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Apr/May 2012 Fiction

An Occurrence at School

by Okechukwu Otukwu


Oga Tom marched us like criminals towards the Principal's house. His machete was held at the ready as though he suspected we might make a break for it. My heart was thumping so furiously that I could hear the blood singing in my ears. We walked in a single file, five of us with Oga Tom behind. Ebuka carried the pot of meat with outstretched arms like a worshipper bearing a thanksgiving offering to the altar. Oga Tom was humming a song. This was a bad sign. Oga Tom appeared happy only when he had caught a student at some mischief. It meant that the Principal would shower him with praise and perhaps reward him with some foodstuffs from the school kitchen. Since his continued employment depended on his usefulness to the school, he seized any opportunity that presented itself to prove his abilities, which, in my opinion, were rather underrated by the section of the staff that called for his dismissal on account of his drinking. You would find him snooping around the school compound like a bloodhound following a fading trail. And he had succeeded in running in quite a few students.

The Principal's house stood a little distance away from the dormitory, behind the bishop's mansion, which was within the perimeter walls that contained both the school and the cathedral. A small wire fence separated the bishop's quarters from the rest of the compound. But because the fence had no gate, the bishop's domestic animals often strayed from his yard into the school premises, causing a nuisance. It was always a painful sight to watch these animals, all tantalizingly fat, which had been given to the church as offerings, knowing that we would never share in their meat. Finally, the boys had resolved to do something about it. I had no idea what they had in mind until that afternoon. I had left the extra-mural class held after regular school hours and gone into the kitchen to get drinking water. There I bumped into Ebuka and the other boys preparing a turkey to cook. My reaction was to run away from the kitchen, but Ebuka, who was my senior by two classes, blocked the exit and insisted that since I had barged into their dinner uninvited, I must partake of it.

I was trying desperately to explain all this to Oga Tom, but he would not listen. We stopped before the Principal's house. Oga Tom knocked gently on the door. It opened, and a small boy peered at us. Oga Tom told him to go and call his father, and a moment later the Principal appeared at the door. Oga Tom, who claimed to have served in the army, clicked his old boots together and gave a smart salute.

"Thomas, what is the meaning of this?" the Principal asked.

"Sah, I catch them for kitchen as they don kill bishop turkey finish dey cook make them chop."

"The bishop's turkey?" the Principal asked and stepped forward to look inside the pot that Ebuka still carried in his hands. "Really? They actually killed the turkey and cooked it to eat?"

"Yessah."

"Imagine the audacity," the Principal said, his bulb-like eyes even wider than usual, as though he could not yet grasp that some boys in his school could dare such a thing. "They actually took it to our own kitchen to cook?"

"I dey patrol near the fence when I hear the smell of something and as I know say e never reach time for cook I say make I go investigate. Na there I come catch them as them dey cook the meat. They wan run but trust me, I use my matchet surrender all of them."

"Well done, Thomas. I am proud of you."

Oga Tom clicked his boots and saluted again. He was glowing so much that one might have mistaken him for a splinter off the fading evening sun.

"I see now who have been carrying out the various nefarious activities in the dormitory," the Principal said. "I see now that we have actually been training criminals in this school, not students. Well, we will use you people to set an example for others."

I wanted to protest then that I was not part of it, but Ebuka and Ndubuisi gave me a mean look and I held my peace. After all, they too, being my seniors, could exact as much punishment from me as the Principal. The Principal told Oga Tom to watch us and went back into the house. My legs were shaking so terribly that I expected to flop any moment to the ground. I thought the Principal had gone to fetch the notorious cane that he had christened "Ekwensu raa m aka," meaning "Satan, leave me alone." The name came from the usual excuse most offenders often gave, that it was Satan who had led them astray. It was not really a cane but a club fashioned out of a hefty branch of a guava tree. One stroke of it (and the Principal administered it with unfailing precision) was enough to make sitting difficult for a week. No doubt this time he would give us up to five strokes because of the gravity of our offence.

But I was wrong. When the Principal returned, now dressed in trousers and shirt, he had no cane with him. He marched us back to the school premises and rang the bell. Soon the assembly ground began to fill up with students in both the dormitory uniform of pink and the regular one of immaculate white. The Principal sent the head boy to the staff quarters to call the teachers.

When the teachers had arrived, the Principal dragged us to the dais at the front of the assembly ground, before the full view of everyone, with the pot of meat still in Ebuka's hands. He invited Oga Tom to narrate the story of how he had caught us. Gloating like a cripple who had managed a feat no one expected of him, Oga Tom clicked his boots, gave a salute, and told his story.

