A long overdue post from a mid July experience:
“This is Budundu P-3, you are welcome Sir!” The kids were probably not older than eight years old. With the reverent discipline that fades with old age, they all got up together in a deafening rumbling of wood clashing and chairs falling. They sang in unison as soon as I crossed the door, revealing to their eyes a man like they never saw before. They stopped equally timely and remained standing, gazing at this weird looking man taking a few steps inside the classroom. As I battled an unidentified feeling of awkwardness, the kids remained standing, seemingly waiting for a sign from me. Even the teacher stood on the side, an interlocutory smile on his face. I cracked a laugh while introducing myself and the kids sat down, much more quietly than they did when they greeted me. “Thanks for having me in your class, my name is Bernardo” – I said. Puzzled faces all over, teacher included. This was one of those moments when I really would have liked to be named Ben, Bill or Mike. Really mum, really, was it so difficult? “Bernardo – mum says – is the best name you can write in cursive, so smooth and free of spikes”. Well, thanks so much mum for the name and thanks also for the terrible handwriting I inherited. Now I was standing with a chalk in my hand in front of a blackboard, trying my luck in capital letters. The teacher was determined not to give up my name so easily; the class just had to pronounce it right. Cold called one by one, each one took a shot at my name and when the first kid got it right, they all gained the courage to scream it out loud. I really intended only to visit one of the classes but the headmistress insisted to walk me through at least other five. Each time the pupils stood up and proudly presented themselves with the same ritual, their tone of voice growing lower as their age and height increased. The headmistress had gone to the trouble of instructing each of the classes before I even entered the first one and now that expectations had been raised, I really couldn’t pull back. I was amazed and unsettled by that proud attempt to show the best of the school, in such an open way that it hardly left any room for unwelcome feelings of sympathy.
As I walked through classrooms of mud walls and shaky wooden structures my thoughts run back home, to the many batches of kids aged 6 that my mum, their teacher, followed year by year until they left primary school. Sometimes, when I’m home, I still find some of her students who came to pay a visit, confess their troubles or just return a book or a music CD that mum lent them. Some of them are my age, some of them are older but we all share five years in the school where my mum thought for almost all of her career. Not long ago it was me sitting among the pupils looking curious and yet always reverent to the visitors who would cross the classroom door. The fascist architecture of my school mirrored the ideals of 1920s Italy but that was just about the only authoritarian trait I can recall. The rest was a courtyard that seemed the center of the world, with pupils running after a soccer ball in dark blue uniforms and distant, unknown teachers, standing in circles and calmly talking to one another. Among those ones standing there in circles, most often than not I recall my mum. Back then it was really upsetting to me but as I stopped to look at the young kids around me, I was happy to see myself smile at memories that I forgot for a really long time.
In the isolation of the hilltop school I saw how important education can be. For me it was granted, at times to the point of feeling daunted by the idea of having to go through 14 years of school. Minimum. In Uganda, the average kid is lucky if he finishes primary or secondary school, a definite outlier if he goes through high school. School fees are expensive, the families need help and the kids are sometimes left without a choice. Often because a choice hasn’t been presented to them in the first place. Mum has pushed herself way beyond what was required of her, sometimes to the point of looking to me unduly intrusive in her students’ lives. Not all of those who she tried to help beyond teaching math or italian, sticked around. However some of those who did, when they come by the house, share with me some aspects of mum that I either didn’t know or purposefully overlooked to preserve my own originality. In a way or in another, having former students visiting mum many years after they parted path points to a bond that must have shaped their life more than I can grasp. I know this by experience: I’ve been in school too and after I left I haven’t had much contact with my teachers, if any at all. Students of my mum do and she deserves credit for having interpreted her job in an extensive way, one that does not self constrain to ministerial curricula and first degree equations but that offers more profound perspectives, original ones. Her biggest regret is that she never managed to have such a intense emotional bond with her own sons, me in particular; and not for lack of trying on her side. I never felt like welcoming her efforts but I should probably tell her I was very proud of her back in that hilltop school. It takes effort to care about other people’s lives, I’m myself coming to realize this the hard way.