I decided I would not tell anyone what I had done. Not even Bright.
The truth would remain in my heart, locked away for good. Besides, who knew why Miss Agbo really fell ill? Maybe someone else had fed her rabbit meat. Or maybe something else had happened to her.
It was that “something else” theory that appealed to me the most, and I decided it was the most plausible explanation for what had happened to my teacher.
I was officially in denial.
However, I had underestimated the power of the human heart. I was not a wicked child. No, not by any stretch of the imagination. And, I had been raised to tell the truth no matter what.
But, since no one had asked me to tell the truth, I kept it to myself.
Over the next few days, the truth of what I had done ate at me. It tore at my conscience, demanding to be told.
But I fought it.
The fear of the punishment I would doubtless suffer, first from my parents, and then from Miss Agbo, and possibly even the Headmaster, kept my lips sealed.
But subconsciously, the battle raging in my conscience found expression somewhere else; it invaded my dreams.
Remember those nightmares of the rabbit I had earlier in the term? Well, those were mere infants compared to the nightmares I started having every night after my birthday.
The rabbit nightmares were swiftly replaced by nightmares of Miss Agbo pointing at me accusingly, Mr. Pepper in one hand, and my parents binding my arms and legs, and yelling with one voice:
“Do it! Beat him! He deserves it!”
And I would always break out wailing, in my sleep, and to the hearing of others, saying the same words over and over again:
“No! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to! It just happened! Miss Agbo, I’m sorry!”
What I thought was a well-kept secret was known to another person in our home, the one person I feared more than my father: my mother.
My father’s mode of discipline was simple and straightforward: he would seize and confiscate the things you treasured the most. For me, it was my comics, toys and cartoons.
But my mother was different.
No, she took discipline and punishment to another level.
First, she would start with a Q & A session, designed to gauge just how much punishment she would give and also to find out if you knew why she was about to punish you.
She would start with simple questions like:
“Ezekiel, have you tidied your room?”
Of course, I hadn’t, but it was folly to admit it.
No, this was a game, and although I was destined to lose, I still fought to win.
So, my response usually went like this:
“Which room, Mummy? Nnamdi has not cleaned his room. I checked.”
“Oh, so Nnamdi’s room is now your own room ehn? Now, kneel down and face the corner.”
As I obeyed, I knew these were just the beginning “birth pangs.” There was more to come.
Next, she would, while I was facing the corner, go to her bedroom and retrieve a long, thin cane.
Children of my age have all sorts of theories surrounding flogging and punishment. Some kids will tell you that the thinner, wiry canes are more painful and leave scars on the body. Others will tell you that the fatter, thicker, sturdier canes are, by far, more painful, leaving scars not just on the physical body, but on the memory.
However, we all agreed that flogging was a form of punishment that had to be avoided at all costs.
My mother, having being a child herself, although Nnamdi and I were convinced that she came into this world at that height, age and with all the knowledge she possessed, knew how much we dreaded the cane.
So, while I was kneeling down in the corner, thinking of all my naughty deeds, she would go to her bedroom and re-appear, cane in hand, or if she was too tired to retrieve it from her bedroom, she would grab one leg of a lightweight shoe usually lying around in the sitting room, and usually a flappy foot Dunlop slipper, the type that is responsible for many “slip-and-fall” accidents and broken bones. Then, she would command me to face her.
Once I obeyed, she would ask the single question that never made sense to me:
“Do you know why I am punishing you?”
To which I would of course reply:
Which child would willingly volunteer answers to such a question, and risk divulging a list of undisclosed and as yet, undiscovered offenses, ranging from stoning the neighbor’s cat for the simple reason that it was black and far too secretive, to kicking a football over the fence and into the neighbor’s yard, and almost knocking the said neighbor’s aged mother taking a stroll in the yard?
Who would willingly own up to such naughtiness?
Definitely not me, Ezekiel.