"Look at them," the Principal said when Oga Tom had finished. "The five criminals that actually want to spoil the good name of this great institution. Who knows what crimes they must have been committing in secret? But today the devil has exposed them. Every day is for the thief, but one day is actually for the owner of the house."

The entire school was thrown into shock. The teachers could be heard discussing the matter in low voices. Among the students was a mixed reaction. Some were looking at us with contempt and anger, some with something of awe (after all, it could not be denied that it took courage to carry out such a daring act), while others merely sniggered. My head was bowed in shame.

"What do you suggest?" the Principal asked the teachers.

"It is quite simple," the Vice-Principal, a short, fat woman with a reputation for meanness, said. "Our rules and regulations are clear on this. Stealing attracts the maximum punishment of expulsion. And this is even worse considering the object in this particular case. What will the bishop say if he hears we now groom robbers in the school?"

Some teachers did not see it that way, and an argument arose among them. While some argued that expulsion was too heavy-handed, that suspension would do, others said that the rules were there to be applied. Finally, the Principal decided to suspend us for two weeks, during which the teachers would meet formally and come up with an appropriate punishment. Then he said the one thing that I feared most in my life. We were to report to school at the end of the suspension with our parents to hear whatever verdict the staff might reach.

My heart sank. I didn't want to bring my father to the school. In the three years that I had been here, I had managed it so that I never had to present my father before the mocking eyes of my schoolmates. Usually, I threw away the PTA meeting notices that were handed out to give to our parents. Since I never got into trouble until now, there was never a reason to compel me to bring my father to the school.

I had learned very early that St. Anselem's College was not a place where you washed your dirty linen in public. My father, sadly, was my dirty linen. He worked as a small-time mechanic on the outskirts of the town, where all the mechanics in Awka had recently been driven. If that was all, perhaps there would be no problem, even though mechanic was hardly an occupation that one would brag about in St. Anselem. To make the matter worse, however, was the attitude of my father towards his appearance. I don't know if it was out of pride for his occupation or indifference, but he wore his work clothes—a grease-stained overall with SHELL written on its back—everywhere he went, and sometimes even to bed. This was a source of constant friction between him and Mother. How many times Mother had left, in the middle of the night, the narrow, nearly-flat mattress that they shared in their overcrowded room to sleep on a mat with us children in the parlor. Father never noticed her absence because, more often than not, he would be weighed down by drunken weariness. We could smell his breath from the parlor, and it was enough to stifle an asthmatic patient. Looking back now, I guess it was the smell, rather than the greasy clothes, that sent mother away from the bed.

For all she suffered, Mother never challenged Father about his drinking and, to give him credit, he was always remorseful in the morning, especially when money was asked of him. Did Mother think he was lying when he said he had no money? He never paid for any of the drinks he drank himself. It was Aloy, his friend, who paid for all the drinks. "When your friend offers you a bottle of beer after a heavy day's work, do you say no? That would be seen in another light, woman." But the irony was that this generous friend of his was always more sober than he in the morning when he came to fetch him so they could trek to the mechanic village together.

Growing up, I was as sensitive as the horn of a snail. How many times I had spotted Father in the distance and dodged in time to avoid meeting him in the company of my friends. I was haunted by the experience of Dangwurugwu. His real name was Peter Ocha, but after his father, lame in one leg, came to the school, Peter had acquired that name, a euphemism for cripple. St. Anselem was not a place where an opportunity for a jibe was easily ignored. An imperfection on your parents' side could haunt you for the rest of your days. Little wonder then that everyone's father here was a businessman, a politician, or a lecturer at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University. At one point, I too had professed to have a father who worked as a lecturer at the university. Now it appeared that the "lecturer" would be seen by all.

I went home feeling very disturbed. There was no way I was going to bring my father to the school, yet I had no idea how to avoid it. My mother, who might have acted in his stead, had recently been admitted in the hospital with hepatitis. Maybe she would get well before the end of the two weeks, and then I would have to come up with an explanation of how I got involved in the affair in the first place.

But that was a thing to worry about later. For now I had to make sure that Father did not suspect I was on suspension. This was not a very difficult task; he left early for work and returned late in the evening. Even then, he looked too tired to care. He would drop off right in the parlor after supper. My only brother Patrick, who was in the primary school, would also not suspect anything. I would go through the motions of preparing for school until he left. Then I would remove my school uniform and idle away the time at home. Sometimes I would sneak into the school compound in mufti during break to play football, but I refused to visit my fellow culprits, even though I heard they often met in Ndubuisi's house. I didn't want to have anything more to do with them. In the afternoon, I would make food and take it in a flask to my mother at the hospital. She looked frail and weak, and her normally beautiful face was tightly drawn. She would ask me about school, what we had learned and how I was doing. I never found it hard to lie about these things. And while I talked, her face seemed to come alive with indefinable passion.

