Earlier, during our first and second year, classes closed on Fridays with senior kids, I had a taste of what the closing assembly was for the big boys and girls. I looked forward to getting to the third year, to be a permanent part of the afternoon rendezvous, admirable dancing and display of what seemed like an eternal joy. After the sweetness of the assembly session in the morning, we came face to face with the learning process. Learning how to write A, B, C to Z did not come easy. The more the teacher pushed the effort, the more the message and its reality sunk into the brain. Along went the learning how to write 1, 2, 3, first to 10; then to 20 and further. It never came easy. But with the teacher’s patience, helping the children to flow along, the practice turned into acquisition of knowledge and to near perfection. I found out that the more I learnt, the more I wanted to learn. The more I wrote, the more I still wanted to write. The mistakes that always called for correction always occurred and were never enough to stop or deter me. I began to learn that mistakes were part of the learning process; that one was allowed to make mistakes and then make corrections, and you were not supposed to stop until you might have got it right. Yes, you don’t just go to school, the basic demand is to get it right.
The more mistakes I made in reading session on the board; and writing on my small black plate, and later in the exercise books writing with pencils, fumbling to make corrections with the teacher on my beck and call, at times plodding me with the help of a cane, the more I wanted to get home to begin a struggle on my own, away from school and the presence of a teacher, to get it right. It marked the beginning of my struggle with letters and reading at home to avoid getting to school to face a teacher’s wrath, and shame before other children for inability to read and write.
This development quickly ceded me from a childhood friend, Aki, who was not in school. Before the time I got into school, we were always in each other’s company. But all of a sudden, unaware at the beginning, I began to spend more and more time struggling with the letters and the words, and forgot I had a friend with whom I was nearly inseparable. One day, after I returned from school, my mother called my attention to what seemed to her
like a lapse on my part.
“Kelimu, you don’t play with Aki any more?” she queried after I had finished eating my lunch, went for my books, with a pencil in hand, and head deep down in an attempt to understand how to read the words and write the letters. It was like a tug of war.
“I am learning how to read and write. I have to know how to read and write. The teacher may ask me to come
before the class tomorrow, to read and write. It will be a shame for me not to be able to do it.” Ai was shocked at my response. “I had thought there was no way to stop you from running around with your friends.” she remarked.
“Didn’t you hear what I said?” I asked as I raised my head.
“I don’t want that shame attached to inability to write and read in class. I don‘t want the flogging that come with it either.”
“Serve you right. You are in the right place. I am sure Aki may join you soon to practice reading and writing. It will be a good influence.”
Aki was eventually forced to be sitting by me and looking at how I was solving the debacle about writing and reading at that early age, compelled by my class works. My first great step and stride toward becoming a lettered man. It was a process that taught me as a kid that no one came into the world with any particular
knowledge. It had to be learnt and acquired. A variance, a big difference existed between those who went through the process and those who did not. Lamentably, Aki belonged to the latter for a reason that would become clear later in the passage.
In my fourth year in school, there was a culmination of coming together assortment of pupils, especially some of whom I had not been associated in my first four years in school. I started to be aware of a need to read and be ahead of others in class tests and examinations. The trend began in the third year when I came tenth in a class of thirty. I felt bad and asked why could not I be one of those of my classmates who took the first, second and third positions. The fifth year was when I became aware of the peculiarity of the beauty in the architectural arrangement of the school compound and that it was the only elementary school I knew in the town with an elaborate gate that was always shut after school hours. At this time too, I became cognizant of the need to
excel in class works. Perhaps for a reason that my fifth year class was taught by a teacher who was ardent in his job and knew how to break down difficult areas of any subject for easy understanding. He actually came and took over from another teacher who was equally good in teaching but too hard on pupils. Named Olu Bewaji, the new teacher was soft spoken, only resorts to the cane when necessary, and exhibited a dressing style that appealed to us. His pupils were glad that he was moved along to continue as their teacher in the final class. He continued with the good job he had started in the fifth year class; he encouraged real competition among his
pupils. He spoke about a robust hope that some of us in his class would grow to be exemplary in our future chosen fields of endeavor.
But as children, little did we know that the future would not be easily accessible; that there was an invisible mountain that stood between us and the future; and that the size of a mountain between each individual pupil and the future would depend on our individual background. That children from rich homes,
whose fathers were mostly kings, chiefs and educated elites would find no problem going through school, and that children whose dads were ordinary men may have to forget about school all together or ready for a struggle of a lifetime to be at par with their peers from rich homes.
My own mountain became manifest that same year and I was forced to repeat the final class, because there was no money to pay the fees for my high school admission; and not because I was dull or failed the high school entrance examination. There were other pupils in the same shoes that I was. But it was only me who repeated the same class for lack of money to proceed to high school. I knew a lot of my mates who proceeded to high
school because their parents could afford to pay their fees and others like Aki whose parents could not afford the school monetary demand and were forced to seek other things to do.
In the course of the repetition of the sixth class, the same good teacher remained as my class teacher, and
I benefited a lot from his craftsmanship. In the same year that I repeated the sixth class, a surge of very brilliant pupils were promoted from the fifth year class that made the year another year of fierce competition. I showed them that the fact that I repeated the class did not mean I was a push over. The teacher in turn took pride in me; he would graciously tell the class what he hoped I was destined to be; a professor, a lawyer, an economist, a journalist etc. Although, he knew my father was a laundry man, and it was due to his inability to source money for high school fees that I repeated the final class. He did not know there was a mind bending struggle ahead of me if I would earn any of the titles in the professions he highlighted. He did not see the mysterious mountain that stood between me and the future. All he thought was about my father’s inability to pay my fees into a high school. He had thought, with time, the uphill journey would be overcome.
The mind bending journey began in earnest. It looked, based on my back ground, a lifetime of struggle to get across a mountain of impossibilities, before a journey toward success and stardom would begin. And that is, if it would ever be a stardom story, the ultimate.
(Conclusion of Chapter 1 in "Growing Up Amid Uncertainties" - a memoir about an indigent's struggle for education and survival).