Miss Agbo was what as an adult, I can now refer to as “meticulous.” But as a child, I thought she was just petty. Too particular, and in fact, obsessed with an infinite number of small, uninteresting details.
At the end of class everyday, she would ensure that the class captain cleaned the blackboard with the duster, and swept all the chalk dust that had accumulated over the course of the day’s lessons, into the dustbin. In her words,
“What are we keeping chalk dust for? Do you want to eat it? Or are we going to sell in the market?”
The class captain’s typical reply was:
But more than once, I caught him in what appeared to be a mental struggle between replying with the customary “No, ma,” or diving into a detailed account of just why he thought chalk dust should be allowed to accumulate untouched all the way to Christmas. Or Ileya* the following year.
He never did.
The class captain, Bright, who thankfully lived up to his name, was a very disciplined and responsible boy, who would not have been caught dead disobeying any kind of authority. He also happened to be my seat-mate, and managed to be the voice of reason when I shared my less-than-pleasant plans for Miss Agbo with him.
The day we voted him class captain, the votes in his favor were almost entirely unanimous, with the only dissenters being the twins: Funso and Funto. Nobody liked them. Except for Miss Agbo, who mostly turned a blind eye to their many transgressions because in her words, “I want to have twins too!”
So they got away with many, many things.
Being in her early 30s and still unmarried, Miss Agbo had marriage and children on her mind. No surprises there. In fact, it was a wonder she was not married.
Tall, slender and very pretty, albeit a little clumsy, Miss Agbo was well-mannered and polite. We did not know why she was not married, but she certainly loved children. If all these qualities alone, and by themselves, determined who qualified for marriage, Miss Agbo should have been married a long time ago, and probably expecting baby number 4.
But as we all know, life is not mathematics. These things are not logical.
Among the classes Miss Agbo taught, English was by far her favorite. There again, we didn’t see eye to eye.
She was the sort of person who loved open-ended questions, the kind that required you to express yourself and expand on ideas with only ink, paper and time to limit you. I, however, preferred multiple choice questions, or the occasional “fill in the blank” format.
About two weeks before our mid-term break, Miss Agbo announced that she would be giving us a special assignment which we had to turn in before we went home for the break. But, she refused to tell us what this assignment was. In my mind, she did this because she relished the thought of watching us squirm and fret over something we could not possibly escape.
Finally, one week later, on a Wednesday afternoon, she told us:
“Children, on Friday, I will tell you about the special homework you must do before mid-term. Does anyone have any questions?”
Like clockwork, several hands shot up, scattered all over the classroom. I can tell you with all certainty, that I did not raise my hand. Neither did Bright. We were content to wait and find out on Friday.
Among the curious, impatient, question-asking bunch, two students in particular, added to their hand raising, pleas for Miss Agbo’s attention, chanted in whiny voices.
“Auntie, Auntie! Meeee! Pick me, please!”
The urgency in their voices was real, and a visitor would have assumed that they were sitting on pins and needles. But no, this was typical of the twins.
Predictably, Miss Agbo’s eyes fell on them and out of our class of twenty-two, she agreed to entertain the questions of these two students.
The first person who stood up was the boy, Funso. His sister momentarily put her hand down, a smug look on her face, waiting for her turn to bombard Miss Agbo with questions.
“Auntie, why can’t we submit our homework after mid-term?” he demanded.
Miss Agbo gave a benevolent smile, and with the patience of a saint, responded:
“Because the syllabus says you must submit it before your mid-term break. It has nothing to do with me.”
“But Auntie, can’t you change the syllabus?”
At this point, the rest of the class was split into two factions. One group wanted to turn in the special assignment before the mid-term break, and the other group wanted to submit it after the mid-term break. Nobody seemed to be interested in talking Miss Agbo out of the assignment altogether.
“Quiet!” Miss Agbo barked, adjusting her glasses simultaneously. “Keep quiet, children!”
Almost immediately, the grumbling died down, but it was not because Miss Agbo had demanded it. It was because she had, after adjusting her glasses, pulled out from his station beside the blackboard, Mr. Pepper, the official punisher of the class.
Mr. Pepper deserves an introduction.
