and she wiped them furiously with her hands.
“So do you hear from your mother?” Mrs. J asked.
“Yes, she calls us…but I don’t talk to her”
“Don’t worry, one day she will come back to beg for your forgiveness. You just make it in life and she will come back.”
“I don’t think she can recognize us anymore…”
Mrs. F added, “And your father has done such a good job raising you kids. Don’t worry all will be well…”

2012 9JEducation.org work-study

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