What do Okey Ndibe, Pius Adesanmi, Peregrino Brimah and Omoyele Sowore have in common? They are all children of teachers.
For most of my formative years, I was called Teacher’s Child, Nwa Onyenkuzi. Most times, it was in derision. At other times, it was in endearment.
A teacher’s child invokes the image of austerity, discipline, chastity and a one-dimensional lifestyle. As a kid, my mates taunted me for yam tubers measured with a tape measure and marked with chalk; for rice gauged with empty peak milk containers; for Sunday stews cooked not with chicken or beef but with frozen fish; for khaki pants worn in seasons when other fashionable apparel were in vogue; for curfews that must be obeyed; for a visit to the hospital when a chemist or herbalist would have been enough; for a trimmed retinue of friends whose pedigree could withstand scrutiny; for regimented life of tasks and studies; for the burden of being a role model…
In school, with my uniform washed thoroughly, rinsed in blue and ironed, I march on, oblivious of the privileges associated with being a teacher’s child. In the assembly line, when uniforms were inspected, armpits and all, I didn’t get embarrassed like other kids by a puddle of stew spattered on the collar or a map of the world left by particles in well water used for laundry. Because I brushed my teeth every morning, left over bitter-leaf was never seen stuck to them. In my schoolbags were all the recommended books and some extra. I was literally a mobile library that other kids borrowed books from. Most teachers were less stringent when imposing corporal punishment on me, a fact I erroneously attributed to my good behavior.
Looking at my father, the missionary trained teacher, I could see, even at that tender age, the role he was playing in our community. He was the arbitrator of disputes. He bridged the gap between the state and his community. He wrote for, and read letters to mothers and grandmothers, fathers and grandfathers who were unable to read and write – a role I took on when I became of age. As the traditional institutions collapsed, including the custodians of culture and values, he stepped in. In all, he insisted that ethics mattered and that the seduction of a whole people by corrupt practices would only destroy the society. He maintained that the lane of anything goes, where law and order was discarded, where people were celebrated for their sudden wealth without a demand on how the wealth was acquired, would ruin us all.
Even as moneybags became the lords of the land, uprooting and inverting social order, my father did not lose his sense of value. He measured his worth not by the car he drove; the house he lived in; or the clothing he wore; the number of chicken pieces on his plate; but by the enduring quality he added to the life of his community. It was apparent in the men and women he guided to places of greatness. It was evident in the peace he helped foster by his insistence that the truth was imperative. I saw my father stand alone, not afraid of facing the hysterical mobs. When the crowds were being seduced by the religious zealots, he watched and studied with caution. When the crowds were being mesmerized by the theatricals of medicine men, my father demanded empirical proof. He encouraged us to ask questions to authorities and anyone in-between. He never asked us to build a bigger house or buy a bigger car. He simply asked that we make for ourselves what we wanted to be.
As I grew older, I began to hear that the reward of teachers was in heaven. My father did not want any reward for insisting on what was right that at a point I thought he agreed that his reward was secured in heaven. Years later, I understood it all. His Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was few steps ahead of those of the people around him. He had overcome the physiological needs, the safety needs, the need for love and belonging. He was esteemed. He held out as his motto, the very mantra of his Alma-Ata, the University of Nigeria, Nsukka,(UNN): “To Restore the Dignity of Man.”
Even as the economic down turn began to erode those safety nets, he never wavered. He continued to insist that we were on a self-destructive path that would soon prove to be unsustainable. He saw his insurance plan for the education of his younger children reduced to junk by the ‘90s economic austerity. He retired and his pension remained stagnant for years even as the cost of living skyrocketed. He watched in horror as the governor of his state allowed pensioners like him to die in long lines waiting for verification before pensions were paid. When questioned, the governor called them dead wood. Though retired, he picked a teaching job at a private school to make ends meet.
It was not only my father who was a teacher. My mother was one too, and a tougher one at that. So I received a double dose of these lectures on the route to self- actualization. The emphasis was on a life that is greater than oneself; a life of service to others; a creative life that opens new spaces; a life that leaves a lasting legacy. That was my charge and not one geared towards owning properties in every major city in the world and a private jet at my beck and call.
The other day, I was making fun of a friend who just “made it.” I asked him what he did that got him the elusive “breakthrough”. I knew him well enough to know that he did not accept Prophet T.B. Joshua as his spiritual father and as such became a recipient of the spirit of prosperity. My friend paused at my question. When he spoke next, it was in monotones. “My father won’t be proud of what I did,” he said. He paused again. When he resumed, he went into a diatribe about what was wrong with us. “We were not prepared by our parents for the real world as it is,” he lamented. “Our parents imbibed in us some utopian ideas that go contrary to the mechanics of prosperity in the world of today.”
“Who are the ‘us’ in this tale?” I asked.
“Children of teachers,” he said.
Though I had met his parents when we were in school, I had forgotten that they were teachers.
Recently, I found myself in a situation where the values I got from my parents were tested. It was an easy call for me to make. But I wondered afterwards why it was easy. That was when I recalled a story of this football player at Virginia Tech University. The boy wasn’t particularly a great player but he was an excellent motivator of his team. Every game he came hand-in-hand with his father for whom the team reserved a special front row seat. The coach only fielded the boy when the team had an insurmountable lead. One day, the boy’s father died and he was devastated. The team was concerned about his wellbeing and was doing everything to cheer him up, to no avail. On the first game after his father’s death, the boy asked the coach to start him.
The coach agreed with an understanding that the boy would play for a few minutes and be replaced by a first eleven. When the game started, the boy played with the kind of energy and efficiency the coach and the team never saw before. He even scored a touchdown and was left in the game till the end. When it was over the coach asked him where he got this new burst of energy. The boy said it was the first game his father would be watching and as such he did not want to disappoint his father.
It happened that the boy’s father was blind all this while.
My father has since passed away. And like the boy in the story, he is watching me from the great beyond and I am not going to disappoint him now.
Maybe this is all my bias. Maybe there is nothing special about the children of teachers. Maybe we are just all children of God.
Maybe because they have been close to authority figures all their lives, children of teachers more than any other group understand what Albert Einstein meant when he said that “an unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”
From all that I’ve learned, just like the sons and daughters of pastors, children of teachers are either good or bad. Growing up, the children either imbibe the values preached at dinner tables and at every teachable moment or they reject it soon after their formative years.
Whatever path they take they will be revenging. Some are revenging by insisting that their parents were right and that we must do the right things for the common good. Others are revenging by rejecting the baptism they received from their parents and are jumping to the forefront of those out to prove that they would not ‘carry last’ if the plan is to liquidate the common wealth.
Okey Ndibe, Pius Adesanmi, Peregrino Brimah and Omoyele Sowore are children of teachers. And so are Ifeanyi Uba and Chris Ngige.