The class was making noise. A crazy many dimensional noise. Every desk had its own shouts and bangs. Maybe a dozen stations of crazy all around the room. But the strangest thing was the teacher was there in the middle of it all. I don’t think she tolerated such noise really. Not most of the time anyway. She must have started some exercise for each table to do. Of course we were allowed to talk and make suggestions and that sort of thing. The teacher was going around from table to table to see how it was going. We started talking quietly at first. But then you felt free to speak a little louder when you heard other people talking and then just like that the room was a stagnant riot. But then I saw one boy stand up with a sling shot and take aim at a girl across the table from him. It seemed no one noticed but me. I didn’t know the boy or the girl but I screamed. And would you believe, over that noise everyone heard me? Everyone including the teacher. An immediate silence came over the class and the teacher was very cross. She wanted to know who had screamed and I was too scared to admit to it. She then started a methodic investigation to find the culprit. We were only a couple dozen of us so it was not too much trouble for her to question every pupil one by one while the rest of the class looked on. “Did you scream, was it you?” she was asked every little boy and girl. When she got to the table before mine I couldn’t take the pressure. I broke out into tears and they had me.
I was not yet nine when that happened and I told nobody about it. I was too ashamed. I was not coping. This had happened on a three week visit to my Grandmother in Northampton with my father and sister from Zambia. Dad wanted my sister and I to attend school to get us out of the way. I was afraid and said no. But my little sister, three years younger than me, had no qualms and she was a week in the nursery class before I gave into the pressure. Compared to me my little sister was intrepid. She took to the the deep end of swimming pools and, a little later in life, dancing in public places, when I dithered on the sidelines.
I did, mind you, when I finally went, find the experience of going to School in England thrilling. The classroom I was in was like a free standing tree house. It was made of wood and stood off the ground on stilts. You could crawl under if you wanted too. It had carpets inside and it was brightly lit with crayon Picasso master pieces on the walls. But what was most exciting of all was that the class had its own toys. Can you believe that, toys? At my normal school in Zambia toys were simply not allowed. If you were caught with a toy at school the teacher would confiscate it and you would never see it again. Good luck telling your parents about it too. All they would wanted to know was what were you doing taking a toy to school in the first place? Just another sign that you didn’t look after things. And of course, taking a toy to school would be such a sensation among my class mates. It wouldn’t be long before I would be pressed to lend the toy to a friend or more likely a series of friends on a much contested schedule lest I be accused of under appreciating their friendship. Either that or the damned thing would be altogether stolen. Either way, a trip to school was typically one of the last few episodes in your relationship with a toy.
Anyway yes, the teacher handed out toys for you to play with in the class. There were books too. I found nothing thrilling in the books though. Instead it was just plain shame. I could not read. Well, I could hardly read. I was still at the stage where a book that didn’t have huge pictures on every page was a disappointment. And there they were, all those English children with their own little library in the classroom which was a small pantry at the back neatly stacked with near picture-less books. One of the boys who was asked by the sweat and caring teacher to mind over me showed me the ledger where you filled in your name and the book you took out. I can’t remember the boys name but he was very earnest. He explained it all with such careful deliberation. I didn’t have the courage to admit to him that I could not read a book from front to back if it had no pictures. I think he had me take a book out all the same.
There was one aspect of that school however, that made me feel abject pity for those English children. It was their playground. This was a section of the school grounds designated as a school play area and all the children were there at the school break time. Would you believe, this area, not much bigger than a netball court, was every bit hard tarmac? It was nothing more than a rectangular slice of the M1 (though of course I had to envy the fact that both the M1 and this playground had not potholes). There was no sand and no grass. If you slipped and fell running (how else could you be playing if you were not running?) then you left some of your knee or face on the ground. Most children simply stood around in little groups and talked to each other. I recall clumps of children with the steam rising slowly from their talk on a cold November morning.
At my own school, back in Lusaka, we had a whole football field. Granted it only had grass during the rain season, and even then only over some parts of it, but goodness did we have space to run around. There were tall trees on the perimeter of the football pitch littered with loose stones. If you were not playing football (probably because you were, like me, not very good at it) then you could throw stones at each other, which we often did. And when some poor owl or bat settled in one of those trees then dozens, maybe hundreds, of pupils took to stoning the creature until it was quite dead. Owls and bats, you see, were evil and sent by the devil. And then there were the games to play. Cops and Robbers could be an expansive game with maybe a dozen cops and a dozen robbers running after or from each other over the whole school. You could hide in the empty disused swimming pool or sneak into class rooms through the broken windows. We played these extensive games after regular classes had finished and before we had extra lessons. This was when our teacher taught us some more in the afternoon with a little extra pay from our parents.
