Reading and Writing and Arithmetic Taught to the Tune of an Ebony Stick

The elementary school was made from cement blocks. Windows without glass or screens provided air conditioning. Jo Ann and her first grade class provide perspective on the size of the school.

(Peace Corps turned 50 on Tuesday and I am not discussing what I turn on Thursday. But each day this week I am honoring Peace Corp’s birthday by sharing tales on my travel blog of my own experience as a PC Volunteer in Gbarnga, Liberia, West Africa from 1965 to 1967. Yesterday I wrote about my introduction to teaching second grade and about contacting a mysterious illness. Today I return to my unruly class of second graders and try to bring them under control.)

When I returned to school from being sick, my second graders had become rambunctious from their time off. After five days I had worked my way through every classroom management skill I had picked up during Peace Corps’ training and several I made up. Nothing worked.

“They need to be whipped,” my fellow Liberian teachers suggested. “That’s what we do.”

I patiently explained that Peace Corps teachers weren’t supposed to whip their students. Somewhere it was chiseled in stone. Eternal damnation and banishment to North Dakota would result.

“Then pretend you are going to whip them. Just don’t do it,” was the next helpful suggestion.

Being desperate and up for a little corruption, I thought about it. Where did it say in the Peace Corps rules that positive threatening was out of line? After all, hadn’t Teddy Roosevelt said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick?” Wasn’t the American government accumulating enough nuclear weapons to kill everyone in the world several times over using the same philosophy?

So I went out in the jungle and cut myself a big stick. Next I introduced it to my students.

“Oh, Mr. Mekemson, what a big stick you have,” they said. I could see the respect shining in their eyes. I explained its purpose. They could behave and earn positive points or they could misbehave and earn negative points. If they earned enough negative points, THE BIG STICK WOULD BE WAITING.

I didn’t tell my students I put the point total for the stick so high it would take a combination of Al Capone and Count Dracula to reach it.

The system worked. Whenever the class bordered on chaos, I would head for the blackboard, chalk in hand. Instant silence resulted. It was ‘Reading and writing and arithmetic taught to the tune of an ebony stick.’ We started making up for lost time.

A part of John Bonal's extended family. Mary is on the left.

Of course there was an exception. Isn’t there always? It came in the form of Mary, an 11-year old going on 13. Her uncle was principal of the high school and a Big Man in town so this meant she was important. Mere mortals such as Peace Corps Volunteers didn’t count. No Liberian teacher would dare touch a stick to her ornery hide, so certainly a Peace Corps teacher wouldn’t.

She called my bluff and pushed her points right up to the rim. I urgently sought reasons to give her positive points but the opportunities were few and far between. She went over the top and smugly whispered to her girlfriends to watch what would happen.

Now I had a real problem. Obviously I couldn’t beat her. I am really not the beating kind. But neither could I ignore her. The end of the day came and I dismissed the class but asked her to stay. The students walked out the door and stopped just on the other side. They weren’t leaving. Nobody at the school was, including all of the teachers. They were all waiting to see what Mr. Mekemson would do.

Mr. Mekemson was worrying. That’s what he was doing. I got out my big stick. Little Miss Mary was no longer so nonchalant.

“Don’t beat me Teacha, I beg you, don’t beat me,” she screamed and screamed and screamed. I gently touched her with my stick. You would have thought I was pulling all of her fingernails and half of her toenails out, slowly. I knew everyone in the school was listening in on this little drama and I imagined that half of Gbarnga was as well.

 

Oh boy, I thought, you have royally screwed up this time, Curtis.

I mumbled something about the importance of changing her ways and sent her off. And then I waited. How long would it be before the Peace Corps jeep came by to carry Jo Ann and me away? The next day at school was quiet.  Mary stayed home and I had a class of angels. Even other classes were quiet.

At noon, one of the Liberian teachers stopped by. She had a student she wanted me to beat. I declined… less than graciously.

Two days later I received the message; John Bonal, Mary’s Uncle, wanted to see me. This was it. I prepared my case carefully. I didn’t want to leave. A lovely war was waiting for me at home and I had developed a considerable fondness for Liberia and its people.

I went to see Mr. Bonal with all of the enthusiasm of an African hippopotamus crossing the Sahara. John was smiling when I greeted him. I even managed to get a decent snap out of the handshake.

“I’ve heard about your reputation,” he started and paused. Many words went roaring through my mind; words like child beater, monster, and hater of kids to name a few. “And I would like you and your wife to come and teach at the high school. We think you would make a great addition to our faculty. We would like you to teach history and geography and Jo Ann to teach French and science.”

Talk about surprise. Here I was prepared to be booted out of the country, ready to beg as the Liberians liked to say, ready to humble myself and crawl across the floor if need be, and I was being offered the opportunity to teach two of my all time favorite subjects.

“Sir, your niece…” I managed to stumble out.

Mr. Bonal’s smile widened, “Ah yes,” he said, “that was a good job. Now she will be a much better student.” Suddenly I had the suspicion that Mr. Bonal wanted me for a reason other than my ‘great’ teaching ability. I pictured myself practicing with a bullwhip out behind the high school as students lined up for their daily punishment. “Mr. Mekemson will see you now. Do you have any final words?”

(Tomorrow I write a second grade reader but the government labels me as a radical and refuses to publish the book because I focus on tribal children and African Tales. At high school I encourage the creation of a student government. The Liberian Government accuses me of creating political parties to oppose the True Whig Party and threatens to kick me out of the country.)

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