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Nzo recited the alphabets in record speed, happy to show off the one thing he knew. Jide took a piece of paper and scribbled the letter...

Nzo recited the alphabets in record speed, happy to show off the one thing he knew. Jide took a piece of paper and scribbled the letter ‘A’ on it. Raising it, he asked, “What is this?” He had been given little time to savor his heroic recitation. He eyed the piece of paper quizzically for a moment and nodded at his big brother again. “I don’t know.” Jide’s frustration at both Nzo and his teachers heightened. He tapped him in the head with his forefinger with a long nail sticking on the end of it. He winced and rubbed his head. He could feel the wetness on the struck spot. I hate learning, he thought. He considered making a run for it, but he knew Jide was fast. He would catch him in no time. Jide himself could hardly contain his frustration. “What do they teach you kids at school? You can recite the alphabets swiftly like a song but you cannot recognize a single letter? Your teachers are awful. But come to think of it, quite a good number of your classmates can read isn’t it?” “Yes.” “So the problem is with you, not your teachers.” He said nothing. He had always known there was something wrong with him. He did not need his brother to reaffirm his fears.  Why don’t you quit trying to teach me, he thought. I will never learn anyway.

Jide wrote the English alphabets on a new sheet of paper both in small and capital letters as lucidly as he could. He brushed Nzo’s English text aside and plunged into a different direction. “You have to learn the alphabets thoroughly before you can read. I don’t want you to just recite them. I need you to recognize each of them unless you want me to beat them all into your head,” he warned.  They spent the entire afternoon working on the alphabets until Nzo exhausted his patience and energy. He had to strike him with his nail three more times in sheer frustration. “You are not getting away from this. We’ll continue tomorrow. I will make sure you learn how to read before the end of this term whether you like it now.” Nzo did not like the sound of that. An extension of my daily dilemma at school? He wondered. Well, he will get tired of me and quit, he concluded.

Another grueling day at school had come to an end, delightfully relieving Nzo of his tedious burdens. Mrs. Okeke had picked on him all day, knocking and whipping him ruthlessly. A few times, she had the class call him a dullard. He hid himself at the back of the building during recreation, giving up football, his favorite pass time as though he had been declared a highly contagious person; a pariah with immense potential to infect the rest of the school. He could not even go home for any bite of some sort like he used to. It seemed as though the entire world was watching, waiting to poke another nasty joke as he passed by. The strutting of birds calmed him down amid swaying trees under the spell of cool January breeze. Every few minutes, he picked up some stones and launched them aimlessly into the opposite farm. The serenity offered him much needed solace from the cruel world around him. He tried to block off the myriad of thoughts that streamed relentlessly through his mind.  Despite his efforts, the nagging thought that he was defective, unimportant and worthless yelled the loudest at him. He kept wondering why he was so terribly different from others. Perhaps, Gorgi was right, he thought. He was wasting his parents’ money. School was not for him. Mrs. Okeke’s recent barrage of disciplinary measures targeted at his inability to read seemed to vindicate Gorgi.

Jingling of the bell signaling the end of recreation interrupted his train of pathetic thoughts, and sent his heart racing in fear. Now, as he walked home hardly uttering a word to his friends, he was cognizant of the fact that an even eerier reception awaited him at home. Jidenna had been inexorable in his efforts to make a reader of him. If only Jide knew what I have concluded about myself, he would not bother to waste any more of his precious time teaching me, Nzo thought. I will never master reading. By the way, how come Jide does not bother Onyeoma and Ibekwe? They too perform poorly at school, he wondered. How come I alone get to be tutored? And very harshly too. No one likes me, he concluded.

“Good afternoon big brother,” Nzo greeted as he entered the living room. He could smell the beckoning aroma of boiled yam and green vegetable. Jidenna must have whipped up his favorite. “Good afternoon Nzo. How was school today?” You could at least let me put my school bag down before you start bombarding me with questions about school he thought, managing an empty smile on his face, which did very little to mask his anxiety and frustration. “School was okay”. “So what did you learn?” He wished he could shoot him dead with his cold, sad stare. He stared macabrely at him for a few moments, completely bereft of words. He could not understand why he badgered him about school that much. “Nothing”, he replied with a tone of frustration. “What do you mean by nothing?” “I mean nothing. I did not learn anything. My teacher was more interesting in snuffing the life out of me than doing the actual teaching.” “You complained about your kindergarten teacher until Daddy transferred you to China town. Now you are complaining of your teacher at your new school. I think you are just too lazy to learn”. But I did not complain about my teacher last year”, he retorted with a grim pout on his face. He wanted to believe that Mrs. Okeke was just another horrible teacher, but he could not shake off the thought that perhaps he was the defect in the equation. But Mrs. Amadife was nice, and I had no problems in her class, he thought to himself. Maybe she saw what these other women have seen in me but she was too kind to point it out. His mind was in an over-drive, painting all kinds of negative pictures. After all, I did not pass particularly well. “I am sure your teacher last year spotted your indolence and sheer unwillingness to learn”, Jide replied as though on cue.

Nzo continued into the living room. He did not want to hear another word from him. Rather than get out of his school uniform, he lay on one of the old, tattered mattresses in the bedroom. Although it was far from being comfortable with the jagged springs that rubbed furiously against his skin, it was a lot more comforting that anguish he faced at school, and now at home. A procession of tears lined his eyes and soon began to march down his face. If only anyone understood how badly he wanted to learn, he wondered as he lay still in pitch darkness. He drifted into a slumber. After what seemed like eternity, Jide woke him. “I told you to change your clothes, go shower and return to the living room for your English lesson. He had flipped on the light before waking him up. He squinted up at him wishing he could beat him up. He had been enjoying his sleep. Grudgingly, he changed clothes and headed for the bathroom.

Weeks went by and Jide showed no sign of letting off. He continued to apply pressure on Nzo, who had barely learned anything. “You look worried,” Chisom asked as they trudged home under the unrelenting sun. The soles of Nzo’s feet had become numb following persistent trekking on the characteristic hot serrated gravel of Enugu. It had been weeks since his scandals tore and his father had told him there was no money to fix them. Chisom’s feet were carefully tucked away in his scandals. “My brother has been teaching me English after school. He is worse than Mrs. Okeke. My heart sinks into my stomach after school, because I know he is seated in the living room waiting for me to return. I do not understand why he picks on me. He does not seem to care about my other siblings who cannot read as well,” he answered with a frown on his face. “I guess he is trying to help you,” Chisom replied to Nzo’s disappointment. It was not what he wanted to hear. The rhetoric that he needed help had begun to drive him up the wall, even though he knew it was true. A part of him knew he needed the help, but the process had been far from merciful. “I don’t need his help,” he yelled. “Kedu ihe I na ekwu? (What are you saying?) Can’t you see that if you learn to read, teachers will stop picking on you and you will enjoy school a lot more? Besides, you do not want to be constantly punished by your elder brother, so you might as well learn to read to get him off your back.” He saw the point in his little friend’s words. He always had the answers. He was tired of Jide’s endless stream of punishments. I am going to do my best to learn, he promised himself.

Written by:
Victor Chinoo

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