He, or rather, it was a long, thick cane, of the variety typically sold by sadistic old women in bunches all over Lagos, just in case parents did not have a suitable tree or shrub growing nearby, whose branches could beat the spirit of disobedience out of naughty children.
In some unfortunate cases, these canes were used on adults.
And in even more unfortunate cases, on mentally challenged people in bootleg deliverance sessions. Our washman often referred to them – the flogged not the flogger – as “people wey their head no correct.”
Everyone feared Mr. Pepper and even though some students had made futile attempts to break Mr. Pepper into pieces, and thus end his wooden life, they quickly repented when they realized that in the absence of the cane, Miss Agbo employed the services of a long ruler.
Besides, these sadistic, cane-selling old women were not going out of business anytime soon. It was a lost battle from Day One, but a child can only hope, abi?
Miss Agbo had slammed the cane on the nearest desk several times, and it worked like magic. Everyone sat up and shut up. Mr. Pepper was nobody’s friend.
Miss Agbo, who always observed the rules of English grammar, only broke those rules where Mr. Pepper was concerned. Once he revealed himself, she would break into pidgin English, chanting:
“If I flog you with this bulala one time ehn, e go pepper your body!”
Then, she would turn it into a call and response song where she would shout:
“E go pepper your–”
And we had to respond:
She would repeat this about five times before putting the cane away. The students, even those who did not understand the basic pidgin only needed to hear “bulala,” “pepper” and “body” in the same sentence to get the message.
That morning, however, there was no call and response.
After revealing the cane, Funso hurriedly sat down, frowning his chubby face. Now, his bolder sister, Funto, also blessed with chubby cheeks, put up her hand, and Miss Agbo, pointing with the cane in her direction, gave her permission to proceed with her question.
“Yes, Funto. What was your question?”
“Auntie, why can’t you tell us today, so we’ll have enough time to do the homework?”
“Funto, I will give you the same answer I gave your brother: Because the syllabus says so.”
“Don’t Auntie me! Sit down!” And to the rest of the class, Miss Agbo said: “No more questions! Now, bring out your Brighter Grammar.”
That was a sure sign that the question and answer session was over. No one dared broach the topic again. On Friday, we would all know what this “special homework” was about.
The next day at assembly, we were all shocked to see Mrs. Aderinto leading morning assembly.
You see, Mrs. Aderinto was the wife of the Headmaster and Proprietor, Mr. Aderinto. But she was also the Assistant Headmistress, which was weird because we expected that there would be an Assistant Headmaster not an Assitant Headmistress.
However, these titles were part of the agreement between husband and wife because it was Mrs. Aderinto’s family who owned the land on which the school was built, and had even financed the construction of the school itself.
We all knew that although he was technically the head, the school did not run without the presence of Mrs. Aderinto. That woman was the administrative brains behind the school. Accepting the position of assistant anything was simply an act of love and respect by Mrs. Aderinto for her husband.
Now, because the headmaster, was under the weather that morning with a bout of malaria, it fell upon his wife, Mrs. Aderinto, to make sure the school ran seamlessly. That included leading assembly.
The assembly ground broke into a melody with students, teachers and non-teaching staff alike, singing:
All things bright and beautiful
All creatures great and small
All things wise and wonderful
The Lord God made them all.
It was while we were singing the verse which began with “the purple headed mountains,” something no one in our class or possibly no one in the entire school had actually seen, that I looked up briefly from the blue-backed hymn book in my hand and was shocked to see Mrs. Aderinto, staring fixedly in my direction.
What on earth had I done wrong now? Had she found out that the Songs of Praise in my hand had someone else’s name printed in black ink on the inside cover? I was only putting the Law of Moses into practice: an eye for an eye. Someone had stolen my copy and I had returned the favor.
Or maybe she could tell that my one of my socks had a large hole in the toe area. But how could she possibly see it? I was wearing Cortina leather shoes, the mother of all closed-toe school shoes, for goodness sakes. Did she have x-ray vision?
I broke into a sweat as my mind processed these possibilities and lost track of where we were in the hymn. By the time we marched to our classrooms, singing to the beat of the drums, I had devised a few ways to dodge Mrs. Aderinto for the rest of the day.
As I later discovered, Mrs. Aderinto was not looking at me, afterall. No, her gaze had fallen on a boy who stood in the same row as myself. Two students stood between us.
