Friday, July 9, 2010

Chapter 9 - Back to School

When I was sent back to boarding school in Leopoldville, my younger brother Carl was sent with me. He was good company. Actually it would be better said that he was company. I mean he was familiar, and that was better than being around strangers. At least when you're young. There was also one major drawback. My father made it very clear that while he was away with me at school, I would be responsible for him. In my dad's language that meant, if anything happened to him, no matter what it was., even if he was with the hostel parents miles away, it would be my fault. That didn't make having him along a joy ride. He was, so to speak, another burden, bring my dad's intent to fruition.

My little brother at the time was a scrawny, glass-eyed runt, with a temper. He was not easy to handle for anyone, much less a brother. He did not suffer fools readily.  He was willing, at a moment's notice, to defend himself to the utmost of his ability. With his force of will, we are talking considerable strength. The hostel parents used to think I was bad, now they weren't sure if I still was. They had him! He didn't take to hostel environment very well. Anyway you looked at it, it was either him or me that gave them the most trouble. Things got worse for me because Carl would get into fights and I felt obligated to extract him from them.  I wasn't a fighter, I mean, not the open battle type. I was more clandestine. But Carl, no he did everything in the wide open. I would find him constantly right in the middle of a giant fist fight. Usually with someone twice his size. It usually ended up with him wining, but it was still scary.

Carl and I had beds close together, just a dresser between us that we shared. We also shared the same desk. It was the same with all of us. We all had to share. As a going away gift my father had given us each a watch which made us feel important. I am sure my father gave me many other gifts, but I don't recall them. There was so much pain that the bad things just overwhelmed me and took over my memory. So mostly what I remember is the bad things. Bad things and experiences are like problems, one can't leave them alone because they want to be solved. Pain is like that. That's why I remembered the pain.

I was placed in the fourth grade this year. It wasn't that I had passed the third grade, but rather that I was getting to old for the third grade after failing twice. I think that the principal felt that an ornery kid that much older and bigger would be a bad influence on the third graders if he allowed me back in there. So he didn't. And that's the way it went. My teachers all knew why I was passed on to the fourth grade and they let me know it. They were just as cruel as my previous ones. I was the dog they kicked. And I knew it! My attitude did not endear me to the authorities. But I acted out and resisted as best I could. I was again the brunt of class discussions on how not to be. The year went on.

It was this year that I began to be whipped if my studies were poor. The hostel parents had decided that I was not manageable by other means. They assumed I was dull witted and deviant and so I had to have corporal punishment. They hovered over me with hawk eyes. It was as if I were degrading them by my very being. My personal problems were seen as something to punish me for. In order to defend myself, I explored all their vicious attitudes, spending so much time doing so, that my grades suffered further. Once I was beaten for not coloring in the appropriate pages in my religious studies book. I wondered what Jesus would have thought about that. I wondered what Jesus would have thought about these adults.

All our teachers in the Congo were Belgian, and the way the Belgians taught was very formal. I hated formality. They created an atmosphere of adversaries, students against teachers, and the students never win. We were not equal as persons, only varying in the amount of information we carried. No, we were inferior by virtue of being the student. It is for this reason that there was no such thing as an "A" in this school system.  An "A" was too good. It meant excellent and no student could do that. We were graded on percentage and the highest one could ever hope to get was eighty percent. This under achievement assured to make most students subservient. Sometimes I wish they had broken my spirit.  It would have made my life easier. But I didn't break. I just felt crazy. All tests were designed with 20 percent of the questions being unanswerable by us students, thus guaranteeing the highest score could not be above that unwritten, but understood law of 80 percent max could be correct. Maybe this is why the Belgians are so stoic and cynical. They're all corrupted in the spirit.

I had done fairly well in the States. But not here! No matter how hard I tried, I didn't do well. I was never given the benefit of even the simplest of acknowledgement that I was fighting an uphill battle. Being thrown into a French speaking school system with no extra help or consideration. Just as in Belgium, the teachers played the role of an elite corp. They just weren't approachable. At least that's the way I experienced them. I was very aware that an enormous amount of energy was spent ridiculing students rather than encouraging them. Especially in my case! I had never had my fingers rapped in the U.S. for missing a multiplication problem.

Both consciously and unconsciously I fought the system. It was wrong! My body and soul told me so. I listened to my inner being, which was more kind and understanding to me than anyone on the outside, especially teachers. I became extremely passive aggressive. Never paying attention, never showing interest, never knowing where the rest of the class was. So my knuckles got rapped a lot, but my soul stayed clear. At least I had that! I could see in the adult faces, the anguish when they beat me with their smallness. It wasn't just a clash of cultures here. This was a clash of wills. I took all they could dish out and I didn't break! I may not have learned a lot of what they were intending to teach me, but I sure learned how small they were - how cruel and uncaring they were. I learned that authority didn't have the answer to being human. I was kinder to myself even as a child than any adult around me.

