"And who exactly told you that you are so special?"
His voice dripped sarcasm as he looked down from the podium to the
young woman in the middle of the classroom. Or maybe it was contempt. He had read their essays, and he was commenting on each
one in turn to the entire class. These essays were meant to be different. He had asked them to dig deep and expose their innermost
feelings. She had written about her growing up and her family, and clearly this had not found favour with the Professor.
She pulled her body into itself and tired to disappear into the chair.
Her West Indian upbringing did not prepare her for this kind of embarrassment. Her American classmates would have answered
the Professor boldly, even rudely. She had the answer, but she did not have that confidence.
From the very start there were the stories, and he
was her story-teller. He read to her from carefully chosen books and she heard the stories of Hans Christian Anderson and
the Brothers Grimm. And because she had a vivid imagination, she laughed riotously when she heard the words "but the Emperor
has no clothes".
Then there were the West Indian folk tales: some he read from books
and some he remembered from his own schooling. The stories of Br’er Anancy the spider gave her the courage to be a small
girl in a world filled with big people. And as she grew older, there were scarier stories. She hoped for months to meet a
douen and see its feet on backward, but she never hoped to meet Papa Bois or a socouyant.
But best of all were the little stories that he made up just for her.
He told those stories with many different accents and sweeping hand gestures, to make them real. And he had better not forget
the details of any one of them, or she would protest until he remembered and told it right.
As a little girl, she had spent a week at the beach
with her extended family. It had been a wonderful time. They woke while it was still dark to see the sun rise out of the eastern
sea. The children went to bathe in the sea whenever they wanted, as long as they could coax an adult to come with them. They
took walks along the beach when the tide was low and they dug for chip-chip. And she had found sea shells. Throughout the
week she had found shells and brought them back to the beach house. There they formed a small pile in the gallery, and when
she wanted to just be by herself she would take them up one by one and examine them.
Then it was time to go back home. One of the adults quoted from the
defunct Nelson’s West Indian Readers, that "Scripture saith an ending to all fine things must be". So the spell was
broken and clothes had to be packed and cars loaded up. But she could not take her sea shells home.
"Leave that rubbish right there, you hear. It will only stink up the
So the ride back home was a sorrowful one for her. She tried to keep
her spirits up by remembering the happy things they had done at the beach, but it really didn’t work. They got home,
she took a bath and ate a little food. Then she went to bed.
Next morning he handed her an old cigar box that he used to keep his
scout badges in.
"Here," he said.
She really didn’t want his box. And anyway, where would he keep
his badges now? But the box rattled in her hand, something it had never done before. So she opened it, and there they were.
Carefully washed clean and dried were her sea shells.
She was blue-vex! She crumpled the paper, smoothed
it out and crumpled it back again. Then she flung it into the corner just as he walked into the door, coming home from work.
He saw her sulking and asked what was wrong.
"I study so hard," she said. "And I get four questions wrong!"
"Show me", he said.
She had to search for the paper, but when she found it he smoothed
it out and carefully read the answers. He found the angry red x-es to be unnecessary, but he said nothing. After he had re-read
the paper, he called her to the couch beside him.
"Look," he said, "these three are just careless mistakes. You see?
You carried a 3, but you added a 4. And here, you missed out a whole line. That is why you got them wrong. But this one that
is marked wrong, you got right!"
"You sure?" she asked.
So he explained it to her. And then she remembered that the answer
she gave came from one of their long and technical conversations. She had meant to be vex with him for that when she saw the
x against it. But she had forgotten by the time he got home.
"But I can’t tell the teacher he marked my right answer wrong,"
"No", he replied. "I will".
And he did. He came to school and explained to the teacher why her
answer was right. She was afraid that the teacher would be angry, but he wasn’t.
"I does almost never see allyuh children fathers," the teacher said.
"Mostly is the mothers".
A just-turned-18 young woman had received her good-but-not-great
CAPE results. Many said that she should look for a job now, and offered to help her write applications. Others, more influential,
said that they would put in a good word for her with Mr. So and So who had a big work somewhere or the other.
But he said, "You’re a smart girl. Why you don’t want
to go to University?"
And that is what she wanted. But it wasn’t that easy. UWI would
accept her, but not to the course that she wanted. So she had to study for and sit her SATs, and then apply for many scholarships.
He took her to the interviews and sat outside while she went in to be grilled on this, that and the other. More often than
once she was asked "tell us why you should give this scholarship to you and not another applicant?" The first time she found
the question so strange that she gave no answer. But later on she learned to speak honestly about her ambitions and her plans.
Once, the American Lady conducting the interview told him he could
sit in as long as he said nothing. He sat in perfect silence through the interview. He was a little way behind her, but she
could feel his pride reaching out to her as she answered the questions. And another time she was driven to tears by a junior
clerk who looked scathingly at her CAPE results and pronounced that she was just not good enough. He told her to sit down
and went in to the room she had just left. Through the half-opened door she could hear his intense "Daddy-voice" directed
at the clerk. She could not quite hear the words being said, but she knew that the clerk was in trouble. And she didn’t
give a damn afterwards when he told her "I don’t think you will get that scholarship. Sorry".
Finally, she got a scholarship from an American Oil Company, and she
was accepted to study Petroleum Engineering at this University in the heartland. And his pride knew no bounds.
Her mind re-focussed on the Professor. There he was
in front of the class, his face the colour of ugly red that white-people get when they real vex. She realized, too, that she
was smiling. Maybe that is why he was so vex. She straightened the smile away from her face as her mind grabbed desperately
for the question he had asked her: "And who exactly told you that you are so special?"
"Is mih Daddy," she said aloud.