Jonathan Abaruo was the class captain of my class when we were in JSS1. There was no class vote; he was simply nominated because following the chronology of our surnames, his was the first in the class register. He didn’t come back to school when we returned for the start of the first term in JSS2. Health problems, our form teacher, Mr. Okezie explained, before handing the mantle over to Tobenna Onwumere.
Toby, as he was popularly called, quickly became notorious for arranging the duty roster in such a way that the classmates he didn’t like did more classroom-sweeping and grass-cutting and blackboard-dusting than the few who were his friends. There was a public outcry at the injustice, and by the time the third term came to an end under the turbulence of the august rains, Toby was demoted.
We resumed JSS3 and Mr. Okezie made me the class captain. Me! Ezenwaka Egwim! Class captain! Hah! What about Christopher Emeh, the brightest student in my class? Or Ebenezer Onome, the class busybody, teacher’s pet-wannabe and I-Too-Know rolled in one? In my opinion, there were classmates with better qualifications who were better suited for the post. And Ebenezer apparently shared similar thoughts, because the day after I was nominated, the moment I was tacking the new class duty roster on the wall, he accosted me. I felt his heavy breathing wash hotly over my ears seconds before he snapped, “Why is Joseph not cutting grass?”
Joseph was standing beside me at the moment, and he turned with me to face the other boy. The dislike on his face was duplicated on mine as we glared at him. Ebenezer was our least favorite person in the class. A sturdily-built boy with a protruding belly button and severe cross eyes, he had the annoying habit of voicing an opinion for everything. Everything. Even when it was no concern of his. He just had to say something, and with a galling condescension that seemed to imply that he was right and everyone else was wrong.
“Is it your business?” Joseph snapped back. “Eze is the class captain, not you.”
“You want to start doing like Toby, abi?” Ebenezer seethed. The cross eyes squinted angrily at some point between Joseph and I.
“You won’t go and mind your business, anya-four-taati,” I snarled. “Look at the roster nah. Can’t you see that everyone is doing everything?”
“Except him!” Ebenezer stabbed a finger in Joseph’s direction. “He’s not cutting grass –”
Joseph cut in heatedly, “I’m sweeping class –”
“Only. Are you a girl?” Ebenezer sneered.
Joseph’s eyes narrowed at the affront. His hands turned to fists and he took two steps toward the other boy. He was taller; Ebenezer shrank back one step.
“One day, I will beat you, Ebenezer,” Joseph hissed. “One day is one day. You are trying me in this class, eh? One day, I will beat you oh.”
The cross eyes sized Joseph up, deliberated on his threat and decided to back down. He shot me a glare, mumbled something unsavory in his native language and stomped away.
And so started my regime as the class captain. It was not an easy job. Not by a long shot. The classroom and the small quadrangle before it had to be kept clean, with the grass shorn at all times. Teachers were sought out whenever they were not present for their classes. I made frequent trips to the staffrooms and private offices, lugging stacks of our assignments here and there. And all the authority figures – from the teachers to the prefects – held me accountable for the misconduct of the unidentified miscreants in my class.
The job had its perks too. Like making sure Ebenezer’s name was always put down on every ‘Names of Noisemakers’ list I wrote. And having the ear of our form teacher; most free periods saw me in his office, discussing weighty issues with him that were ultimately for the greater good of JSS3B. I was also endeared to most other teachers; as a class captain, it was easy for me to ingratiate myself to them and get small rewards for my efforts. Like the extra marks the youth corps English teacher, Mr. Ayede, promised me when I accompanied him to his apartment in the staff quarters, carrying the huge stack of JSS3 test papers. And the fifty naira the Health science teacher, Mrs. Ndukaku, gave me when I helped her in the scoring of the SS1 papers she had marked. And the –
“Eze! Hurry up nah! We are going to be late for Homec oh!” Joseph hollered from the front of the classroom.
“I’m coming!” I yelled back while delving through my school bag.
Ibuka stood beside me, waiting for the Social Studies textbook he’d asked from me. “What is so special about today’s Homec class sef?” He flicked a look about the near-empty classroom. Two desk covers slammed shut moments before Obioma and Dan scurried out of the room, clutching their notebooks. Ememesi was seated, frantically finishing up an assignment, and Amaka was hurriedly parking away dirt into the waste-bin. The rest of my classmates were already headed for the Home Economics laboratory where we were scheduled for our Tuesday morning class.
