I wanted to go to school. It was not for any grand reason. It was not because of the school uniform-blue khaki shorts and a white shirt. It was not because of the marching school band which was so impressive that one could feel the dull thud of the bass drum in the stomach as it went dumdumdum and the children swinging their arms rightleftrightleft gleefully as they marched to the singing of – Today is bright and bright and gay oh happy day of joy.
I simply wanted to go to school to learn how to whistle. My cousin who lived with us Onuwa whistled all the time. He refused to teach me. He was a member of the school band. When he did chores he whistled. When he ran errands he whistled. On his way to school he whistled. On his way back from school he whistled. Whistling made his life one long joyful song. Whistling made chores fun, going to and from school fun. If I could whistle my life would become easier. I was four and half. I could not start school until I was six. I was impatient. Two more years of waiting before I could start whistling was too agonizing and interminable. What of if whistling went out of fashion by the time I entered school. I was not going to wait. I was going to school.
I knew there was no way my cousin Onuwa was going to agree to take me along. He would argue that he waited until he was six. And so should I and everybody else in the universe. I knew who would take me to school. Another cousin of mine named Bridget. She laughed at everything. She loved mischief. She had fat cheeks. She had a fondness for hot crust buns. She could sell her father’s house and her entire household for hot crust buns. I had some money saved up. I told her that I wanted to go to school.
“You are too little for school. You have to wait until you are six,” she said.
“But I am already tired of waiting. I am old enough,” I said.
“You may not like school. In school they make you do sums. They make you spell. There is something called mental Arithmetic that you have to do every morning,” she said.
Without meaning to, she was making me get even more excited about going to school.
“I have money. I would buy us buns on our way to school every day, if you take me to school,” I said.
“Oh you really would buy buns every day of the week for me?” she asked. Her eyes grew wide. Her cheeks ballooned. She skipped and stood on her tippy toes.
“Get ready. Brush your teeth. Comb your hair. Wear clean clothes. I will take you to school.”
I had fulfilled my part of the agreement. I bought the hot crust burns. Bridget ate the burns steaming hot, her cheeks puffed up, her eyes became round, her lips dripped with oil. She delivered on her own part of the agreement. She held me by the hand and dropped me in front of her teacher’s table in Elementary Two. This was her class. She went to her seat and sat down. The teacher walked in. His blue short-sleeve shirt was crisp. He cleared his throat. A boy whose shirt was as crisp as the teacher’s pounded his fist on his desk – tam tatam tam. The entire class rose to their feet and chorused:
Good morning sir, God bless you.
Good morning class, the teacher replied.
Now he turned to me as if he hadn’t noticed me earlier.
“And who is the young master with a parting on his hair?” He sounded amused but he was frowning.
I told him my name.
“And why are you here,” he asked?
“I want to go to school and I want to learn how to whistle.
The entire class laughed. The teacher did not. He frowned. The laughter seized.
The teacher whistled phewphewphew and shook his head. I laughed. I was happy. The teacher just proved it. He was the one who taught people how to whistle.
“Let us see how old you are,” the teacher said.
“Drape your right hand over your head and let your fingers touch your ears,” the teacher said.
I tried to do as the teacher commanded but my fingers remained at a highly important distance from my ears.
“See you are too young to start school. Besides this is Elementary Two not the Infant school or the pre-school. In this class we read. We do sums. We write composition. We use pencils not chalk.”
My heart dropped. My journey was wasted. Bridget had eaten the buns. My money was gone. I turned to look at Bridget but she was resting her head on her desk and looking away from me.
I turned to look at the wall and suddenly the words on the wall came alive. They spoke to me. Mother had thought me how words could speak. They all came together. They glowed. They whispered to me -say us out aloud- I obeyed them.
Love your Neighbor as Yourself
Charity Begins at Home
My Motto: Always Be At School
Punctuality is the Soul of Business
I paused. The teacher’s mouth was agape. He put his hands together. The entire class began to applaud.
“You will be in my class. You can read better than most of the people in this class. Go and take a seat. I will take you to the headmaster later.”
In my head the words continued to ring. I pursed my lips. I let out some air. It came out as a whistle. I could whistle. Yes, I could whistle while I ran errands, while I did chores, while I rode my bicycle wheel.
Phewphewphew, a long and happy life of whistling lay ahead of me.
E.C. Osondu is the author of Voice of America and This House Is Not For Sale.