For every living being on Earth, there is another who has left an indelible mark upon them, whether negative or positive. Take a moment and think. Who is that one person who makes you feel the powerful emotions of warmth and safety? Who is the person who makes you feel unadulterated hate and disdain? It could be a parent or co-worker who sparks these emotions in us. For many people, it’s a teacher.
If you’re reading this blog and enjoy my writing style, then you owe thanks to Mr. Isaac Quist. He was my literature and higher English teacher in sixth form, and was (is) nothing short of brilliant. He took my love and passion for writing and redirected it into a skill.
“Not good enough!” he would write very simply on the bottom of an earnestly written report.
“You did not show any original thinking,” he’d write on another assignment.
“Come on! Do you even know the meaning of this word?” he’d rudely inject in the middle of my foolscap paper.
With the sound of his smug, British-like drawl trawling in my sub-consciousness, I’d go back and re-work my essay until his red pen finally wrote the words I so craved.
“Much better. Well done.”
Mr. Quist could take a work as tedious as Mill on the Floss or Wuthering Heights and make it come to life. The lively discussions and debates we had in his class surrounding the antics of protagonists, antagonists, villains and heroes are still fresh in my mind. He is a big part of the reason that hundreds of Ghanaian men and women in their 30s and 40s will sit glued to a late-night showing of Madame Bovary and watch it with the intensity of a World Cup Soccer match; never mind that we are all privy to the protagonist’s ultimate arsenic-y demise. It’s always like watching it for the first time.
It’s not hard for me to explain how I feel about my former instructor. For some people there is Oprah; for me, there is Mr. Quist. That’s why I was so delighted to hear that he was coming to Atlanta.
I quickly arranged for Leigh and Alan, the two other high school alumni living in the city, to meet up with him for dinner. Marshall and I went to pick him from his hotel since we were closer to it. When we arrived he was pacing in the parking lot. I had promised to be there at 7:15. We got there at 7:32 pm. How African of me to be late!
“Oh that’s alright,” he said dismissively at my profuse apology. “A true Ghanaian would have said they would be here between 7:00 – 7:30 -8:00 – 8:30. You did just fine.”
I tittered loudly. I must have sounded like a goof. I laughed at all his jokes, whether he was making one intentionally or not. Before we got into the car I lunged towards him and engulfed him in a big bear hug. He was shorter than I remembered, but that might have been because I was in heels and we were parked on a sloped driveway. I decided that he was just as statuesque as my last memory of him, despite what my eyes might have told me that evening.
At dinner we discussed everything from travel in Africa, to politics in Africa, to juju in Africa. I recounted a story I’d read in the news about a 17 year old girl who’s been sent to a witch camp after being accused to stealing her classmates brains because she was so clever.
“What do you mean there is a witch camp in Ghana?” he asked incredulously.
“I promise you, there is!” I said matter-of-factly. “It’s somewhere that starts with a ‘g’.”
I pulled out my iPhone to look it up.
“Ga-gaam-baa…” I struggled.
“Gambaga?” he said with a mild sneer. He snorted. “These people are not serious. If you have someone with the capacity to steal someone’s brain, why not recruit them to your advantage? Why send them to a witch camp?”
“Oh, Mr. Quist, you are thinking like a witch!” I shouted (probably too loudly) with a laugh.
We could have carried on all night, but he had a lecture to attend the next morning and the two other alums had to drive back into Conyers. Leigh invited us all over for Sunday dinner.
“Bring the babies,” she instructed. “My mom will be cooking.”
I was giddy at the prospect of seeing him again, and prayed that the weekend would go by quickly…which of course it did. We got to Leigh’s house late, but it was alright because Mr. Quist had not yet arrived. This gave my children a chance to get acclimated to the new scene and burn off some excess energy. I wanted them to make a good impression on my teacher and not clamber all over him. Who was I fooling though? He’s read the blogs. When he arrived, he was offered a beer and sank into a seat. He looked tired, but he was congenial and engaging. Leigh’s youngest daughter scampered up to him, demanding to be held.
“And which one of these is most like you?” he asked looking over my brood.
