A disappointed Ihuoma walked out of the office of the Permanent Secretary in the State Ministry of Education that hot Monday. It took all of her will power to maintain her composure. She couldn’t believe the caliber of people who run things in government establishments. “With this crop of individuals heading public establishments”, she mused, “ it is no wonder that nothing seems to be working”.
To calm herself, she decided to walk to the nearby Feel Good Snacks and Bar for some cold soft drink. At her request, one of the waiters served her a chilled bottle of her favourite brand of fruit juice. She smiled at this little indulgence as she recalled that she had made a decision to do away with all sugary drinks and foods. Although she felt a little guilty for going against her decision, she comforted herself with the assurance that she needed the drink after what she had been put through that afternoon. With the first glassful downed, she was calm enough to go over her visit to the Permanent Secretary and began to replay the encounter she had earlier with the Permanent Secretary.
She had gone to the State Ministry of Education to request for permission to set up reading clubs in select rural primary and secondary schools, as pilot project for other information literacy programmes she plans to initiate in the state-owned primary and secondary schools. The hassles that she had to go through were unimaginable to say the least.
Firstly, she was kept waiting in the outer office for over one hour because “Oga was busy”. When she was finally ushered into the office, it turned out that ‘Oga’ was busy ‘toasting’ a female youth corps member who was there to request for a chance to do her primary assignment in his establishment. The fact that the corps member was young enough to be his daughter didn’t seem to bother him.
Secondly, to worsen matters, the Permanent Secretary had fired a barrage of questions at her as soon as she stepped into his office. He didn’t bother to respond to her greetings… perhaps to assert his authority or impress the corps member who was seated in one of the chairs in the office.
“Ehen, who are you and where are you from”?
“Did you book an appointment before coming”?
“What can I do for you”?
“I hope you are not here to waste my time”. He threw these questions at her while she was still standing, not caring to know if she replied or not. Finally, when he had run out of steam, he had asked her to sit down and introduce herself.
Ihuoma smiled to herself as she remembered how the atmosphere in the office quickly changed the moment she introduced herself as “Professor Ihuoma Odinigwe of the Department of Library and Information Science in Wazobia University”.
The Permanent Secretary, with his mouth unwittingly open had sheepishly asked her “Em, did you say Professor”? It was obvious that he could not reconcile her looks with the title. In fairness to him, she knew that her youthful looks belied her actual age. It was always a rude shock to braggarts each time she introduced herself as ‘Professor’. It always has the effect of bringing them down from their high horse. “Nigerians and their adulation of titles”, she sighed. Personally, Ihuoma has no care for these titles, but in her country they open doors and command a measure of respect.
“If this is one of the things I must do to actualize my mission, so be it”, she had concluded the moment she decided to set out on her quest for reading clubs. The truth is that for this mission that has become her passion, she needed lots and lots of open doors.
Back to her encounter with the Permanent Secretary, the real reason behind her disappointment and anger. She had explained her mission to the Permanent Secretary thinking that he would jump at this rare opportunity which was being offered at no cost to the Ministry. She had been so sure that he would be happy to hear that something was being planned for school children, in particular the rural dwellers thinking “Surely, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education would welcome a programme that would impact positively on school children”. How wrong she was!
Rather than commend her goodwill, the Permanent Secretary wanted to know who her sponsors were and when she told him she was sole sponsor, he did not believe her. Next, he wanted to know what the Ministry stood to benefit, very careful not to mention himself. When she told him that the programme would help to develop reading culture in the school children, he was unimpressed. She was sure that he was thinking in his crooked and corrupt mind “nobody does anything for free”. She was taken aback by his attitude, if truth be told. The most incomprehensible thing was that thereafter, the Permanent Secretary began to reel out so many conditions that she has to meet if she truly wanted a permit to run her programme.
Embittered, Ihuoma fell into a monologue.“Where did we miss it? Can somebody tell me please? Here I am willing to spend my hard-earned money and I am told this rubbish? What would happen if I meant to apply for funding from the government? No wonder the country is floundering. People charged with responsibility are not trustworthy or committed”.
