"CREATE YOUR OWN DANCE"
"I know the answer"! "I really, really do know the answer"! I shouted excitedly in my mind, as my left cheek crimped, in the producing of an anxious smile. Yet, no other movement I could make. My whole body had stiffened. I could not raise my hand, in response to the teacher's question, directed at the class. Thirty-one and a half pupils were present. The half was Michael Robinson, sound asleep, two desks away, to the right of me.
It was a Mathematics class and the teacher had been explaining fractions. She had asked the class, "what is a one third times one eight". It was not a difficult question, not for me at least and I knew the answer. I knew my three times tables and for that matter my eight times tables. Yet, I could make no move to demonstrate my knowledge, or to attract the teacher's attention to me. I did manage though, to shift my head somewhat rigidly, and saw that no other pupil had raised their hand. I felt self-assured momentarily, but that moment was soon lost, as assuredness gave way to a solicitous demeanour. I became wary of my surroundings, distrustful of my environment and lost in my thoughts.
However my absorption with my thoughts was severely ruptured, when the teacher, intent on scolding the whole class exploded. "What have I been doing with you for the past three weeks"? She then deliberately, pushed herself and chair backwards, and then stood up slowly. She smoothed the crumpled pleats on the front of her dress, stretched her arms and rested them to her side, as if in completion of an aerobic exercise.
Then, in full voice, she blasted, "My efforts are wasted on you lot. This is the top class in Grade 7. My God! Pity the rest in the other forms. "Joseph", she shouted, she did not say another word, but the whole class knew, from her stern questioning look that she wanted an answer from him. Joseph bowed his head embarrassingly, he had made his response. "Stephanie", the teacher bawled, this time sounding even sterner, than when she had called Joseph. Stephanie too bowed and with her almost the whole of the class, as if in sympathy with her, offered a half bow. This half bow, however, was attempt by pupils to become invisible. They did not want to be called.
However, in rapid succession the teacher shouted the names of Alexander and Alexandra, the twins, their half bow were immediately transformed into full bows. Then even more quickly, she called Ingrid Semester, Pauline Michaelis, Everard Everington, Anthony Clarke, Perceval Singleton, Sheila Templeton, Michael Robinson, then paused angrily and sat brusquely. Not a word was uttered from any of them, but the teacher in her seeming heightened anger, evidenced by her calling of pupils by both firstname and surname, did not want to be answered. The question that she had earlier posed, in her mind, had become a distant memory. Her objective now, was in amplifying the embarrassment of the class. She certainly did this. The disgust with which she peered over her spectacles and the sneer that permeated the intonation of her voice was heard and felt by all pupils.
This included Michael Robinson who had been aroused out of his slumber, when his name had been called. The teacher reserved some of her most choice words for Michael as he sat at his desk bemused, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. "Look at him", she said, as if inviting the other pupils of the class to undertake some special investigation. "Look at his face ... is there a hint of intelligence there? He comes to my class, deposits himself at the rear and promptly and most disrespectfully determines that in my Mathematics class that he should go to bed". Here, the teacher's invitation to investigate Michael stopped, as she proffered her findings in most strident terms, lambasting him with "You indolent, slothful, supine, lackadaisical, pathetic, good-for-nothing, listless, feeble excuse for a human being. How dare you come to my class and sleep? This is an ed ... ed... educational institution, not your f.. f.. flaming bedroom, she stuttered. She was now rocking passionately, but steadied through re-seating herself in the chair at her desk. As she sat, she took a deep breath and sighed resignedly.
My name had not been called, but in no way did I feel exonerated. I felt with the other pupils the embarrassment, the shame. At first my head was not bowed, now it was, particularly after the teacher's tirade against Michael, and him being only two seats away to my right. I felt exposed and open to attack, as the teacher appeared to be marshalling her resources anew, as she sat tapping her fingers with determination, readying herself, to recommence her annihilation of 7J.
I knew the answer. I really really knew the answer. Yet, even after all that had gone on I still could not move. I wanted to raise my hand, but the hand would not move. I wanted to shout the answer, but my lips were frozen and my tongue tied. I just could not move. Something was holding me back. I was not sure what this "something" was, but as I became somewhat lost in myself once more, I began to have a sense of being afraid. Of being frightened. Uncertainty had gripped my imagination and forced an inner conversation that led along many paths.