This other boy, Adebowale or ‘Bowale as he was called, was a boy with chubby cheeks who was not in my class, but he was also in Primary 3.
That morning, Bowale’s cheeks were chubbier than usual and his face looked puffy. To the casual observer, this boy was hiding at least three large buns in each cheek, although how he managed to do that and still sing during assembly was anybody’s guess.
Apparently, Mrs. Aderinto had been staring at Bowale during assembly, but from where I stood, she appeared to be looking at me.
As we settled down in class that morning, Miss Agbo discovered that we had run out of her favorite color of chalk: blue.
“Ezekiel, go to the Headmaster’s office and bring me blue chalk,” she ordered me.
Bright, the class captain, who was usually saddled with this task, was otherwise engaged with collecting yesterday’s social studies homework from each student.
“They might as well make me Assistant Class Captain,” I thought, as I dragged my feet in the direction of the Headmaster’s office.
I had not quite gone five steps from the classroom, when I heard an authoritative voice shout:
“Hey, you! Stop there! I said, stop!”
I turned around to come face-to-face with Mrs. Aderinto. A few drops of wee-wee escaped from my peanut-sized bladder as I shook in fear.
“G-g-g-o-o-d Morning, ma,” I greeted.
She frowned at me and casually said:
“No, not you. Him!”
She was pointing at an unknown figure behind me. I turned in the direction she was pointing and saw a puffy-faced child who had apparently emerged from another classroom on the same corridor as mine at about the same time I did. I had gone in search of chalk, but he had gone in search of the toilet. It was Bowale.
After sending me on my way to her husband’s office to collect chalk from his secretary, Mrs. Ekiyor, she waited for Bowale to come up to her. I hid behind the flight of stairs that led to the classrooms of students in Primary 4, 5 and 6. I wanted to know what she wanted with Bowale.
“You, why are your cheeks so fat?” she began.
The giggles that attacked me and almost knocked me to the ground, threatened to blow my cover, but I was able to suppress them.
How could she ask such a question?
From my hideout, I could think of at least three answers to her question, none of which Mrs. Aderinto would find amusing: too much meat, sweets, biscuits, a genetic predisposition to being on the heavier side.
But Bowale did not pick an answer from the list I had so carefully compiled in my head.
Instead, his answer was:
“I-I-I don’t know, ma.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? Are your cheeks always like this?”
“No, ma. I woke up like this, and my body was hot, so–”
“Wait … You have a fever?”
“Yes, ma … And my head was paining me, but Auntie Promise said–”
“Who’s Auntie Promise?”
“Our housegirl, ma.”
“What about your parents?”
“They’ve travelled to America … for business, ma.”
“I see. So what did Auntie Promise say?”
“She gave me agbo. It’s bitter and I don’t like it, but she said it will make my cheeks go down.”
“Oluwa mi o!” exclaimed Mrs. Aderinto. “Ignorance is a disease.”
As it turned out, the local potion of herbs which Auntie Promise had given poor Bowale, which he called agbo, had worked as a diuretic. It had only succeeded in making his bladder more active and sending him to the toilet to wee-wee more often than usual.
“Look here, I think you have mumps. Go to the sick bay and report yourself to the nurse immediately. I’ll try and contact your parents.”
That was my cue.
I took a shortcut to the headmaster’s office, trampling on some flower beds in my haste. After picking up the chalk, I greeted Mrs. Aderinto for the second time that morning as she entered her own office, which was next to the headmaster’s office. She just nodded and shut the door behind her.
As soon as I returned to class, I handed the chalk to Miss Agbo, and whispered to Bright:
“Bowale has mumps!”
Funto, whose seat was right beside ours overheard me and before the day was over, the news had spread all over the school, thanks to Miss Basketmouth herself.
We were all shocked that the teachers had not noticed or raised an alarm about a glaringly obvious condition. But Mrs. Aderinto gave the teachers a good tongue-lashing because the disease was contagious and no one had quarantined the infected child soon enough.
The following morning, I woke up feeling lousy. As I stood in front of the bathroom mirror to brush my teeth, my reflection terrified me.
My cheeks were at least three times their normal size, and I knew immediately what had happened.
Bowale had given me mumps.
– to be continued –
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