She couldn’t help but wonder how many other laudable programmes proposed by well-meaning individuals and organisations may have ‘died prematurely’ due to bureaucratic bottlenecks. There and then, she swore not to let anybody kill her vision because she quite understood its import. “Our children and young adults need guidance”, she reasoned. “With the television and social media competing for young peoples’ attention, in addition to drugs and diminishing values, many are gradually drifting. If this trend is not checked, the fate of our country will be sealed”.
She remembered that she had chosen to pursue this cause because she is a product of someone else’s love and guidance. She knew that love and guidance were precisely what nurtured and polished the ‘brilliance’ people see and commend in her today. In fact, she couldn’t help being bemused whenever people commended her ‘brilliance’ or wondered why she took mentoring of children and young people so seriously. “If not for that chance occurrence, she reasoned, maybe I too would have ended up not so brilliant”.
With that, Ihuoma cast her mind back to some forty-three years ago when she was in primary school, primary four class to be precise. She remembered how before her primary four class she dreaded going to school because she was a ‘dunce’ as her teachers before primary four never failed to remind her. For her, school was a nightmare; so, she devised all manner of tricks in the book to stay away if there was a chance she would get away with it. If it wasn’t her head today, then it had to be her stomach tomorrow. Of course, she repeated a class and that was why she was still in primary four at the age of eleven.
All that changed when divine providence brought Mrs Comfort Essien, a trainee teacher to her classroom and life. Those were the years of the teacher training colleges. She wondered who advised the federal and state governments to scrap the teacher training colleges. A far as she was concerned, the teachers from those colleges were the real professionals. Beautiful and elegant, Mrs Essien was every pupil’s favourite teacher. She was slow to anger and so understanding and caring. She remembered her good fortune when it turned out that Mrs Essien lived at her end of the town. It happened that Mrs Essien saw her walking home from school on one of the days. Having ascertained from her the next day that she lived in that side of town, Mrs Essien always made sure she joined her in her car for the homeward ride.
She didn’t stop there. She began to show special interest in her academic performance. Ihuoma recalled how elated she was when, for the first time in her life, she took the 14th position in a class examination. She expected that Mrs Essien would hug her and tell her “well done”. Nothing of the sort happened. Rather, Mrs Essien told her she could do better because she saw potential to excel in her. That was the push she needed. Because she was determined to impress Mrs Essien, she had dug into her books and as surely as hard work pays off, she took the 2nd position in the next examination. She never looked back since. She was among the 3rd overall best finishing primary and secondary school and best student of her graduating class in the university.
She reminded herself that that was the reason she had chosen to pursue this mission and although she practically has her hands full, she would always find time to encourage children and young people, especially those from not so privileged background. Moreover, she very well understood that children do not all develop at the same time or rate. Some are fast, others not so fast. The speed or lack of it has nothing to do with the physical size or stature of the individual. Rather, it is a psychological thing. Individual differences, they call it. She said to herself, “Realizing that each child has a make-up that is uniquely his/hers is key to understanding their struggles and giving the needed attention. A situation where children are lumped together and these differences are not recognized does a lot of harm to the emotional development of the ‘laggards’ as the call them”.
She wondered why some teachers do not realize that when they give uncomplimentary tags to a child, it further inhibits learning. That many children suffer from low self-esteem is not news to her because she had been there. “The unfortunate thing, she thought, is that the parents are not without some blame too. In their over ambitious drive to push their children beyond their ability, they have done them more harm than good. They call them all manner of names and make unkind comparisons. “All because they cannot accept the fact that their child is not ahead of their neighbor’s child”, she sighed. She knew this because often times, parents, especially the mothers have refused to accept that a child that is weak academically could fare better if he/she repeated a class. “No one wants to hear that because there is a competition going on among the mothers for whose child will be first to enter the next level of schooling”, she thought. She remembered the many occasions that mothers had come to her to complain that their ward was a slow learner or low academic achiever. She had taken up the challenge to prove them wrong. She had applied what she calls her ‘literacy coaching therapy’ and today those children are doing very well in higher institutions of learning.
She resolved to continue on the path she was treading irrespective of the challenges that were certain to arise. “Seeing those children who were formerly tagged dullards excelling today is my motivation for taking the shit I do. Giving up or throwing in the towel now would seal the fate of countless other children and young people”, she concluded.
Written by Ijeoma Ibegbulam
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