"You must work hard at your books," she told me. "And also encourage your brother Patrick to do the same. Education is the only key you have to unlock the gate of your destiny."

She liked talking about education in that way. She said that she and Father were poor because they had not gone to school. I didn't agree with her. I knew a lot of teachers in my school who had gone to school but were still poor. But I did not tell her this. It was good to let her think that I was getting something she and Father had not.

But as my suspension neared its end, my worry grew. It became worse when I learned that Mother was to remain in the hospital for another week after she suffered a relapse. I didn't know what to do. There was no way I could take Father to my school. That was not even to be considered. I would rather receive five, no, even ten strokes of the notorious Ekwensu raa m aka than bear the shame of bringing Father to the school. But I soon learned that I risked more than the strokes of the cane if I did not comply with the Principal's order. In one of my visits to the hospital, I ran into my form master, Mr. Aguiyi, who had brought his pregnant wife for antenatal clinic.

"I used to see you as one of the level-headed boys in my class," he told me. "But I see now how badly mistaken I was."

"No, sir," I said. "I did not take part in stealing the turkey. I went to the kitchen to get drinking water when I saw Ebuka and the others cooking the turkey."

"Then why didn't you report the incident immediately? By staying on you made yourself an accomplice."

"They forced me to stay against my wish, sir. You know they are all my seniors. They threatened to kill me if I reported them."

"In order words, you feared the threat of your fellow students more than the rules of the school that say you should not steal?"

"I did not steal, sir."

"Well, I should not be seen discussing this matter with you as the staff board is still deliberating on the matter. Anyway, by Monday, you will hear the decision."

I hesitated. "But sir, must I bring my father to the school?"

He looked at me.

"Of course you have to bring your father. Was that not the Principal's order?"

"Yes, but my father is not in this town."

"Where is he?"

"Enugu."

"Bring your mother then, or a guardian."

"My mother is ill. She is in admission here."

"Mhh! Then bring a guardian, anyone to stand in for your father. You don't seem to realize the gravity of your offence." Lowering his voice as if even the walls could hear, he said, "If care is not taken, this offence might spell the end of your stay in the school. But don't stay I told you so." With that, he walked off to meet his wife who had just emerged on the veranda of the hospital.

I went home very disturbed. That was on Saturday. I had only two days left to come up with a solution to this problem. Then I had a stroke of inspiration. I remembered what one student had done in a similar situation when he was accused of examination malpractice. The boy, Andrew Igbonanu, had brought one man who claimed to be his father but whom all of us knew as Oga Mike, the bookseller, to the school. Andrew did this to avoid the beating he was sure to receive from his father, who was a brutal senior police officer. Oga Mike had put up a very good performance, and Andrew had got away with only a minor punishment. But Andrew and Oga Mike had fallen out after the incident. Oga Mike said that Andrew had refused to pay him for his "services" and he threatened to report back to the Principal if Andrew did not honor his word. In the end, Andrew had to sell his cell phone to raise the money to settle Oga Mike.

Since I did not have money or a cell phone, I did not know how to engage Oga Mike's services. Finally, I thought about Ojo. Ojo could do for me what Oga Mike had done for Andrew. He was the most educated man in our neighborhood (which was not really a remarkable thing since most of the people in our neighborhood were illiterate). It was said that he once worked at the university but was laid off during the military era and had to take to selling newspapers to earn a living. He no longer sold newspapers, but he still consumed their contents. You would always find him at the newsstand at the junction down the street, reading and debating the news of the day with a cluster of fellow free readers. Everyone seemed to defer to his opinion on national issues as they might defer to a priest on matters of religion. One other thing that made Ojo special, and that gave me the confidence that he was the man to face the Principal for me, was the way he spoke English. He ate up the language the way a pregnant goat eats up a piece of stolen yam. There was this story, I don't know if it was true, of how Ojo met a white man one day (one of those constructing the local roads) asking for directions. Even though the man spoke English, he left Ojo more confused than before he met him. Everybody who witnessed it agreed that Ojo's English was too much even for a white man.

I found him at his usual place at the newsstand. He was sitting in the vendor's only chair, forcing the young man manning it to stand. With his legs crossed, he was marking something on a sheet of paper, which I soon discovered was a pool coupon. He looked irritated when I told him I wanted to see him. He took about two minutes to finish with the paper, and then he closed it and turned to me, his wizened face shrewd.