Why am I afraid? Is it to do with a lack of confidence? Did I really know the answer? Was I afraid of being wrong? Why could I not raise my hand? Why my tentativeness? Why had my whole body been immobilised, except for furtive glances around the classroom? Why had I not been able to open my mouth and utter the words that would offer a release, not only for me, but the whole class, from the embarrassing situation into which we had been placed? Why? Why? Why?
Was it because I was the new boy? After all, I had been in England only six weeks and this was just my second week in my new school. I had arrived from Trinidad, very disappointed in having to leave, but not too unhappy, in being in England, now that I was here. I was again with my Mother and elder brother, an association that had been broken for nearly seven years. The passing years, however, had not impaired our family relationship. The re-association rekindled the warm glow, so evident in families, where interactions are positive. I did however leave many friends behind in Trinidad, among whom Dexter and Loretta were most special. Dexter was a true soul mate. There was hardly anything that we did not do together. Every story he knew, I knew. Every story I knew, he knew. We talked to each other about everything. Loretta was my girlfriend, so called, because she gave me my first and second kiss. I missed her and yearned to be in conversation with Dexter. I thought too about my school friends, especially Carlyle Sheppard and Wayne Ferreia. We were intense rivals when it came to tests, but we had a healthy friendship and always shared and helped each other with our school work.
In Trinidad, I thought I would have no problem answering teachers' questions. I had always been considered and recognised as being bright and invariably was able to proffer right answers. However, I would not have been the only one. Carlyle, Wayne and I would race to stand and raise our hand to inform the teacher that we had an answer to offer. Experiences of school in Trinidad were certainly different, than had been my early school experiences in England.
In school in England, I most certainly remained bright. I had no doubt about that. At my interview for entering the school, the headmaster had remarked just that, after my completion of the English and Math tests in quick time and getting very high scores. Furthermore, on commencing school, I found that the content of many lessons amounted to nothing much more, than revision. The only class which had posed problems was Art. Still life drawings, proportional representations and imaginative painting were alien concepts. I had had problems too with relating to my new peers in school. The only words that did not need repetition were the usual salutations of "Good Morning" and "Good Bye" and the term "Pardon", which when said with furrowed eyebrows, was an indication that one had not understood, what had been said and what had been said, had to be repeated. Communicating, I thought, at most times was frustrating.
However, as I continued musing, about how frustrating had been my experiences with verbal communication, it dawned on me, as to the possible source of my immobilisation. The more I thought, the clearer the picture became. I was then able to visualise the very moment. Then, as now beads of perspiration eased through the pores on my forehead and ran down my cheeks. However, what I had then, but not now, was the freshness, the confidence, the courage to answer teachers' question. I remembered the moment. Then as now, I knew the answer. I really, really knew the answer to the question posed by the teacher to the class. It was an English class and he had asked, "How many parts of speech are there"? I as if I was in a race with Carlyle and Wayne, jumped up, and as I raised my hand, politely stated, "Good Morning, Mr. Brown, will you accept an answer from me"? There was an eerie stillness in the class. I looked away from Mr. Brown and surveyed my peers in the classroom. Each one seemed in a state of shock, with their glazed eyes turned on me and their mouths gaping. I returned my attention to Mr. Brown, only to see that he too appeared as if in a state of shock. But even before I could glean a sense of what was happening, a cacophony of laughter pierced the stillness of the classroom. I am sure I heard the irritating chuckle of the hyena. The shrill kee, kee, kee of the chimpanzee. The dangerous howling of wolves, the cackling of turkeys, the hissing of snakes, the hee-haw of the ass, the grunting of a pig, the hooting of owls and a wide variety of noises and sounds, that was evident of Pandemonium amongst the animals breaking loose in a zoo.
Then books were flying, hands were clapping, desks and chairs being shuffled. There was a general mayhem accompanied by the most raucous laughter. All this directed at me. I did not initially know the reason, but it did not take me long, particularly when the whole class stood up, with hands raised, in a seemingly practised unison, saying "Good Morning, Mr. Brown, will you accept an answer from me"? Then the laughter continued. I sat down wanting to cry, but no tears came. I felt minute. I could only look at the marks on my used desk. Etched in the right hand corner and filled in with ink was "Eric Woz Here". I thought, good for Eric, I wish I was not here. I felt empty. I felt distant. I did not want to be here. I had been ridiculed, treated as a joke, a figure of mockery, a stranger, an alien, not accepted.
