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Mom said I burst into the world with excitement, he thought to himself. She said not to let the world beat me. I will not let them beat ...

Mom said I burst into the world with excitement, he thought to himself. She said not to let the world beat me. I will not let them beat me this time, he thought to himself. That did not dissolve the fog of anxiety and shame that was threatening to engulf him. I will not let them beat me, he kept reciting in his mind. “Children, open your texts to page five. The story on this page is the continuation of the one we read earlier. Now, Nzochukwu or whatever you call yourself, stand up and read for us.” He stood up, but he left his text lying on the desk. “Raise your text and read anu ofia…animal!” she yelled. “Or are you going to read off hand without looking at the book?” A raucous laughter broke out as her other pupils savored Nzo’s ordeal.  He began to grow angry. He managed to pull himself together. “I cannot read ma,” he answered in a controlled tone. “In that case, you keep standing, while those who can read stay seated. So, who wants to read for us?” Fingers sprang into the air as her pupils strove to impress their new teacher on the first day of the school year. “Okay, you. What is your name again?” “My name is Chibuike Okoroafor.” “Go ahead and read for us Chibuike.”

 Chibuike was extremely proud of his ability to read and showed off his intelligence without restraint. Nzo had heard of him from a classmate of his in primary one. He was in the habit of answering questions even when they had not been apportioned to him. “Binta and Aliu lived in the city of Kano,” he read from the McMillian English text.  “Binta’s father was the postmaster of the division. Aliu’s father was a farmer who grew corn, onions, and tomatoes. He also reared goats, sheep and cattle,” he continued. Nzo stood out the second session of the day, paying no attention to the goings on around him. He relayed his ordeal to Chisom and Ikemefuna as they walked home after school. He had avoided Uzoamaka, in an effort to spare her extra worries. “Looks like you got the worst of the three teachers,” said Chisom. “I did; no doubt about that.” “It seems you need to work at your reading to avert further torture in her hands,” Ikemefuna suggested. “Maybe you can come to my place after school. My mom teaches me. You could benefit from that,” Chisom offered. “I will be happy to come if that is fine with your mother,” Nzo answered, eager to save his sinking neck. “I will tell her. I am sure she will not mind.” “See you tomorrow,” said Chisom and Ikemefuna as they parted with Nzo. “See you two tomorrow,” Nzo replied with a sad look on his face.

Only Jidenna was at home when he returned. Iheoma had opened a new stall at the market selling yam, and she took the twins with her daily. “Elikwa nisa deye deye!” Congo highlife music was blasting away on the radio when he walked in. Jide rocked to the tune as he made lunch. He left the back door linking the living room to the kitchen open so he could hear the song well enough. He was covered in sweat. He had been busy in the stuffy kitchen cooking with firewood on a typically hot Enugu day. The walls baked from incessant pounding of the sun. “Good afternoon Jide.” “Good afternoon Nzo how was school today?” “It was fine.” “So what did you learn?” He stood agape between the living room and the kitchen. He went cold and numb under the scorching heat. It seemed his nightmare was bent on inflicting maximum torture. Jide rarely asks serious questions about school. Why is he asking today? He wondered. “We did some math and read some texts from the English textbook.” “So, if I ask you to read the same sections for me, can you do that?” Nzo wanted the ground to open up and swallow him. He stared at him for a few seconds unsure of how to answer his question. “I am still learning that section,” he replied craftily. “So, which sections are you able to read well?” “It is a new textbook and today was the first day of a new school year, so we just started with this book.”

“That is not the point Nzo. If you are able to read, you do not need to have the book for years. You just read.”  He could not face him any longer. He dropped his neck and stared at the ground as though some power, which could save him, lay there. He could not look his big brother in the eye. “You cannot read, isn’t it?” “No I can’t” he answered despondently. He was tired of being chased around by a gnawing sense of inadequacy. Perhaps admitting it would lighten the load. “I am nearly done cooking. Go next door and get Uzor to come and have lunch. After lunch, go get some shower. You and I have some work to do afterwards.” His heart sank. After a grueling day at school, his brother was going to teach him how to read? Why can’t people leave me the way I am? He yelled within. “Okay,” he answered in capitulation. He delayed his shower, stretching every second in an attempt to fritter most of the afternoon away. When he was done with his long shower, Jide was sitting in front of their cranky, old KDC electric fan, which squeaked as it coasted from east to west of the room barely dousing the intensity of the heat. Jide set the fan to stop rotating. After fixating it in the direction of himself and Nzo, he asked him to open to the first story in his textbook.

 “You are going to read after me. I want you to trace the words in the text as we read. By doing so, I expect you to try to memorize the words and their spelling, so you can recall them later on,” Jide explained. “I will try.” “You just don’t try. You give it your best shot, okay?” “Okay.” “Mallam Bello is farmer,” Jide read from the text. “Mallam Bello is a farmer,” Nzo replied after him sycophantically tracing the words as Jide did as though he understood a thing.   “Again!” “Mallam Bello is a farmer.” He eyed the picture of a tall dark-skinned Hausa man clad in long white Babban riga.  Behind him was a circle of huts on the edge of a vast picturesque green field of corn. A tiny figure of a boy and his herd of cattle presumably returning from the grazing was in the background. Lost in the image, he hardly traced the words correctly as he recited the line.

“You should pay attention to what you are reading Nzo. I guess you hardly pay attention at school, which would explain your very poor reading ability,” Jide reprimanded him sharply for his poor concentration. He switched his attention back to the text. After making him recite the same line numerous times, they moved to the next line. “He lives in the village of Bunu, near Kano.” Nzo recited after him repeatedly. “Now spell farmer for me,” Jide requested of him. Nzo gaped at him as though he had never heard of the word before. “Remember the first line we read? Mallam Bello is a farmer.” “Yes I remember.” “So that’s easy. Go ahead and spell farmer from that line for me.” He stared at the page without the vaguest inkling of how to negotiate his tight corner.

Shocked, Jide stared at him in disbelief. He once sympathized with Nzo on the premise that his teacher might have been too hard on him. Now, observing his sheer inability to pick a word from right under his nose, a sudden rush of anger and frustration welled up inside him. How could he not see the answer in front of him, he wondered, after we have gone over the line innumerably. “Now, read that first line again and trace each word as you read,” he said trying to mask his petulance. Nzo placed his finger on the first word and remained stuck in that position, unable to read.  “I am not going to beat you okay,” Jide encouraged sensing his fear. Not even that could unravel Nzo’s confusion. The words on the page meant nothing to him. He had managed to repeat the words his brother had read out to him earlier, following his tracing as well. Reading them by himself was entirely beyond his ability. “Do you see the letter ‘F’ in that line?” Jide asked, refining his strategy. He shook his head negatively. Jide realized he needed to teach him the alphabets before they could make any progress. “Now recite A, B, C for me.”

Written by:
Victor Chinoo

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