Read this with the eyes of a fictious nonfiction. Because although I’d love to say my memory of the incident is very accurate, I’ve also come to learn that memory cannot be trusted so much. In the end, we see what we want to see and remember as much as our memories allow us.
PS: The real names and characters of the people in this story (with the exception of myself) have been altered for the sake of privacy and respect.
After the beating:
The whole class is silent. Almost all the boys have quiet, sad, frowning faces.
Sir K to the class boys: If the first position had gone to a boy koraa, anka ɛnha me sei. I would have spared the rest of you even. So next time, tell the brilliant boys among you to power so that they can save you. Cos some of you deɛ, I know whatever you do–.
Another teacher chips in with laughter: –Unless Jesus comes in.
All the teachers burst out laughing.
Sela looks at Josh sadly, who’s lying down on his table and mumbles “sorry” to him in a low voice—to which he doesn’t respond. He’s facing the opposite direction. She turns to look at me, her eyes apologetic; somehow urging me to do same, to say sorry to Josh too. But I don’t. Because I’m not understanding what exactly we’re supposed to be sorry for in the first place. And secondly, I doubt Josh will mind me anyway.
Joshua stops speaking to us, studying or playing with us for the rest of the term. He changes his sitting position and sits closer to other guys. Selassie and I continue to do everything the same way, except without him. We write the end of term exam; the results are in and again, our various positions have been assigned.
Sir K is standing in front of the class again. Only this time, unlike the first, a wide smile is sprawled across his face as he’s pacing and nodding. He first asks us to clap for ourselves; all of us, because our performances have improved greatly, he says. And as I’m waiting anxiously for him to announce which gender will be clapping for which this time around, he adds that again, all the boys should clap for the girls.
Sela and I exchange quick glances. I steal a glance at Josh who is sitting upright, tensed, in his chair. Sela had said to me to earlier that she thinks either Josh or I will come first this time and I don’t know why. I’m thinking she didn’t put in her best in this exam.
Sir K: Good, good. Mmaa no mma mo tiri mu nyɛ mo dɛ oo. Yie deɛ moanfa, though one of you came very close.
I look at Sela, who looks at me back, and in unison, we both look at Josh, like every other student in the class. It is clear he’s the one who came first without Sir K even saying it. Everyone in the class can tell. I see him struggle to hold back his smiles, wanting to wait until at least his name is actually mentioned before, I think.
Sir K: Aane. The reason I asked the boys to still clap for you girls is because most of you still maintained your positions in the top ten. And you performed better than them still. There was only slight switches here and there. But six girls, four boys in the top ten is still bad. So the girls, power to you. My boys! You guys need to up your games seriously. I’m not beating anyone today because I promised if one of you came first, it’ll save the rest of you. So I’m sticking to that but you guys need to do better or else… Yoo.
Sir K continues: So without further ado, this one I’m sure you all know by now who the first position goes to. Opoku Joshua. Clap for him. Well-deserved, very well-deserved.
Class erupts into a thunderous applause with whistles and screams from some students. Sela and I join silently in the clapping. Although, Sela smiles at me when our eyes meet, I see the sadness lurking at the corners of her lips. Meanwhile Josh fist-bumps the air and screams “yes” when his name is finally mentioned.
Sir K fulfills the usual ritual, by walking to him, shaking his hand and congratulating him.
“Mo!,” he says firmly, “Woayɛ adeɛ paa. Wakyerɛ wɔn sɛ woyɛ barima ampa. Wahu sɛ ɛnɛ wo ara w’ani agye? Anka baako no manhwe wo a, anka wo ne mmaa no bedi agorɔ saa na wɔn asan atu. Barima deɛ biribiara mu no, you have to be on top. Enni sɛ woma mmaa no di w’anim saa. Woate?”
Josh smiles heartily, nodding his head.
Sir K: Aha. Let’s continue. So in second position we have Quarshie Elizabeth. Now this girl really gave Joshua a close competition and I like that about her.
Class continues clapping.
Sir K to Josh: You were lucky paa. You defeated her with only one mark.
Pupils in the class: Eiish.
Me: As usual, not smiling, almost unperturbed by what’s taking place around me.
Sir K to me: Yes. Well done Lizzie. Continue fighting. Don’t relax for him at all.
Me: Nods and forces on a smile.
Sela smiles at me, says “well done” to me in a quiet tone. I’m supposed to be happy but I’m not. I smile and nod anyway.
Sir K continuing: Coming third this time around is my own Apraku. Apraku Selassie.
Some students go, “Ooohh” while a few naughty ones giggle. Sir K shouts and orders them to clap before he goes for his cane, asking them if they’ve ever gotten close to third in their lives.
I clap loudly and tell Sela to not worry, that she’s done well and it doesn’t matter what position she got because those things don’t mean anything. She nods but says nothing—she doesn’t even smile.
