Nigerian Assembly

By Guest Contributor Mona Zutshi Opubor

Yesterday morning—three months after our move from New Jersey—I attended an assembly at the children’s school in Nigeria. At 7:25 a.m., parents shuffled into the open-walled gymnasium to claim a folding chair. As the pianist banged out a cheerful tune, I sipped coffee out of a giant cup and breathed dragon breath on the father next to me. Because you know what? Sharing is caring.

As soon as the assembly started, the students sang two verses about flowers in a pot. What is more emotional than the sound of children’s sweet, pure voices? While the man next to me typed an email on his Blackberry, I wept discreetly.

Then my daughter Radha’s second grade class performed. Thick, tropical air muffled the acoustics. The kids seemed to be discussing the educational system of England in the 1800′s. With no discernible segue, there was a rap. Radha rapped credibly. Or maybe she didn’t. It’s hard to say.

After her class finished, Radha performed with her modern dance troupe. If you didn’t know any better, you would think she learned the choreography that morning.

It reminded me of the time I took a Zumba class. That was before I had LASIK. At one point I looked up and saw my mother across the room, shaking her hips stiffly. Then I realized—with horror—that I was staring at my own reflection in the mirror.  I never went back.

What can I say? We’re not dancers. In our defense, we are part of a small South-Asian ethnic group that suffered generations of religious persecution. Our celebrations are dour. The songs sound like lamentations. Our dancing is indistinguishable from awkward shuffling. We couldn’t let our enemies know we were joyous because then they would slaughter us.

In a way, it can be argued that Radha honored her ancestors with all the moves she forgot and the look of bewilderment on her face.

That’s what I told myself.

After the dance, the head teacher began awarding prizes. She gave a few medals to the top table tennis players. She had trophies for the winners of a recent swim meet. She awarded prizes to the victors of the spelling bee. Then she awarded the House cup to the group with the most House points.

It was surreal.

See, we moved to Nigeria from a touchy-feely American town. No youngsters got prizes there because it would make other kids sad. It was deliberately inclusive. Giving medals to winners would have been insensitive to all the losers: Because no one was a loser. Everyone was special in his/her own way. It was great for a parent like me with a tenuous grip on reality. But sometimes I wondered what it would do to the children when they grew up and encountered failure.

In Nigeria, it’s different. It’s COMPETITIVE. At the kid’s school, it’s like Hogwarts. As soon as you arrive you’re assigned to one of four Houses. And then you battle to bring glory to your House.

Oh, I wanted my kids to win something. Even though they don’t play Ping-Pong and haven’t progressed beyond a doggy paddle, I held my breath, praying I would hear their names. And what were the chances they won the spelling bee? Our son is illiterate and the girls have had to relearn English. They use words like colour, lorry, and centre now.

My heart pounded. My chest tightened. I started to tremble. A scrim of sweat covered my body.

You’ll be happy to know my suffering was in vain. Their names were not called. Also their House was in last place.

The assembly ended and I waved goodbye to my children. As I filed out with the mothers and fathers, I scanned my mind like a diagnostician. The mild panic attack had come as a surprise. Raising kids forces you to confront your baggage. Why was it so important to me that my children win?

After exiting the school, I told the driver to drop me at the pool. I sat in the back of the SUV staring at Lagos traffic jams during the half-hour ride. The sun blazed in a cloudless sky.

The pool at The Federal Palace sits in a green lawn ringed with palm trees. A mini-golf course and playground abut the lagoon. As I dropped my bag in a lounge chair, a freighter sailed by piled high with red and green containers.

I jumped in the water.

After 5 laps, I admitted to myself that ego was mostly to blame.

My intellect declares, “I feel great about Radha, Omala, and Om. They’re delightful. I don’t need my offspring to win prizes for my sake. How could a silly little medal validate me as a mother?”

My ego whispers, “My children should win every prize that exists and I should be appointed Supreme Ruler of the Universe.”

My ego is hungry. It fiends for recognition. I’ve been a stay-at-home mom for eight years. On good days—when the children are bathed, fed, and the toys are picked up—I have nothing to show for my labors. No one will ever understand my sacrifices. That’s what it means to raise kids.

Part of me wants to ride my children like they’re a fleet of donkeys: whip them, beat them, and torture them for my glory. After all, it’s the South Asian way.

Midway between my 15th and 16th lap, I stopped swimming. I bobbed up and down like a cork and said, “I want them to win because I never did.”

No one heard me. Then I drowned a little, choked, and swam to the wall. I realized that my husband has boxes and boxes of trophies from his days playing soccer. But I never won anything. When I was a girl, I never walked up to collect a medal while my classmates cheered.

I was a habitual loser.

My motives aren’t purely selfish. I want my kids to have happier lives than I did. I want them to outshine me. I want their small victories to lead to bigger victories over time. I want them to taste success and begin to hunger for it.

I don’t dislike the competitiveness of their Nigerian school. Maybe seeing their classmates win prizes will inspire my children to work harder. Maybe it will teach them to fight.

As I was toweling off after my swim, I laughed. I never distinguished myself. And you know what? I’m still waiting for my genius to be recognized. But I did well enough that I was admitted to a fine college. I am happily married to my best friend. Now I am beginning to become a writer. Bit by bit, I am accomplishing everything I ever wanted.<

The kids might take after me. They may flounder in school. They might make questionable choices. They could appear mediocre. Who knows if they’ll ever win anything?

But just because they trip over their feet for a while doesn’t mean they won’t cross the finish line at the end. And I will be there to cheer them on. No matter how it turns out, it’s my responsibility to offer them support.<

At 3:00 p.m., I picked up Radha from school. As soon as she saw me, she asked, “How did I do, Mama?”

I bit my lip. I wanted to inform her she would never be a prima ballerina. I contemplated instituting a mandatory three-hour rap practice each night so she could dominate future assemblies. I wondered if we should move to China and enroll in a Ping-Pong cram school.

Radha stared up at me.

With great effort, I subdued my instinct to kick my beautiful daughter in the teeth.

“You were great,” I said, finally. “I could tell you did your best. I’m proud.”

“Did you cry?” Radha asked.

“Yes,” I said, truthfully. “Like a baby. The dad sitting next to me gave me his hankie.”

“Good,” Radha said.

She threw herself into my arms and we walked out of the building, hand in hand.

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