“No, ma,” was the answer my lips were trained to give, and it never failed to kick my mother’s anger up several notches.
But, she would not immediately whack me with the cane or slipper or sometimes, belt.
No, she would start with self-inflicted punishment.
“Oh, you don’t know ehn? Don’t worry, you’ll know now. Come here!”
I would reluctantly obey, advancing towards her with a few steps.
Then, looking into my tear-less face, because big boys don’t cry, she would issue the command:
“Now, slap yourself!”
In my mind, I wondered at the relevance of this ceremony.
Woman, just use the cane so I can cry and move on. Which one is “slap yourself?”
I would obey, of course, giving myself a little pat on the cheek, and try to pass it off as a slap, even though my mother who was standing right in front of me could barely hear my hand smacking my flesh.
She would laugh and say:
“If you don’t do it well, I will do it for you. Do you want that?”
Of course, I shook my head, and wondered why she didn’t just give me the option of saying sorry and go back to reading my comics.
But, she would press on, and eventually, because my own self-inflicted slaps were never ever satisfactory, she would pull out the cane and whack me a couple of times, shouting the entire time in a loud voice:
She would not stop until I had expressed a perfect understanding of her instructions and shed enough tears. Only then, would she let me go.
This picture, this game that was my mother’s mode of punishment, more than anything else kept me from speaking up about Miss Agbo.
I was unaware, however, that every time I had those nightmares and shouted in my sleep, my mother heard me. Loud and clear.
But, she did not confront me immediately.
No, she waited patiently, collecting more facts to be sure.
After the second birthday celebration at home that weekend, I noticed that my mother began to take an unusual interest in my school work.
One day, specifically on the Tuesday of the following week, she examined my exercise books carefully before going over my homework with me. What she saw must have stirred her curiosity because the next thing that followed was a series of questions.
“Ezekiel, come o. Whose handwriting is this in your book?”she asked, holding my Social Studies exercise book towards me for closer inspection.
I walked gingerly to where she stood, and peeped at the book in her hand, my eyes widening at the grading done in red ink as if I had never seen it before. Mr. Adelaja, our substitute teacher’s bold, firm strokes were worlds apart from Miss Agbo’s smaller, more flowery handwriting, and my mother had certainly noticed the difference.
“It’s our new teacher, ma. Mr. Adelaja.”
Eyebrows raised, my mother put the book back on the table, and resumed her penetrating glare. I felt like she was looking into my soul.
“Since when? What happened to Miss eh … Akpan … Or what’s her name?”
“Miss Agbo, Mummy. She’s not well,” I replied, picking up the book from the table and began to walk towards the dining table where I usually did my homework.
My mother looked at me suspiciously.
But, she only asked me one question.
“Really? What’s wrong with her?”
“I don’t know, ma.”
She dropped the matter there and then. At least, I thought she did, until the following day.
When she came to pick me up from school, everything seemed normal. But, as I opened the door to the back passenger seat of the cream-colored Peugeot 504 my mother drove, she turned around and said to me:
“Not yet, Ezekiel. Don’t enter. I want to meet your new teacher.”
Why? What could my mother possibly want with my teacher? As far as I was concerned, nothing good ever came out of these parent-teacher discussions. The teacher was bound to either praise or accuse the student of “slacking off” in his school work, and the parent would either argue or in rare cases, agree.
My mother was the argumentative type, and I feared that she would say something that would annoy Mr. Adelaja and incite him to peg me to the bottom 50% of the class; the bottom-dwellers, so to speak. So far, Bright’s brilliance had rubbed off on me, and I was still in the top 25% of my class of 22.
Without arguing, I followed my mother silently to my classroom.
All the students had left except for a boy named Christopher whose mother taught a class in Primary 4, and therefore, he was usually the last person to leave our class.