At recess we played marbles. Marbles is a much bigger thing with Belgian children than with American children. So we played a lot of marbles. They also play till they are much older. Why, who knows? I wasn't very good at it. So what else is new? So I lost a lot of marbles. We played for keeps. That means I lost all the ones I played with. I bought them with my allowance and they won them. I took them to school and they took them home.

When I wasn't loosing marbles to the Belgian kids I was fighting with them. The fights went on sometimes for weeks on end. We fought all recess long and would be forced to break it up so we could go back to class. Only to wait for school to be out so we could fight on the bus all the way home. I learned a few things about class consciousness. Mostly what it was like to be the lower class. One of the outcasts, the pariah!

On Sundays we had Sunday School. Wonderful! We were all loaded into various mission station vehicles and packed off to a large English speaking church. There we all spouted back bible verses to the Sunday School teachers so we could be called good little boys and girls. The Sunday school teachers felt important. We also memorized the books of the old and new testaments. Really turned me on to religion, that did!

After Sunday School we were carted off to the main sanctuary to listen to the frantic and zealous preachers of fear, desperately anxious to impress the little ones. I suspect some of them were trying to impress the Lord. God help them! They preached long and hard, till they broke out in sweat and wore themselves out. I used to sit in the front row where they seemed more human. I would watch their shifty eyes and didn't trust them even though they did scare me.

They preached hell and damnation. They preached fear and trembling. They preached about the depravity of man and his lack of any redeeming quality based on his having been born into original sin. From this there was no escape. How can one choose not to be born into original sin? What a concept to keep a man down, make him feel small and unworthy. We never heard anything about self esteem. That probably would have been associated with pride, "which cometh before the fall." All the preaching somehow didn't make me bite. Not deep down inside, at least. They could make me feel guilty, but they couldn't make me believe I was sinful. Seems like a paradox, but even then I had a mind, and a soul. My mind could suffer, but my soul stayed pure.

As I sat there through all those sermons on all those Sundays, I often thought about my fate. It was well known in my family that I was destined to become a preacher - like my father and his father and his father, as it had been all the way back to the sixteenth century. I had already been shown in the "Who's Who" book of famous people that one of my ancestors was known as the "Boy Preacher of England." way back then. Even the first of my family to come over from Europe had come with his congregation. He, of course, was the minister of the flock. So it was preordained that I was to become a minister too. My grandfather talked to me about it often. How to talk and think up sermons and all that. I wondered when my call would come.

Sunday nights we always had a mission station compound picnic. All the families got together and had a giant picnic together. Often we would all go up to the Stanley Livingston monument. It was on the hilltop that over looked Stanley Pool. The rapids were upriver to the left, and the pool below to the right. As the sun set it was beautiful to watch. It was a beautiful vantage point from which one could look in several directions for many miles.

While the adults sat or stood in circles having quiet conversations, we children would be running and hollering and screaming, playing catch or hide and seek. We boys chased the girls and then the girls chased us. We chased all manner of bugs and insects, and had just as good a time as we could. We all played really hard, because after the picnic, it was time for church again -  evening services. These would usually be a little less formal and a little more entertaining. They were held in the little chapel on our compound. We didn't have well known or notorious speakers in the evening. We had more normal people. And we sang a lot of hymns. I sang as loud and as happily as I could, because even though I didn't like the missionaries, and thought them cruel, I thought the Lord was real.

One Monday afternoon as I was upstairs in my room doing my homework when I heard someone yelling "neoka, neoka," which means snake in Kikongo. I ran downstairs and out the front door gabbing the only implement of destruction I could find, which was a shovel. When I got to the native who was yelling, he pointed up into a large tree. It was one of the tall mango trees behind the chapel, where we had just been playing the night before. He pointed up to a large knot on one of the limbs. He said, "There it is. A snake." A large crowd gathered to discuss the situation. but decided that it wasn't a snake. They determined that it was a malformation on the limb.

The crowd dispersed and went back to their original activities. But I didn't. I had climbed a lot of mango trees and I had never seen a knot like that. Some trees are prone to knots and have a lot of them. But this was a mango tree. I climbed them all the time to get the fruit, so I didn't think that this was really part of the tree. I thought the guy insisting that it was a snake was right. I went back to my dorm room and got my trusty BB gun, the Daisy that I had brought with me from the United States. I started pumping shot after shot into the knot. I watched carefully to see if there was any effect. It took a while, but soon the knot started to move. It was a snake! And a big one too, uncoiling. It was really scary to see it uncoil and stretch out . It was way up in the tree. I shuddered to think that we children played so much behind the chapel, under that very tree, and along the river bank. This snake was big enough to eat us. 