"You want to see me? What about?"

"I need your help."

"Don't tell me you want to make a bet. I have no free numbers to give out today."

"It is not about pool." I told him about my problem. He eyed me when I finished and then whipped out a hanky from his trouser pocket and dabbed at his face and the frazzled collar of his off-white shirt.

"Why don't you want to take your own father to the school? If I remember correctly, I saw him only yesterday."

I didn't answer for a while. "My father will not be able to do it."

He smiled then, revealing a set of teeth that were perfect for a man of 60 or so.

"Very well, then," he said. "But I must tell you that I am not likely to do this for free."

"How much?"

He eyed me again. "Let's say 2,000 naira will get me started."

"Two thousand naira? But I don't have that kind of money!"

He shrugged. "How much do you have? You don't mean to visit a medicine man with empty hands, do you?"

I told him that I could manage to raise 500 naira.

"I guess you could," he said and picked up his coupon again. "Well, we will see about that. Monday you said? Then come here by nine, and we will be good to go."

I was happy as I left him. I couldn't believe that Ojo had been so easy to handle. To raise the 500 naira would not be such a difficult task. I would lie to Father that we had been asked to pay for "handiwork"—one of the sundry charges for which the school was notorious.

Father returned home that evening earlier than usual. He had gone to the hospital, and he said that Mother could be discharged on Monday. I guessed it was in a bid to save money for the medical bills that he did not visit a drinking parlor instead. I waited until he had finished the modest supper of beans and yam and was dozing off in his chair, the soot-stained lantern on a table casting a harsh light on his creased face, before I asked him for the money.

He appeared to think. "There is no money in this house at the moment," he said in his weary voice, "and your mother's medical bills have yet to be completed. Can't this handiwork wait for another time?"

"They will send me away from school if I don't pay," I said, shifting from one foot to the other. "Almost everybody has paid except me."

He sighed, and the lines in his face cringed further into the folds of his skin. "I will ask Aloy to see if I can get something from him."

But I don't remember him going out to see Aloy before he gave me the money as he prepared to leave for work on Monday morning. I tucked the money into my knicker pocket and waited until he left, then made for the newsstand for my appointment with Ojo. I did not find him there, even though there was the usual crowd of free readers eagerly savoring the newspapers as they were removed fresh from the wraps.

I asked the vendor if he had seen Ojo that morning. The man hissed and said he had not seen him, and I better tell him not to come there that day because he was not going to allow him to read any more papers unless he settled his accumulated debts. I waited for about 30 minutes, and then it occurred to me that he might have gone to the school ahead of me. He might have forgotten we were supposed to meet here and go together to the school. That must be the explanation, and here I was wasting my time.

I half-ran, half-walked to the school. Oga Tom was at the gate, obtrusive in his blue uniform like some piece of monument that the good white bishop who established the school had bequeathed to posterity. He glared at me and refused to open the gate.

"Wey your papa?" he demanded. "No be them tell you make you carry your papa come today?"

"My father is already in the school," I said.

"Sharrap!" he roared. "Bloody liar! Your papa pass which gate enter where? You wan lie, abi?"

"I am not lying."

"I no blame you. No be because una get better man as Principal, na wetin make una dey behave like rascals. If to say na me be Principal I for cut off una tongue cook give una make una chop. Criminals! Now, get out of here and go bring your father come."

I left him and went behind the school where there was a breach in the perimeter fence through which rough students sneaked in or out of school. On getting there, I saw that the breach had recently been repaired, but I was not deterred. I managed to get my school bag across the barbed wire fence, and then I went on my belly and crawled through the gap between the wire and the ground. Halfway, a barb caught me in the back and gave me a nasty tear through the shirt. When I crossed the fence, I removed the shirt and saw to my relief that the tear was not that bad. However, there were blood stains on it, so I decided to wear it inside out.

The school buildings stood to my left. To the right was the bishop's court. I could hear the noise of the students as they sang the national and the school anthems. I cut across the handball pitch, overgrown with grass, and came out on the assembly ground, unobserved. The Principal was calling out the names of the culprits as I melted into the line where my classmates stood.

"If you hear your name, you come out here with your parent or guardian," he said. "Ndubuisi Isiguzo."

Ndubuisi walked to the dais in front of the assembly ground, a fat man wearing a white agbada heaving after him. They stood to the right of the Principal. To his left were members of the staff.

"Rufus Mbaeri, Chukwuebuka Aguora..."