Mr. Adelaja was an older gentleman in his early ’40s who had been teaching for almost two decades. He also had yellow teeth that seemed to be spaced too far apart. Every time he told a student “there is room for improvement,” I wondered if he realized that his dentition could directly benefit from this statement. His upper jaw in particular, seemed to be consistently begging for more teeth to join their small team.
That afternoon, Mr. Adelaja sat at Miss Agbo’s desk, marking scripts from a test he had given us that morning. A small transistor radio sat on his desk, playing a pidgin drama skit on an AM radio station, judging from the muffled delivery coming from the speakers.
Just before she entered the classroom, my mother tapped gently on the door, and greeted the teacher with a diplomatic smile.
“Good Afternoon, sir. Are you Mr. Adelaja?”
“By God’s special grace, I am,” he replied, shaking her hands warmly. “Please can I know you?”
My mother chuckled.
“Yes. I’m Ezekiel’s mother, Mrs. Ezekobe,” she replied, eyes darting momentarily to me as I stood beside her.
“Ah, I guessed as much, Madam. He resembles you too much.”
“Yes, yes, he does. And his brother, Nnamdi takes after his father.”
“Wonderful! So, Madam, hope there’s no problem?”
“No, not at all, Mr. Adelaja.”
“Sorry, I didn’t even offer you a seat. Let me–” he began, as he leapt forward to grab the nearest empty chair. My mother turned down his offer and insisted that she would not take much of his time.
“I just wanted to find out about this boy’s class teacher, Miss eh–”
“Oh, Miss Agbo. Yes, she’s sick. So, the Headmaster asked me to cover her class till she returns.”
“Okay. What class do you normally teach?”
“I was just a little worried, sir. I hope Miss Agbo’s condition is not serious.”
“Well, what the Headmaster told me on Friday was that she had stomach upset.”
“Stomach upset?” said my mother in surprise. “Wait … I hope–” she said under her breath.
“Sorry, Madam. You were saying? I’m not sure I follow.”
“You mentioned stomach upset. I hope it’s not–” she began again, eyebrows knitted in a frown.
“Mr. Adelaja, I’m not sure you’re aware. Ezekiel celebrated his birthday on Thursday and I made food for him to bring to school. I just hope it’s not my food that–”
“Come on, Madam! How can? This whole class ate the food and nothing happened. Even Mrs. Ekiyor, the Headmaster’s secretary still told me this morning that the food was so delicious. So many people ate it. Why didn’t they fall sick?”
“I see your point,” said my mother, calming down. “It can’t be me then.”
As she was about to leave, she caught sight of the alphabet chart and went towards it.
Like many others before her, she noticed the glued-on rabbit picture. The words, “Blood of Jesus!” escaped from her lips and she took one step away from the chart. Casting her eyes to the heavens, the way she usually did when she was deep in thought, she folded her arms across her chest.
Suddenly, she turned to me and said:
“Ezekiel, who did this?” she asked pointing at the letter “R.” “Was it your teacher?”
“And what is this supposed to be?”
“A rabbit, ma.”
“Where do you sit again?”
I pointed to the desk directly in front of the chart.
“I see,” she said.
It was not clear what exactly “I see” meant at the time, but her next move shocked me.
Walking back to Mr. Adelaja, she thanked him and we went together to the Headmaster’s office. She told me to wait outside. I saw her enter the office and emerge about ten minutes later clutching a piece of paper with words scribbled on it.
“Okay, Ezekiel. Let’s go.”
As we entered the car, I felt a premonition that something bad was about to happen. But it was not until we got to the junction at the beginning of the close where the school was located, that I realized what was about to happen.
Instead of turning left like my mother always did, to take the route home, she turned right.
Sitting up and grabbing the headrest of the driver’s seat, I said to her:
“Mummy, I thought we were going home. Where are we going?”
“To Miss Agbo’s house. I want us to visit her.”
My stomach dropped and I wished the ground would open up and swallow me.
I was definitely in deep trouble now, from which there was no escape.
– to be continued –
*Picture Credit: Pinterest