Chapter 18: Reading and Writing and Arithmetic Taught to the Tune of an Ebony Stick… Peace Corps Tales

Welcome to “The Dead Chicken Dance and Other Peace Corps Tales.” I am presently on a two month tour of the Mediterranean and other areas so I thought I would fill my blog space with one of the greatest adventures I have ever undertaken: a two-year tour as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa. Every two days I will post a new story.

When I have finished, I will publish the stories in digital and print book formats.

I went out in the jungle searching for a big stick. Note the work that went into building this bridge.

The first 15 minutes in class answered the question about how the students were going to react to my long absence. The class of moderately behaved students had morphed into a 30-headed monster. I was to be punished for being gone..

Considering the 15-year age difference between the youngest and oldest student, the kids were capable of several levels of mischief. After five days I had worked my way through every classroom management skill Peace Corps taught 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 didn’t whip their students. It was chiseled in stone. Eternal damnation 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 in the Peace Corps bible did it say that threats were out of line? After all, hadn’t Teddy Roosevelt said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick?” So I went out in the jungle and cut one. 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 stick would be waiting. I didn’t tell them it would take a combination of Al Capone and Count Dracula to reach the point total for punishment.

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.

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. 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 on the other side. They weren’t leaving. Nobody at the school was… including 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. 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. My response was not polite.

Two days later I received the message: John Bonal, Principal of Gboveh High School and 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 a hippopotamus crossing the Sahara. He 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. Words like child beater, monster, and hater of kids roared through my mind. “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 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 this 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?”

But the offer was legitimate. After appearing to give it consideration for two seconds, I said yes. Jo Ann would have to speak for herself but I couldn’t imagine her saying no. Actually, she took about five seconds to think through all of the ramifications. Her only complaint was that the history classes were assigned to me. She was the history major.

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