Then my mother gave me Chike and the River as a birthday gift, and I began to slide the glass door of the bookshelf open again and again, to read Things Fall Apart, The Concubine, Weep Not, Child, books I had dismissed as boring.
I was eight the first time I heard it. I had just lost a school debate, and as I walked out of the assembly hall, I bumped into the teacher of the winning class. ‘’You talk fast,” he said. “You should be a lawyer when you grow up.’’ His over-starched shirt lay taut against his chest, and he had a small smile on his face, as if he had just told me a secret. I masked my irritation and smiled back, like I often would each time I heard that suggestion. It was easy to guess why people thought I should study law. I wrote essays with prosaic titles like “My Best Friend” which I read on stage during morning assembly. I spoke fast so I took part in debating competitions. In my report cards, teachers praised my grades and bemoaned my passion for noisemaking. I could talk. I had no stage fright. I ticked all the lawyer boxes as far as they knew. Never mind that I didn’t want to be a lawyer, or that when my father wore his barrister’s wig, the cream coloured strands sitting in tight curls on his head, I wasn’t filled with awe but intense amusement.
For as long as I can remember I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I wrote my first book titled The Mahogany Caves, borne out of an imagination shaped by Enid Blyton, just before I turned nine. In those early years I played ten-ten and hopscotch with my sisters in our compound in Calabar, and during our frequent adventures, I imagined that the orchard where my father grew his precious fruits was really a secret garden. There was always something to daydream about, to write about. I kept writing, even when I became fascinated by the Joy Girl advert on NTA and announced that I wanted to be a model, joined the needlework club and declared my destiny as a fashion designer, watched Christiane Amanpour report against a ravaged landscape on CNN and fancied journalism. Then I found myself on the cusp of despair, a few months before I took JSCE, after which I was to proceed to the science, the arts or the social science class.
Science students were smart. They went about with New School Chemistry – which we nicknamed Ababio after its author – clutched proudly in their arms, their heads held impossibly high. Social science students were weird. They aced accounting and were inexplicably excited by diagrams of the demand curve. Arts students were unserious. They knew the reigning pop songs and displayed choreographed dance steps during social nights. They were the happening girls, the ‘bubblers’. Yet the arts class was regarded as the home of future lawyers. So my friends gasped when I said I wanted to study English and Literature in university.
My despair was mainly self-afflicted. I had a desperate longing to be one of the smart girls. During the holiday after JSCE, I stopped writing my short story about a heartbroken girl, and began to memorise theories and laws. I read encyclopaedias and said, “Aeronautical engineering” when anyone asked me what I wanted to study in university. I had no idea what aeronautical engineers did, but it sounded exotic, and I liked the sharp thrill aeronautical gave me when I said it.
When my sister said I had natural flair for the arts, I said I had a natural flair for science too. She looked alarmed. One evening in August, I gave my mother my list of school books. She looked from the sheet of paper where I had ticked science textbooks to me with wide eyes. I told her I wanted to be a science student. She asked me if I was sure. I said yes, but I could tell she wasn’t convinced. For weeks that list lay upturned on her bed stand.
On the day my mother was going to buy my books, my sister asked me why I wanted to be a science student. I tried to think of a clever reply, but right there in our bedroom with chalk coloured walls, I was struck by the memory of a childhood immersed in curiosity, of time I spent reading books, of a search for something I couldn’t name. Then my mother gave me Chike and the River as a birthday gift, and I began to slide the glass door of the bookshelf open again and again, to read Things Fall Apart, The Concubine, Weep Not, Child, books I had dismissed as boring. Each time the glass door slid against its wooden tracks, I felt as if I was opening the door to another world. In an odd way I was. After all in the pages of those books I learned to see the world through new eyes. It was that memory of wonder that made me say I still wanted to be an arts student and a writer, and surely I was in trouble because my mother was probably collecting an Ababio from a beaming bookstore assistant right then. I stared at the floor. When I looked up my sister was smiling, then we began to laugh, clasping our bellies to subdue our mirth.
I phoned my mother’s office. A million and one stars must have aligned – she was still there. “Mummy I’ve changed my mind,” I said. “I want to be an arts student.”
There was no “I knew it.” Not my mother’s style. She asked me if I was sure.
I said yes.
Suzanne Ushie’s work has been published in Fiction Fix, Overtime, Saraba and Open Wide Magazine. She pretends to write when she isn’t writing.
30 Days 30 Voices series is an opportunity for young Nigerians to share their stories and experiences with other young Nigerians, within our borders and beyond, to inspire and motivate them.
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