Sir K to Sela: I am very disappointed in you, Apraku. Because you came first the last time, you became complacent and let your guard down, and now you’ve fallen to third. Not even second. But all the same you’ve done well, the competition was tight this time round, so I forgive you.
Me: Getting furious and wondering in my head when Sela became complacent because we studied and did everything together just like the last time. On the other hand, I’m afraid she’ll get beaten just like Josh was.
Sir K quickly goes through the rest of the names and positions. Afterwards he commends the class once again and goes to sit at his desk. Some of the teachers who weren’t present come around to ask and console Sela while commending Josh and also telling me to stop being comfortable in second place. No one gets beaten.
Fast forward to the next day in class, Josh is back at his seat, trying to talk and play with us once again. Sela is angry at him, says we shouldn’t mind him and I agree. He apologizes and says the reason he left to learn on his own was because he didn’t want to get beaten again. In the end, we forgive him and become a trio once more, after all it’s true what he’s saying.
Now this is where my story ends and here’s why I decided to share this particular incident with you, my dear reader.
What happened in Primary 6A will not be the last time I’ll experience such gender-divisive ways of teaching and training children in our various schools. Similar things will happen along my educational journey right through to the Senior High. This incident, I believe, is familiar with most Ghanaian students. And I find that as I grow and learn, I’ve come to understand why my twelve-year-old self felt irritated and uncomfortable, although it could not fully comprehend much of what was happening then. I understand now, why I felt something was wrong with the whole exercise— something supposed to be “healthy” and aimed at helping us excel in our academic work. Yet, there was everything unhealthy in the way punishment and criticisms were meted out to the poor boys in the class.
What I witnessed instead was a classic display of “toxic masculinity”—a teaching of males that somehow female achievement is an indictment on their masculinity. Notice how the boys got beaten for not matching up to the performance of the girls but the vice versa did not happen? How enraged the teachers were at the fact that two females had preceded a male? That’s it!
This is something I struggled to understand then, and struggle to do so even now. Because all of us (both boys and girls) studied hard like they urged us to and put in our best performance on the test, only to be made to realize that our (girls) doing well was “problematic” and sort of unacceptable. Which is why when Sela wanted me to apologize to Josh, I wondered what exactly we were to be sorry about. Is it the fact that we studied hard for a test and got the marks and positions we deserved or that that success had caused our dear friend to suffer an unnecessary beating. When Sela dropped in position in the follow-up exam, I wondered if she had intentionally done so to save Josh from being beaten again, though she denied when I asked her later.
We live in a culture that sometimes directly, indirectly, or very subtly teaches men to make sure they are always on top, that if a woman is before him in any way, it somehow lessens him. And we do this to boys from a very young age which makes it all the more dangerous. Because if at such a young age, young boys are raised this way, they grow up to become men who cannot stand, let alone, celebrate female achievement in their lives without thinking it reduces them, in essence. If care is not taken, such boys become the type of men who make sure they are earning more than their wives or any female relation. At the workplace they can’t tolerate having female bosses let alone take instructions from them. They just will have problems with seeing women ahead or moving forward because they’ve been made to believe it is unnatural. Their first instinct would be to find a way to overtake them, fair or foul, or to reduce them, if the former is impossible.
It is very significant that our teachers in the various schools end this form of teaching practice and comparison between students based on gender. There’s nothing healthy there that encourages or fosters good learning relationships between the two genders. It’s rather divisive—see how Josh didn’t want to learn with us anymore?
What we need to know is that when it comes to academic excellence and intellect, gender plays no role in it at all. The key things that influence these qualities are biology (genes) and environment mostly. Thus, if a girl places first in class, it is because she’s worked for it and deserves it. Likewise if a boy comes first too. It shouldn’t have anything to do with gender, and so if you’re a boy who’s not academically-gifted, you’re supposed to feel bad and worthless because “even females” are getting higher grades than you. No!
On the flip side, this same attitude gets into the heads of many young girls. Hence, they grow up lurking in the shadows of men. Because they’ve learned (or have been taught) both consciously and unconsciously that if they surpass a man, it is not natural, somehow not right. So we have women who do not push themselves or take risks. Women who wait on men to always make decisions for them, and those who deliberately lower or sabotage themselves in order to cushion the egos of their male counterparts or relations.
It’s also the same reason why we have female success springing up as a surprise to us as a society till date. Because generally it is not expected of women to reach such heights. But when a man does it, it’s more like, “Oh yes, he was born to do just that. Why would we expect any less?”
But what we must remember is that boys and girls are human beings with different strengths, capabilities and weaknesses, unique to every one of them, individually. We must stop categorizing them into gender boxes that expect higher of one and less of the other. I do hope that collectively as a people, we’d try to look beyond people’s genders before dictating what kind of life or achievements we expect from them.
Thank you for reading.
Let me know your thoughts on toxic masculinity (or any other you may have with relation to the prose) in the comments below.
Catch you soon with my next post
Till then, stay safe. Bye!