I first learned about fear in primary school. For years, my friends and I lived under the constant threat of the teacher’s cane. The cane was a teaching tool, a way to inspire fear to ensure that we did our homework, wore our uniforms properly, swept the classroom floor, and maintained our desks at near perfect alignment. Some teachers carried their canes proudly under their arms, along with their other teaching materials and boxes of chalk.
In a way, fear made every day an adventure, for no one knew his own end, and no matter how hard one tried it was always possible to miss a question on a homework assignment or have one’s desk slightly unaligned. Failure on an assignment was equal to a minimum of four lashings either on the hands or the back, all of which we took without apology or remorse. Anything less would have been a sign of weakness.
So much of what we did was driven by fear. Whenever it was my turn to sweep, I’d leave home right after daybreak and walk the three kilometers to school. During the dry season when everything was caked in dust, the classroom would erupt in a dense cloud of dust as we swept the cement floor with brooms made from dried banana leaves. In order to avoid creating that unbearable dusty haze, we’d sprinkle the floors with water.
During class there was always an incredible blend of emotions when one heard one’s name called out. It was as though one was hanging off a giant cliff with only a piece of thread to hold on to. And when the answer was wrong, that thread broke, time stood still, and the universe was reduced to that short distance from where one stood, to the front of the classroom where the teacher waited, cane in hand.
“Please, sah! Please, sah!” one pleaded.
“Get here you fool!” the teacher retorted.
There was always that initial sting that penetrated you like an electric current, dissipating gradually, only to return in full force with each strike, and then again, and again.
As one can imagine, there was also a profound sense of relief when one answered correctly, and the overwhelming feeling that one had in fact dodged a bullet. The thread became a sturdy rope, and one knew that the rest of the day was going to go infinitely better because it was much less likely that the teacher would call on same person twice in the same day.
It was always with expectation that everyone listened to each other’s responses to the teacher’s questions. After all, lashings provided morbid entertainment for the rest of class who looked on as though one of their peers was marching to their own funeral. For all practical purposes, that was the greatest suffering known to us at that age. I have no delusions that many of my friends also suffered the same fate at home with their parents, and there must have been a normalcy to that kind of suffering for many. In the classroom however, it was public.
Each of us responded in uniquely entertaining ways when it came our own turn to face the teacher’s scourge, although there were some stark similarities. Some were quiet- tiptoeing like mice to the front the classroom. They suffered their pain quietly, their anguish unspoken. Their silent tears, however, told a different story. Others started begging and the more they pleaded their case, the more everyone laughed at them. Theirs, however, was a loud and prolonged suffering as they kept dodging the cane with their hands. When the teacher finally lost his patience, it was their backsides that ultimately felt the sting of the rod. Some even attempted to dodge that, and the class would laugh furiously as they gyrated their hips away from the teacher’s swinging cane. In the end, it was each person’s unique and distinct cry that would send us all rolling on the floor laughing.
There was one teacher we found particularly sadistic. He lived down the hill from our school, and many of us passed by his house on our way to class. It was always with a sense of trepidation that we’d walk by, secretly wishing we wouldn’t run into him. When we did, it was usually with cheer that he would greet us. He had children who were our age, and I often wondered if they feared him as much as we did. It was impossible for me to avoid walking by his house, which was only a stones throw from the road, as the only other way would have taken me an hour longer. Whenever I approached his house, I made sure to walk a little faster and never look in his direction. This usually afforded me the chance to avoid any unnecessary interaction with the man.
This teacher had a tendency of forgetting his canes at his house, and it was not uncommon for him to call upon one of us, usually the hapless victim himself, to go and fetch them.
What misery to have to go and find the cane that would ultimately be used to inflict pain on your body!
I remember having to go to his house one time. His wife was sitting outside on a stool cleaning rice while her toddler played around in the mud by the front door. I told the wife that the teacher had sent me to collect the canes, and she gave me a nonchalant wave to go inside and get them myself. The interior of the house was small and immaculately clean, and just as he had told me, there were three long canes resting on the dining room table by the front door. They were freshly stripped branches, and had the suppleness and flexibility to really inflict some pain.
As I held them in my hands I imagined all the time that went into making those canes. After all, it was someone’s responsibility to go out, select the best branches, and then cut and strip them with a knife. As I walked back to class, I wondered which of his children had cut and cleaned those branches, and if he had taught them how to make perfect canes like the ones I was carrying.
The world is a much grander and ominous place when one is young. So much of our childhood is out of our control. Back then, none of us had considered not going back to the teacher with those canes. Maybe we had thought about it, but we certainly didn’t act upon it, for such an action would have appeared cowardly. I guess we are always, even as adults, limited by the social order in which we are born. We certainly do not have control over choosing our parents, or what part of the world we are born in, although as we get older we gain a much stronger ability to shape those familial ties we inherit, the places we choose to live, and how much suffering we wish to endure.
One unfortunate aspect of living in a cruel system is that it breeds cruelty in the hearts of those who inhabit it. I had a good friend during my first years in primary school. At that time, we attended the largest primary school in town with hundreds of students. His mother was a teacher at the school, but we were never assigned to her class. He and I were inseparable, and would spend our breaks at the canteen, which was less a physical structure than an open market where merchants and hawkers would come and sell snacks to the students. Whenever one of us did not have enough money, we’d share whatever we were able to buy, which usually amounted to a couple of beignets or some fried plantains.
It came to pass one day that during one of our breaks, for reasons unknown to me till this day, I told his mother that he had stolen some money from me. I knew full well what I was doing, and the horrible repercussions that would result from that lie. When she asked me to go and fetch him, I did so without the least bit of hesitation. I found him at the market place standing with a group of friends. I told him that his mother had sent for him, and as we walked back together in silence, I think he must have known that something was wrong.
I watched as she questioned him in that loud rhetorical way that demanded no answers from him. He was a quiet person by nature, which did not bode well for him at that moment. He could have called me a liar or pleaded his innocence. Instead, he took those beatings to the hand in the only way he knew how; with a quiet resolve that sealed my own guilt for years to come.
There are certain social norms that surprise us as adults, but that as children might not seem that unusual. How often do we see children hitting each other, and minutes later are happy as can be. I don’t know what my friend thought of me after that, but I do know he never stopped being my friend. Our lives eventually separated when my parents transferred me to another school, and I never saw him again.
Years later, I ran into the teacher who lived at the bottom of the hill. He was delighted to see me, as only an old friend would, and I imagine anyone looking at us would have seen exactly that. We spoke for a bit. He asked me how my studies were going, and how long I was in town for. He seemed truly proud of me, and of the progress I had made. There were many things I could have told him, but chose not to. I could have told him about my friend, and asked if he felt as guilty as I did.