When the patient and endearing English teacher found out it was me who had howled in fear she wanted to know why I did. I tried to explain but I couldn’t stop crying. She asked me to point out who it was that had had the gun thing. You see, though I spoke nothing but english I had trouble explaining to her what I saw because I didn’t know the english name for a sling shot. I knew it then as a ‘malegen’ but they wouldn’t under stand that. In Zambia, all sling shots are home made from a small stick with a fork in it and a long length of rubber which is wrapped around the stick many times leaving a loop with a pocket in it for your stone to sit in before it is launched. A Length of rubber is called a ‘legen’ in Zambia (or it was then anyway) and so ‘malegen’ is like ‘The rubber’ which fires small rocks. I have a suspicion that ‘legen’ is derived from the name of a woman’s stockings (‘leggings’) which are of course stretchy like rubber. But any way, I digress. The teacher was interrogating me and the whole class was watching and listening. I must have been such a curious spectacle for them. I looked and talked different of course. But now I was proving to be a hopeless cry baby to boot. I was unfamiliar with this form of discipline. The teacher wanted to know what happened and why I had reacted that way. She wanted information from me and I couldn’t give it to her. She, the teacher who was so nice to us, gave us toys and played little games with us in the tree house of a classroom was disappointed with me.
At my own school, a teacher’s disappointment was not something you feared very much. What you really feared was being whipped. You feared the thickness of the whip, the grade of the whip (house pipe, wood staff or iron bar?) and the number of whips. And by extension you feared class monitors. These were your own class mates and friends anointed with authority by the teacher to compile a list of all those who had given in to temptation and conversed with their friends in the teachers absence while he or she had extended conversations in the tea room with other teacher. It was impossible to keep your peace and be quiet. Everyone talked to someone in the class including the class monitors. Only there was no one to write their names down.
The office of class monitor lasted about a school term. In the new term, another monitor would be selected by the teacher. But for most of primary, this guy Brian was the class monitor. There was something about him that always got the teachers liking. He came first in class most of the time. He sat near the front and he usually had a hand up with an answer the teacher was looking for. But when Brian did not come top of the class Kasenshi did. Ditto with hands up and the right answer. And then this one term, in the fourth grade, Kasenshi was the class monitor and the teacher was out for maybe an hour and we are quite naturally all talking, shouting, laughing, crying and maybe even some were fighting at the back of the class. Then of course the teacher walked in and apoplectic with anger. What happened then horrified us but it did not surprise us. The teacher asked for the noise makers list and Kanseshi handed it over. A couple of dozen of us were whipped right there in front of the class against the larger wooden teachers desk and in front of the blackboard. My fear of whips and pain had disciplined me to not talk loud enough that morning to be noticed by Kanseshi in the preceding hour. But Brian was not so lucky and he was one of the first to get the cain when the teacher’s arm was still strong. He was unused to the combination of pain and humiliation and tears escaped his eyes when he sat down on his sore bum. When the teacher returned to the staff room that morning, exhausted from his disciplining, he issued his threat to Kansenshi. “I will see you at home time”.
Threats of reprisals at home time were not unusual. More so against class monitors who lost their indemnity when classed concluded and we were all reduced to the status of children from pupils. It was unusual however for a fight to be scheduled between a girl and a boy. School fights were a great attraction that always brought a large audience that came running to the scene from all directions. There would be the chant “ooou-one, ooou one!” that would rally spectators from the far corners of the field. It was all this for girl versus boy fights as well only more so. In my time at that primary school I had seen at least a couple of girls get the best of their boy adversary. I must add though, that those girls had come from rather rough neighborhoods. They walked quite a few kilometers from some place dreadful where they had had practice in the sport of fighting. That was not true of Kasenshi however, who was a princess from a home good enough to pick her up from school in a car every afternoon. The Brian – Kasenshi fight took place somewhere between the girl’s and the boy’s toilets and Kasenshi alighted her father’s car that day in tears and bruises. Brian was remembered from then on as the guy who beat Kansenshi over the noise makers list.
I do not recall telling my English classmates, however briefly I was there, what school was like for me in Lusaka. Neither do I recall regaling my friends with stories of an English primary school once I got back, though I must have said what a pity it was that they had no playground. I wouldn’t have know where to begin with those English kids. As for the latter, no doubt my tearful incident with the sweet and caring English teacher had something to do with it. Like Brian, I had shamed myself in front of the whole class. Lucky for me though, no one, except strangers I never saw again ever knew of it.