Sitting in a classroom filled with unsympathetic pupils filled me with eternal dread, but did I also have to tolerate abuse from teachers? Every correct answer I gave in class resulted in the teacher reminding me I’d already completed that class the year before, giving me an unfair advantage over other learners. Any wrong answer proved why I hadn’t joined the rest of my mates from the previous year in secondary school. The only person with sympathy, the strict but fair Mrs. Okeke, understood my situation, claiming I didn’t deserve this predicament whilst her colleagues took pride in revealing new shades of nastiness. And they called themselves teachers? Despite telling my story over and over again, my new classmates showed no sign of ending their nasty “Old Mama Primary Six” taunts, but in the following months I had my own back, covering my own work when they found themselves stuck with a difficult question. How did they expect to improve if they relied on ‘combined service’? Margaret Nathaniel, arguably the brightest girl in class the year before, had secretly told me the girl sharing her desk frequently copied her schoolwork. Blockheads like her had managed to reach the next level — bribery, perhaps?—while our previous teachers now made my life a living hell when they couldn’t live up to their title and perform their duty properly in the first place.
The only bright moment during my dark days at Military Primary occurred when a teacher selected me to attend educational scheme’s launching ceremony at the Civic Centre where veteran broadcaster Boma Erekosima in Port Harcourt gave a speech in Nigerian Pidgin. I’d learned to speak the dialect shortly after my family moved to Rivers state where we became advent Radio Rivers 2 listeners. His influence had allowed me to mix with other kids who teased any eloquent peers, but no matter how hard I tried to blend in, I always stood out. I’d had enough, and deserved better. I sat at the desk I shared with four other kids, one with acute halitosis—because life wasn’t miserable enough already—I lamented over my miserable fate, and came to a final decision. Either my parents found another school where no-one knew me, or I remained at home until the following school year.
The assistant head, Mrs. Adebowale, strolled inside. I had never liked the woman—always making a huge deal over minor matters which didn’t concern her. Who had she come to yell at this time? After consulting the teachers, she waved a bundle of placement slips from the previous year’s Imo common entrance exam at us. Rather odd, considering none of the candidates still attended Military Primary apart from myself. Candidates outside Imo never received their placements on time, but why now? How ridiculous. Mrs. Adebowale read the candidates’ names as if she expected them to appear from their new schools and come forward. Apart from myself, of course. Fat chance. And the bombshell dropped.
“Tami Okoro Dedeh.”
Somebody tell me this isn’t a dream, I prayed, walking up to the front. I took the slip from the head and returned to my desk, the others watching me scan through the details right before me in black and white.
FUTURE HOPE GIRLS’ COMMERCIAL, ABA.
Hope and light at the end of the tunnel, exactly what I needed to show my folks. At last, I could tell Mrs. Agim exactly where she could shove her insults. Of course, leaving Military Primary meant leaving Rivers to attend school in Imo, but as long as I could break free from that stinking mouth beside me, who cared. The final bell rang, and I skipped out of the classroom in glee, thinking I had left Military Primary for the last time.
Or had I?