“We are doing practical today, baking chin-chin,” I said. I found the textbook, dug it out and handed it over to Ibuka. “Take – don’t tear it oh.”
He gave me a piqued look that seemed to say ‘Don’t insult me.’
“Eze!” Joseph yelled again.
“I’ll leave you and go oh!”
I knew he wouldn’t. Joseph hated going for our classes on his own.
“So it’s because of chin-chin that he’s shouting,” Ibuka sneered, and hissed as I stowed my school bag back inside my desk.
“Eze, please wait for me,” Ememesi whined from his seat. But Ibuka and I were already out the door. Ibuka headed back to his classroom, while Joseph and I scampered off in the direction of the Homec lab.
The Homec lab was a wide space of well-scrubbed tiled floors, white Formica-topped tables and perpetual foody scents. As we entered, the redolent smells of flour and butter tickled my nose. The Home Economics teacher, Mrs. Agbaso, was a diminutive woman, with a chubby frame clad in an apron, a dimpled smile that came readily on her face and a hyperactive attitude.
“…what ingredients we use in making chin-chin?” She had already started her lesson as Joseph and I got settled.
As usual, Christopher Emeh’s hand shot up, narrowly missing the spectacled eyes of his seat partner, Ndidi Obi. At Mrs. Agbaso’s nod, he go to his feet and answered, “Flour, margarine, milk, baking powder and sugar. You can also use eggs, vegetable oil for frying and nutmeg.”
“Excellent.” The dimples flashed. “Can anyone tell us how we can make use of these ingredients to bake chin-chin?”
Christopher was at his finest moment again. “You mix the sugar and milk in one bowl, grind the nutmeg and mix it with the flour in another bowl, and then add butter, before adding the sugar and milk. You mix it well-well with your hand” – he made oscillatory gestures with his own hand – “and then place it on a flat surface and rub it with…em…er…” He flailed for the word.
“Rolling pin,” Mrs. Agbaso supplied.
“Ehen – rolling pin. And then you –”
“That is alright, Christopher. And very good, I must say.”
“Now,” the teacher began briskly, “let’s get started.”
The next several minutes were spent with the making of the confectionary. We were split up in groups, with leaders who took charge of the different utensils and batches of baking ingredients doled out to us. Aprons were cinched around our waists. Clouds of powder festooned into the air as flour and powdered milk were tipped into large stainless steel bowls, and an excited babble of voices broke out, almost drowning out Mrs. Agbaso’s voice as she shouted out instructions. She moved in and out of the groups, gently correcting here and enthusiastically commending there.
“Obioma, mix it like this…”
“Look at what the other group is doing…”
“Amaka, that is not how aunty said we should do it…”
“Our rolling pin – who took our rolling pin…”
“Add small milk, Anulika – small milk…”
“Give me let me do small nah…”
“It’s too soft. Is it supposed to be soft like this…”
Voices rose and fell, opinions were hurled about and hands snatched at items from the table. The thread of competition tautened between the groups as each cluster of students tried to out-pace the other.
I looked up from the dough I was dicing at Njideka Dim. She was the assistant class captain. She was a light-skinned girl with a cherubic face and dark hair cropped short.
“What is it?”
“Shey you know that homec is just one period and we have fine arts after?” she said, wiping at her flour-stained face with a flour-stained hand. The result was more flour stains.
“Yes, I know. But homec period hasn’t finished yet.”
“I’m just telling you so you will know.”
In other words, she was reminding me of two things: the homec class could spill over past its period; and the Fine Arts teacher, Mr. Ibekwe, didn’t like to be kept waiting. I knew I had to go and inform Mr. Ibekwe of our possible lateness to his class. I stared at the dough on the baking board before me. I looked at Njideka. She stared back at me, primly waiting for me to make a decision that would affect the fate of JSS3B. I groaned. She blinked. The Fine Arts studio was quite a distance away from here, and making the journey there and back was sure to cost me a great part of this class. And I wasn’t even done with my dicing. Reluctance settled like a ton of lead inside me.
“Let me go,” someone cut in.
Glory Hallelujah! Njideka and I turned to see who the messiah was. Ebenezer was grinning at us. The cross eyes were staring at Njideka. Or they could have been staring at me; I wasn’t very sure.