Rufus and Ebuka both went on the dais with their parents. I scanned everywhere, but there was no sign of Ojo. I began to sweat.

"Matthias Eze!" Those of my classmates standing nearest to me turned in my direction. It was an inquisition, to be sure, and there was no escaping. With a bent head, I walked to the dais.

"Young man, where is your parent or guardian?" the Principal demanded.

"My... my father is dead." I didn't know how this popped out of my mouth.

"Then you should have come with your mother or a guardian. Do you think we are playing here?"

"My mother is... is not well, and she is in a ho-hospital," I said and sent an appealing look to my form teacher, who was watching me with suspicion.

The Principal looked me all over.

"And is that why you are looking like a pig? What happened to your uniform?"

"I fell down on my way to school."

"Stand here," the Principal said and pointed to his right. I stood at the end of the line of parents and their wards.

"Two weeks ago," the Principal began, "a very grievous crime was committed in this school. These students, in complete disregard for the rules governing this great citadel of learning, stole a turkey belonging to the bishop. They killed it and were actually cooking the meat to eat when they were caught by our vigilant security man. The members of staff made an immediate decision to suspend them for two weeks while we looked fully into the matter and came up with an appropriate punishment for this misconduct. We have actually done that, but before I communicate our decision to you, the parents, I want to know if any of you have anything to say."

"Yes," Ebuka's father, in a black suit, stepped forward. "Thank you very much for the opportunity. I have questioned my son, Chukwuebuka, very well about his involvement in this case, and he maintains that he has been framed up, that he is innocent. I know my child, Mr. Principal. He would not lie to me about a matter as serious as this."

"I can assure you, Mr. Aguora, that this school would not accuse your son falsely," the Principal said. "Your son was actually caught in the very act, so if he told you he was framed up, he was lying to you."

"That is a thing that has to be looked into very carefully by the school before they make any decision concerning him," Ebuka's father insisted.

Angrily, Ndubuisi faced Ebuka and told him he was lying.

"You were even the person that caught the turkey. How can you now claim you were framed up? The only person that is innocent—I have to say it because my conscience will not allow me to keep quiet anymore—is Matthias."

"How?" the Principal queried.

"He took no part in the whole thing. He came to the kitchen as we were cooking the meat. We forced him to stay because we were afraid he would report us if we allowed him to go."

A wave of murmur swept through the assembly ground.

"This is getting interesting," the Principal said. "Is there anything more you want us to know?"

"That is the whole truth," Ndubuisi said and withdrew.

"Matthias Eze, step this way." The Principal moved me to his left among the teachers.

But it was at this point, at this very point, that my story began to turn bad. Looking up, I saw Oga Tom marching in his military fashion towards the assembly ground. Behind him was a man I recognized only too well by the greasy overalls he wore and the toolbox he carried. My father. Ojo must have met him on the way before he reached his workshop. That explained why he still carried the toolbox. I was in a daze by the time they mounted the dais and Oga Tom whispered something to the Principal. I saw the Principal's eyes widen, and he looked at Father and then at me. He beckoned to him and Father stepped shyly forward.

"Is this your son?" the Principal asked him, pointing at me. The entire assembly ground went dead. The only sound was my heart pounding mercilessly against my chest.

"Yes," Father answered, and as though he noticed that there was something wrong with the way he was dressed, he too looked down to the ground.

The Principal whipped around to face me.

"You told us only a few moments ago that your father was dead. Is this not your father?"

"I... I..." Then I went mute.

"I have a good mind to give you the same punishment that your colleagues here will receive. You have shown us what a bad example you are, and people like you can actually be a bad influence on the student body. But because of your father here, who, despite your attitude, still has your interest at heart by coming here today, I will overlook this and wait for another day. If you don't amend your ways, I assure you will not last long in this school."

"As for the four of you," he continued, turning to the boys on his right, "we, the staff, have reviewed your case in full and have come to the unfortunate, but necessary, decision that you will no longer continue your studies in this school. We train students, not criminals. I wish you good luck in finding placement elsewhere."

"This is rubbish," Mr. Aguora protested. "I will not accept this decision. I will sue this school."

"Do whatever you please," the Principal said, "but in the meantime, take your ward out of my school."

The assembly broke up. The students marched to their classes, the teachers to the staff room. Everyone was discussing the case and the drama that played out at the end. For a while Father remained rooted to the spot, his head still bowed. Then, without a glance at me, he shuffled out of the dais, leaving his toolbox behind. I hurried after him with the box, but even though he was aware that I was following him, he did not turn once to look at me.

 

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