I pointed at Nadjah. Mr. Quist broke into a sly grin. He said something to her and she mumbled something back. I missed the whole exchange because I wasn’t close enough to hear. Whatever it was she said make him chuckle. At last dinner was ready and we went inside to eat.
Leigh’s mother had prepared two types of rice, chicken stew, plantain, cabbage and kontomre (or whatever the Sierra Leone equivalent is). Since we were all old acquaintances there was no need for forced formality or genteelness. We decimated the food.
Dinner conversation was more of the same, with each of us catching up on what the other was doing or revealing what we knew about old class mates and teachers.
“Nana is doing very well. She’s in Nigeria now.”
“Did you know Abdi is building rockets for NASA.”
“What was the name of that Chemistry teacher? The one who said that in his next life he would want to come back as a White man or a cockroach…anything but a Black man? Where is he?”
All very good things – until Leigh brought up an old rumor.
“Mr. Quist, you know there was a rumor going on about you,” she said mischievously. “I was said that you used to jump the wall at night to go and visit Ms. T.”
Ms. T was my dorm warder/house mistress/whatever name they had back then. She was cool people and all…until we discovered that she was taking girls into her confidence and raising little spies to report to the authorities. Then she wasn’t so cool anymore. I liked her a lot less by the time I’d graduated.
Leigh’s mother, who had been vigorously chewing her food stopped in mid bite.
“Ah! Why would he go and jump a wall to visit a woman?” she objected indignantly.
“Why indeed?” asked Mr. Quist, laughing at the absurdity of the idea.
“Well, that was the rumor!” Leigh giggled. “That the two of you were in a relationship and you used to jump the wall to go and see her.”
“Oh nonsense,” I scoffed. “Mr. Quist, I can tell you that as far I was/am concerned, you were a virgin and nothing short of chaste.”
He looked at me as though I had two heads. I nodded emphatically and took another bite of my rice. Somehow, the conversation was steered onto something else and there was no other talk of teacher relationships and wall jumping…until my family was about to leave.
As I was rounding up my children, putting shoes on their feet and stepping over urine puddles (Stone had peed all over Leigh’s hardwood floors), I heard Leigh exclaim on the topic one last time.
“Wait! You never confirmed if there was a relationship or not between you and Ms. T!”
I was busy putting on a shoe and not paying much attention.
“Well, there was no wall jumping,” I heard him say, “but there was a relationship.”
Of course there was a relationship! A profe- Wait. What?
I turned away from my child and looked at the face of my highly regarded teacher. His eyes were fixed on the floor and there was an odd look on his face, as though recalling a distant pleasant memory.
“Oh God! Oh God no!!!” I screamed again and again. “Are you serious? Ms. T?”
“And what’s wrong with Ms. T?” he sniggered.
“Well…nothing…I guess,” I began, not wanting to offend him. “But I like the idea of her alone, and the idea of you separate…not together. And certainly not in a relationship!”
I closed my eyes and stamped my feet like a petulant child. I had to protect my mind. If I went into M.O.M mode, I would see Mr. Quist doing things to Ms. T that only grown people do. I didn’t want to see him like that! Mr. Quist watched me struggle with my emotions with amusement.
“Oh Malaka Gyekye,” he scoffed. “Get over yourself… and get a life,” he added.
This is not something one simply gets over! I felt lost. I felt betrayed. I felt wronged…like someone had spread chocolate sauce all over my favorite pizza. I tried to compose myself and gave him a hug. I can’t remember if I wished him a safe journey back home or not. I was entirely too focused on NOT imagining him (possibly) naked with my former house mistress.
The sprinklers outside of Leigh’s house came on, and my children made a dash for them.
“Water! Water!” they cried, sweeping their hands and legs through the stream.
“Come on children!” I barked. “Get out of the sprinklers! And get into the car!”
The sounds of Mr. Quist’s and Leigh’s laughter bid us farewell. Somehow, it was the perfect literary metaphor to end the evening. I felt like someone had pissed all over my idyllic childhood memories. I don’t know why I was so upset. He is a MAN after all; and men have NEEDS. But do they have to fulfill them with someone at work? Someone I happened to live with?? I think that that was rather inconsiderate of him – of them BOTH.
Who was your favorite teacher? Were you lucky enough to have someone change your life? Have you had a revelation about them alter your view of them in any way?