When I was in the university, I found being broke romantic. You wake up, you have not a single kobo in your pocket nor in your account but you smile because you know it wasn’t possible to go to bed hungry or to fail to pay for the typing and printing your assignments. Not anymore. As a Mount Sinai International School teacher, being broke annoyed the hell out of me.
It was the 25th of September and I was yet to be paid. It was a Friday. After the weekend, it would be 28th; the month would end on the 30th and 1st was Independence holiday. The time to agitate was now. It was also a time for deeper frowning. Even in the best circumstances, I never smiled. Now, it was even worse. Because I never look at the mirror, I can’t describe myself in those days before salary was paid but I can give you one instance:
I was standing in the centre of the school, monitoring the students sweep the premises in preparation for the morning assembly. Two students were arguing and decided to bring the matter to me to settle but when they came close enough and saw my face, they stopped as though they hit their foreheads on a wall.
“Sorry Uncle,” they said in unison and hurried away, in search of an actual human teacher.
I just stood there like a wooden god whose priest did not pour kai kai this morning. “When do we see our salaries?” I asked the principal. The assembly had just ended and the first period was on. I was in his office and wasn’t particularly fired up to teach this morning.
The principal smiled. More like a leer. “In this school, they usually pay on the 15th.”
“Oh, so they ought to have paid September salary on the 15th of September? I didn’t get an alert.”
“They would pay on or before October 15th.”
I sat up. “You kidding, sir.”
“We are used to it,” he said.
Chisom appeared in the door. “Sir, we have you now.”
“Of course. Go to my desk and get the lesson note for English and join me in the class.” She stood there for two or three seconds smiling at me, imploring me to smile back. Someone must have told her that she was my favourite student and she wanted me to show affection, to confirm the fallacy.
“Please shift, let me pass.” She would have gotten a smile from a statue more easily.
I walked into SS2 classroom and the whole class hurried to their feet. That was my style. I enter, you stand. I say good morning then you guys respond good morning sir. Then sit when I say sit. If I don’t say sit, you all remain standing for as long as I want. Sometimes, I ask questions, if you get the answer you sit, if you don’t you stand, mostly for the rest of the class.
I wrote English Language on the board then turned and faced the classroom. They all stood straight like sergeants before a major general. “If you have done your assignment,” I said without opening my mouth, the words coming out like a grunt and another grunt and another grunt, the voice of Agaba the masked spirit, “sit down.”
The whole class sat down.
“Stand up everyone. You may not have heard me clearly. If you have done your homework, sit down.”
They all sat down.
“Pass your homework books to the front desks. Chisom, gather them all and place them on the teacher’s desk.”
Chisom wasn’t the class rep but she was the one I called whenever I needed something done in this class. But it was the class rep herself who gathered the notebooks and placed them on the desk. I looked at Chisom, her face was stony. This was her way of protesting my refusal to return her smile downstairs. I let it slide.
While marking the homework, I discovered that two students didn’t do theirs. They just submitted their homework notebooks. I sent for them. The two boys came along with Chisom. “Sorry Uncle,” she said. “They knew you were in a bad mood and would eat them alive for not doing it.”
“You guys lied to me,” I said slowly.
“Sorry Uncle,” they chorused.
“Kneel down,” I said. The three of them knelt down. I looked at Chisom. “Why are you kneeling?”
“I was the one who suggested that to them. I am sorry, sir.”
Mrs. Anozie made the sound women do when you do something romantic or generous. One other teacher said something about student leadership. They were all interested, daring me to punish my favourite for defending her colleagues.
“You guys take me for granted in this school,” I said but there was no anger in my voice. “Go away. This place is stuffy. We need air. Go away. But, I promise you, you haven’t heard the end of this short story.”
“Thank you, sir,” they said and left.
The two boys were wasting their thanks because I would still punish them. Failure to do homeworks attracted punishments. That was my policy. I wouldn’t drop it because Mrs. Anozie did “oon ho”. Sinach interfering wouldn’t save them. Or, I think I would forgive them if Sinach interferes. But not for Mrs. Anozie who couldn’t sing to double her salary. The boys also lied to me. I wouldn’t let this go unpunished, too. But the punishment would not be out of anger and frustration as it would have been earlier. It would be with a clear head and naked eyes.
I looked at my wristwatch. Five minutes to the end of the break. I decided to go say hi to my heart candidates – the Chocolate Joy and the Ebony Obioma, stunning women. I met Joy eating stewed rice in the computer room. “Your legs are good,” she said.
“Wise of you to put the food in your pretty mouth and praise my legs.”
She smiled. “Join me.”
“I will rather you join me in one fine eatery this Sunday.”
She put her head to one side as she considered my proposal. Beautiful neck. “Is it a date?”