The native that had insisted that it was a snake was still there watching me, and he started yelling again. This time, when the crowd gathered, they could see the snake stretched out and moving along a limb. It was about eight feet long and quite big around. But it moved very gracefully, like a large greased rope. It could move as smoothly in the trees as it could on the ground. I had never seen such a thing like this before. I ran back to the hostel and got Uncle Clay and Aunt Vel. They ran back to the chapel and looked up too. All the servants came running over too. They all wanted to see this event unfold. Who would be the one to catch or kill this snake? Or would we get it at all? We could hardly wait. We stood eager and ready to partake in the kill. No one in Africa ever let a snake get away if he could help it. There were just too many of them, and they were often poisonous.

The crowd that gathered now was very excited, and you could hear the fright in their voices. The men collected all manner of bricks and bottles and anything that could be heaved into the tree. The women dodged them as they came down. The snake was unable to move to another tree even though he tried several times. But neither could we knock him out of it. Finally a policeman that had stopped because of the crowd, decided that he would climb up the tree and see if he could kill it. He took my BB gun and a machete with him. Now, I could see the machete doing him some good up there. but my BB gun, that was just a nuisance to the snake. He climbed into the tree and up towards the snake. The snake started to come directly at him but just as it got near him, the policeman cut the branch out from under the snake. This happened several times. Each time when the snake fell it was able to catch itself on another branch. It took more than an hour of being pursued in the tree, for the snake to tire. Finally, a well placed rock, knocked the snake from a limb and it came tumbling to the ground tail first.

The second the snake hit the ground, he was off like a shot. He was very fast and not easily stopped. But knives and spears rained down on him from all directions, which confused him, and made him stop. Then he was attacked with machetes and finally killed. When his head was cut off. we knew he wasn't going anywhere, but his body still writhed for several hours. Even though it was myself and the one native who had really seen the snake and gotten it to move, it was the policeman who got the kill. He took it off to his barracks no doubt, and I know he and his buddies had python steaks that night for dinner. I've heard they're very good.

This wasn't the first time a snake that large was killed on the compound. We children often saw large ones down by the river. Even as a child I thought it was odd that we children were allowed to play down by the river. But nothing was ever said about it by any adult. I thought a snake that big could eat a child and the thought scared me. Every once and awhile we heard of a native child being eaten by a crocodile or snake, but no one ever cautioned us. Since we were not restricted by our guardians, we just adopted the attitude that it was the child's fault if he got eaten. That the child had been careless. Apparently the adults thought it wouldn't happen to one of us because we would be more alert.

Adventures like this were not uncommon. But there were much more horrifying experiences than that. I can remember when two of the most favorite dogs on the compound were killed together in one instant. The female was in heat and the male was chasing her. In their excitement they didn't see the car on the street and ran in front of it. Dogs were like children to me. I identified more with them than with an adult person, and seeing them dead in the road was a hard experience. This was even worse than listening to the pigs scream when they were being killed next door. The pigs ears were cut off and they bled to death, but they squealed the whole time. Pigs are much too human to do that to. And their cries are very human too!

School got more and more difficult for me that year. I finally stopped caring about putting up with the inhuman treatment I got at school. I quit doing anything. No homework, no reading in class, nothing. I quit! They beat me but my resolve just strengthened. I hated them just that much more every time they did. My refusal to submit to their idea of what education was about gave me much more pride and dignity than they could ever give me. As far as I was concerned, I was as different from them as night is from day. I knew that I had my own daylight. They were the powers of darkness. I was just one small boy far away from home. I couldn't reason with them, they couldn't hear me, but I didn't have to give in, and I didn't. I kept my soul alive and left them to wallow in their own self righteousness.

At this juncture I was sent home to my parents. The school could not afford to have me in their midst another day. I was too disruptive. I was too blatant an example of how they were failing the children. The other children made pretense out of their lives by smiling through it and pretending to learn. But my sullen face was too much. My father was certainly displeased to see me. I was now a disgrace to the family. My mother, although more willing to forgive, could not understand how I could have done this to them. She knew I wasn't stupid. It was beyond my powers to explain. They just weren't capable of hearing my view. It was that simple. My returning home in this manner just gave my father further more excuse to take out his frustrations on me. Which he did.

The remainder of that year my poor mother tried to teach me with the Calvert Course, a home school system. This was at least in English, which was great. But she had decided to start teaching me at the grade level I was supposed to be in, in English. Even though I was already behind in my studies, and had been doing them in French. I had basically forgotten how to read English. No amount of persuasion could get me to do so. I am sure that if the French school system had gotten to me any earlier I would have become an autistic child. Now I was just in need of a major change to straighten out the mess I was in. I had a light deep down inside of me, but I never let it show because I didn't want anyone to blow it out.

A year later some book caught my fancy and within a week I was reading. Soon I was reading everything I could get my hands on. I read so voraciously my parents were dumbfounded. My mother got smart and left me alone, only making a pretense at formal education. Whatever I was doing on my own was more than I could be pushed into. My father wasn't paying enough attention to know I was simply learning on my own. He wouldn't have approved of that. But my mother at least let me be and that was a start. Just as I mentioned earlier, my whole struggle in childhood was the struggle to just be left alone so I could be myself. Just a little freedom allowed me to blossom.

end chapter 9

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