Hi guys. I’ll start with an apology. I’ve missed three days of this challenge. I’m at a writing workshop and the schedule is brutal, 8am to 6pm everyday. I knew I was going to be here when I started this challenge but I wasn’t expecting the ‘hecticity’.
This a piece from one of the assignments we had to do. Originally titled ‘My Relationship with the English Language’, I’ve edited it to reduce the length. It’s mostly true, but I want you to see if you can pick out the fictionalised bits. Goodluck.
When I was in JSS3, in the second term of the school year, I failed English Language. Even though 41% at the time was considered a pass mark, I chose to see it as an ‘F’ because I needed a reason. I needed a reason to hate Miss T, our English Teacher who dared fail me.
I was born in an army cantonment. The battalions were drawn from different parts of the country so the common language was ‘broken’ English. English was reserved for school and church. So my mother’s surprise was considerable when my first words were in proper English because everyone spoke ‘broken’ in the house. I don’t know what my first word was, but my first complete sentence was ‘you finished it,’ an indictment of my older ones who would always take bites from my food. For my sake – so as not to corrupt what she considered a good thing – my siblings were mandated to speak good English.
By the time I was three I could read The Queen Primer Book One. I could recognize what alphabets represented what sounds, so my ability to read wasn’t just because we were made to read the same passages over and over again. From The Queen Primer, I graduated to reading more mature books. My siblings were much older than I was so there were mostly senior secondary textbooks available in the house. My favourites were the English Language and Biology textbooks (the chapter on reproduction in Biology was very enlightening). There was also a medical dictionary that belonged to my eldest sister who was studying to be a nurse that I loved going through.
My first proper novel was Fatima’s New Dress when I was four. It was required reading for Nursery Two and my mother had gotten me a copy before school resumed. I can’t remember how but someone else had given me another one, so I had two copies. I would read one first and then read the other as if it was a different book entirely. Most kids my age at the time read picture books and fairytales and comics. I didn’t have access to all that. I read whatever I could find; newspaper scraps, magazines, old documents, school result sheets, billboards and the Bible.
Before Miss T, I never scored less that 90% on an English test or exam. While I didn’t quite grasp the technicalities of grammar and syntax, I knew instinctively what was right and what wasn’t.
Failing did not reduce my confidence. I was invincible when it came to English Language. Having in ‘A1’ in the Senior School Certificate Examination just made me all the more certain that I was a master of English. Until I left home for the university and for the first time was in an environment where people didn’t consider English their first language. Adjusting was difficult. More than anything I was interested in communication and I realized how tiny my language was. But my love for English and my sometime small mindedness would not let me learn any other language so I sought to perfect the one language I had. As I tried, I realized how impure it was. My language was a mixture of so many others.
I find now in retrospect that Miss T was right to fail me. Other teachers had been carried away by my seeming proficiency but she saw beyond my glamour to the lack I had: an actual grasp of the mechanics and small points of the language. I am back to learning, buying books on grammar and studying them diligently.
I am discovering my first language again.