It was the school bell that saved me. It marked both the end of the lesson and the end of the day. I waited long enough for the teacher to say class dismissed, still with a grin on his face, before I headed through the door which was at the back of the class, into the school yard and out of the school gate, to the bus stop. As luck would have it, a bus I could take was just leaving and I managed to alight it before it could pick up speed. I was most pleased, that only a few children from my school would be on the bus and certainly none from my English class.
At home that evening I had no intention of telling neither my mother nor my brother what had happened earlier that day. My mother, however, has an uncanny knack of knowing when something is not quite right. As we sat down to eat she enquired politely, Ian what's up. You are most quiet to-day. My reply was almost inaudible, not really wanting to say anymore than I had to. I'm okay. "Okay" she counselled, "Okay" she said once more and continued, "You're as okay as eating an unripened orange". "What is the matter with you dear", she questioned again. I responded, somewhat testily, "I just said I was Okay". She challenged immediately with "and I just said, what is the matter with you?"
Anthony also seated at the table simply looked back and forth to my mother and me as we spoke, as if observing a tennis match. He had a puzzled look on his face unsure of what was happening. He knew though that mother was in her questioning mode and that in that mode she wanted answers. I knew that too and felt unable to resist her challenge. In our home our mother had an ascendancy that was not simply derived from motherhood. She was an intelligent woman, hard working, full of spirit and life. She was also a fighter, a woman of substance, who cared very much for her children. She commanded and deserved unreserved respect.
Stuttering, in high and low tones, I spluttered, "M...mom, I...I had a t...tough day at school.
"What happened son" was her gentle reply? I hissed my teeth and continued, "Mom they were laughing at me. They were jeering, howling, hissing and hooting. There was Pandemonium in the class".
"Why my son, why"?
"Books were flying, they were clapping, desks and chairs were being shuffled and they were mocking me". They ridiculed me. I felt so alone.
"Why my son why"?
Why? Huh! Well Mom, the teacher, Mr. Brown had asked a question to the class to which I really, really knew the answer. He had asked, "How many parts of speech are there"? So, I jumped up, and as I raised my hand, said, "Good Morning, Mr. Brown, will you accept an answer from me"? The class at first was still, before all hell broke loose in fits of laughter, mocking and ridiculing me. Mr. Brown was no help. I felt ashamed, out of place. I don't want to go back there. I really don't. The bell saved me. When we were dismissed I ran out of the class with the children's laughter ringing in my ears". I don't want to go back there. I don't Mother".
My mother straightened herself in the chair. My brother shuffled in his, staring vacantly at his meal, in which he had stirred his fork, but not began to eat. "Son", my mother began. "I know to-day could not have been easy. What you have described is a most terrible experience. I really feel for you. It must have been hard to-day. It could not have been easy. But you need to understand ... appreciate what really happened and look beyond the laughter. You're the new boy. Your classmates are going to be looking for what they see as little faults in you. You have to be patient with them. They will come around to see your special qualities. Of course they are going to find you strange, now. But you will see, they are going to be glad to be in your company. You are going to have to be brave. You have to show courage. Believe and have confidence in yourself. You won't get everything correct at first, because the school is new to you. But you will learn. Things in school are going to be different than they were in Trinidad. It will seem like if new rules are in operation and you will have to learn these new rules and adjust to them. You will learn them. I have no doubt about that".
"But ... but Mom what I experienced to day was more than that just about being new. How I see it, is that they laughed at me because I had manners. The teacher did too".
"Son", my mother interjected, "I am sure that they did not laugh at you because you had manners. They may have laughed at how you displayed your manners. But not because you had manners". The subtlety of my mother's remark was lost on me. It was lost on my brother too, as I noticed the frown on his face evidencing puzzlement. I knew that they had laughed at me because of my manners.
My mother then, as if ending our discourse, stated with some finality, "Son listen to me. You will learn. You will learn how to deal with ridicule. You are a bright boy. You have to give yourself a chance. You can't run away from things. You have to stand up and face the music. Create your own dance. Now eat up... You too Anthony". We did.