“Are you sure?” I asked hesitantly, not wanting to believe my arch-nemesis would want to help me out.
“Yes.” He tugged at his apron and began wiping his hands on the material. “I will be fast. No problem.”
A warm flush of pleasure coursed through me and my gratitude was evident in the smile I gave him. In that moment, Ebenezer was my best friend in the whole wide world. “Thank you very much.”
He waved my thanks away and moved toward Mrs. Agbaso to excuse himself. I watched him talk to her. She nodded and he started out of the class. Njideka returned to her table and I went back to my dicing, putting the Fine Arts class and Mr. Ibekwe out of my mind.
The class progressed and soon, the entire room was filled with the sibilant sounds of dough frying in oils and the pungent, rich smells of the snack. In spite of the teacher’s frequent but indulgent exhortations for us to stay away from the cooking area, our excitement kept us crowded over the gas cookers, watching, chattering and taking in the simple magic of the cooking process. Some moments passed before Mrs. Agbaso shooed us firmly back to our seats before she began scooping the minuscule crudely-shaped bronzed balls out of the hissing oil into a colander. It wasn’t very long before we all settled down to a refreshment of chin-chin and mineral.
I was happy. I was content. I shared my Coke with Ebenezer. All was well with the world –
“So this is where you people are, eh?” an angry voice barked inside the lab.
It startled us around to face the door. Standing in the doorway was Mr. Ibekwe, the Fine Arts teacher. He was a small man, wiry looking, with a shining bald head and a belligerent expression in his eyes. Those eyes were now swinging around over us, scalding us with the heat in them.
“So this is where you people are,” he reiterated, livid. “The time is almost 9:30, and you’re supposed to be in my class since 9. Instead you are here eating chin-chin and drinking mineral, eh? No problem. Enjoy your chin-chin and mineral – until you come to my studio.” He swept his angry gaze over us again, settled them pointedly on me, then turned and stalked away without acknowledging Mrs. Agbaso.
In the wake of his departure, there was a split second of stunned silence, rigidly held in place by fountaining terror. Then the fear turned to panic, and a blizzard of frantic locomotion was unleashed. Voices peaked, bodies rose from the seats, feet shuffled, books were snatched off the tables, and a tide of alarm swept us out of the laboratory in a race for the Fine Arts studio. The students who didn’t have their Fine Arts notebooks with them fled back to the classroom block. No one gave a thought to Mrs. Agbaso and the chin-chin. All we were thinking was Mr. Ibekwe’s last words: ‘…until you come to my studio.’
The teacher was a mean-spirited man, and those ominous words were unnerving enough to make Njideka’s tears flow freely down her plump cheeks as she hurried along beside me.
“Eze, shebi I told you…shebi I told you…” she kept on lamenting.
“But Ebenezer took excuse from him nah…” I retorted, my heart pounding with each step I took. Or did he? A small part of my mind nagged.
Soon, we were assembled on the threshold of the Fine Arts studio. Mr. Ibekwe was nowhere in sight. The others who first went to the classroom soon joined us. And we waited. The wait heightened the fear. Ememesi whimpered occasionally, hunched over and clutching at his groin as though he was fighting to hold back his pee.
And then, Mr. Ibekwe arrived. In his hand were a bunch of canes he’d plucked from some tree on his way. At the sight, my heart dropped. Some of my classmates began to cry. I saw Joseph tighten his face in that way he had when he was bracing himself to receive punishment. And behind him, a few feet away, I saw Ebenezer. He was looking back at me. And those cross eyes were squinting with pleasure. Malicious pleasure. That was when I knew that he had set me up. He hadn’t gone to see Mr. Ibekwe like he promised. He had had no intention of helping me. He was still very much my arch-nemesis.
I felt my emotions vacillate between anger and fear. And the look I gave him promised retribution. But my payback was kept on hold at the moment, because the next few minutes were spent under the wrath of Mr. Ibekwe. The teacher gave every one of us ten strokes of the cane. On the buttocks. Njideka screamed as she was flogged. Ememesi’s piddle flowed freely. Joseph was stiff as a board. As for me, as the class captain, I was caned fifteen times. The flogging was painful. I was not brave like Joseph. I cried, not like Njideka, thank you very much. And my buttocks burned against my seat throughout the duration of the Fine Arts class.