I took two steps closer to her. Didn’t they say we should take up occupy space? If I come closer and block off the air from the door and she couldn’t breathe, she would say yes. “I didn’t think of it as a date but now that you call it that why not? And if you are going to say no a call to eat jollof rice and chicken lap, it will save my money.”
“That is the point, you don’t have money. Me, I want a man that would buy me iPhone and would not complain that I have finished his money.”
“Well, you can go get that man; me, I just want to touch a female breast.”
“Jire,” she exclaimed. “Oh my, what did you just say?” She began to cough as shockers and rice don’t mix.
“Let me get you water,” I said and hurried off. If I waited until she could talk, she would request for malt. I asked a boy to buy pure water and take it to Joy. Time to see Obioma and collect her phone number.
I was thinking, what would I save her number as? Oma or Oby would serve in the first stage. When the relationship gets to a cushier level, I would save it with Obim or Omalicha. When we reach my dream, she would become Nwanyi Maranma which is the official title of my significant others. On the campus, I had many Nwanyi Maranmas and it was not because I was a playboy. I was the boyfriend of the boyfriendless. My shoulder was open for English girls to weep on when they got heartbroken by those Engineering boys they always ran after.
When I got to the window from which I talked to Oby and gave her yoghurts, I saw Hosea the VP standing there, talking to her, and smiling. My nose twitched with annoyance as I walka-passed. I stopped at the shop, bought tom tom, wasted a lot of time unwrapping it then arranging the little changes in my wallet. When I returned to the window, Hosea was still there.
“What kind of witch is this one?” I said almost aloud. I sighed. By now, they have rung the bell for the end of breaktime. I decided to climb up to the proprietress office and talk to her about the delaying salary. By the time I returned downstairs, Hosea must be gone otherwise, he would see the elder brother of Goddy. I went up.
The proprietress had a guest, as usual. This lady should be 29 or 30, big with a skin that glittered. A complete Aje Butter.
“Chinua Achebe,” the proprietress hailed me and showed what looked like genuine happiness to see me. This woman is a politician, I said to myself. If she buys the form for Anambra South Senatorial district today, she would beat Andy Uba and Annie Okonkwo hands down.
“Good morning, ma.”
“Sit down, Kings. Meet Kingsley, he is the smartest teacher in this school. This is my daughter Neche.”
“There is no single ugly woman in Nnewi, North or South or West,” I said.
“There is no Nnewi West,” she said.
“Even if there was, you would not find an ugly girl there.”
Neche was looking at me with unabating eyes. I knew she was thinking, what is this smart guy doing teaching in this school? My sister, help me ask me o.
“Neche is the school manager,” the mother said.
“She is a fine manager.”
The proprietress made a question mark face.
“I mean, she is a g-good manager of the school resources,” I tried not to stammer.
“Resources indeed,” the proprietress said. “If I leave you now, you would mention natural and liquefied gas. Why are you here jor?”
I came here to complain about my salary not being paid but kill me if you want, I will open this my big mouth and talk about 25 thousand naira in the presence of this woman who looked like Monalisa Chinda.
“Well, I came to discuss a matter of international importance but they have rung the bell for the end of the break so I am going back up. I think I have a class.”
“They rang the bell before you came up here,” the proprietress said, “but since you don’t want to talk in the presence of my daughter, hold it to yourself.”
“Did you say a matter of international importance?” Neche asked. There was concern in her voice. Honey as well.
I rose slowly to my feet. “The name of this school is Mount Sinai International. Every problem here is of international scale.”
The women laughed, Neche more so. “Mummy, this guy is premium HBP leveler.”
“They drive me crazy here. Oya, to your tent O Kingsley.”
Neche told me she was writing a book. “I will show it to you to check if I am on track.”
“It will be my pleasure.”
On my way to the secondary section, I didn’t follow Oby’s side of town. The presence of Neche had somewhat disrupted the bi-faceted nature of my heart system. Neche made Joy and Oby look like ordinary Jambites. She was not even as fine as they were but there was something about her that was compelling despite being four or five years older than I was. Beauty is beautiful but power is power.
When I got to my desk, I brought out my phone to check to the time and found a text message icon. I opened the text message from Joy. “What time on Sunday?” This was her way of saying yes to my dinner date. I didn’t even have the money for the date and I needed to travel to my village for the weekend. If I got the money, we would have the date; if I didn’t, I would find a way to disrupt the date and still look cool and maybe even get an apology from her.
I had SS1 Literature. On my way to the class, a boy from the primary section nearly collided into me. “Sorry sir,” he said.
“What is this?” I pointed at a part of his face.
“My eyes,” he said.
“Always use them.”
“Ok, sir. I am looking for Uncle K.”
“You are talking to him.”
He gave me a piece of paper and hurried off. I looked at the paper and found a phone number written in a pretty hand. I turned the paper and saw “OBIOMA”. It wasn’t I who walked into SS1 classroom in the next moment; it was a certain guy with five inches high shoulder pads.