Later that evening, as I lay in bed, recapitulating the events of the day, for the umpteenth time, my mind kept running on the words of my mother. And as I recounted her words, I smiled to myself, knowing what a wonderful Mother that I had. She had given me strength to face the next day and as I continued musing on how wonderful she was, I laughed aloud when I remembered that she told me "create your own dance". "Create my own dance", I said to myself, giggling silently. "Create my own dance. What ... the twist, the calypso rock, the ska ... what? This jocular conversation with myself was soon put to an end when Anthony, roused from his sleep on the top bunk, whispered, "Ian, you're OK.
"I'm all right", was my whispered reply. As Anthony fell back into his sleep, I could not help myself from not thinking about him. He was my elder brother, and had not seen him for seven years, until six weeks ago. He was not as I imagined him to be. He was much bigger, more muscular than I, but appeared somewhat softer, more refined, especially at play. He did not have my Caribbean impudence and spontaneity, or at least, I had not seen it. This, of course, does not mean that I did not have this softer, more refined quality, so evident in my brother's character, but this quality was there, to be brought out on special occasions. "Like in answering questions in school", I brooded to myself. I liked my elder brother though and would not have wanted him to be any other way.
As I fell off to sleep, the thought that lingered most, was my mother's words, "Create your own dance".
As I left for school the following morning, with a warm hug from my mother, and steeled with her words of "have a good-day", said with much sincerity, I felt prepared to face the music. As I entered the school gates, somewhat warily, I sensed many eyes on me. Yet very few pupils ventured to say anything to me, except "Hi". I nonchalantly replied "Hi".
Stephanie was the only person, who ventured to go beyond "Hi". She in friendly tones greeted me with, "Hi Ian ... You're OK. Yesterday was tough on yer ... wasn't it"?
I replied with words, at first unsure of where I had unearth them from, and still in a nonchalant mode, "I can deal with that ... I can face the music ... I'll create my own dance. You watch".
Stephanie looked at me, somewhat puzzled, and said, "Yeah ... I'll see you later", as she moved deeper into the playground.
Soon after this, the school bell rang, signalling the commencement of the day. We lined up in forms and in an orderly fashion made our way to the assembly hall. Assembly on Tuesdays were rarely interesting, consisting mainly of notices and information on coming evens being read out by the Vice Principal. Once this was completed, we sang a hymn, said a prayer, and were out of the Assembly hall and in our classrooms for registration in quick time.
Being back in the classroom, where the previous day I had had such a "tough time", proved to be a numbing experience. During registration, I did not even hear my name called, and when nudged and informed that I should answer with regard to my presence. I remarked "Yes sir", when it should have been "Yes miss". There was a gentle ripple of laughter around the class and Miss Buckton's pensive gaze encouraged me that I should correct my reply. "Yes Miss", I said brightly.
On completing registration, Miss Buckton, went straight into Mathematics. She requested that we opened our textbooks at Chapter Three, which focused on Fractions, then proceeded to explain some of the worked examples. Miss Buckton spent about 15 minutes on the worked examples and in her effort to see whether we had comprehended what was being taught, she posed the question "What is one-third times one -eight". And I knew the answer. I really, really knew the answer.
Then, as if, coming out of a dream, I thought I heard my name being called. Then more distinctly, and unquestionably, I heard Miss Buckton's angry invocation to me. "Ian Phillips, for the third time, "What is one-third times one -eight". I raised my head slowly, realising that I had been truly lost in my thoughts. For most certainly I had not heard her two earlier requests. I stood up, looked around the class of bowed heads, and then to Miss Buckton, in her manifest anger. "Well Miss Buckton", I said confidently, not even remembering my former anxious state, "It may please you to know, that I know the answer. I really, really do know the answer." Smiling broadly, I confirmed what I knew. "Miss Buckton, the sum of one-third times one-eight is one twenty-fourth. Every bowed head cocked a glance at me. I searched for Stephanie and when our eyes met I gave her a wink, spread-eagled my hands, palms upwards, and sauntered, swaying back into my chair, as if to say, "I told you, I'll create my own dance". She smiled shyly, but did not look away from me.
Ian Phillips (March 2002)