We all at one time or another thank someone who played a very important role in our lives. This could be a parent, a friend, an uncle, aunt, a teacher, or just sometimes a total stranger who was kind to us at our greatest moment of need. We might express our thanks and gratitude for good health and be lucky and blessed enough with the bounty of food on our tables when others in the world, sometimes even our neighbors were starving. But who should we thank during our birthday, wedding anniversary, or Christmas? Should we thank Budha, Jesus Christ, God, Yaweh, or the very Allah on behalf of whom some terrorists claim they carry their dastardly acts?
The most appropriate person to acknowledge most to the time is the teacher, especially one who inspires and ignites in the students an intense motivation to achieve their dreams. I had such a teacher who I have never thanked publicly. I still vividly remember him forty-five years later after my Ph. D., having a family and a teaching career. This was an African Headmaster and seventh grade English teacher at Tamanda Boarding Upper primary school. This school was located on a remote plateau literally on the British colonial drawn border in the countries of Zambia and Malawi in Southern Africa. We had limited facilities but our teachers gave us the best.
The daily routine was grueling. But it was particularly so on a chilly morning when I decided to be tardy and skip my early morning chore of sweeping the school Assembly Hall. The floor was so dirty that as soon as the school teachers entered the assembly, the first announcement from the Headmaster’s lips was for Mwizenge Tembo to see him in his office after the assembly. The Headmaster sternly asked me why the assembly Hall floor was unswept and dirty. I had no answer. My tears did not help either as he gave me two swift strikes of the cane on my rear end. When they saw tears on my cheeks, my classmates did not need to ask what had happened. I never skipped my chores again and didn’t dare complain to my parents either because they would have supported the headmaster.
One chilly morning, Mr. Phiri digressed from teaching English, and asked the class what we wanted to be after completing school. My classmates and I looked at each other blankly in stunned silence. What could kids in a rural African village school dream about after finishing only Grade Seven? Then Mr. Phiri gave us his memorable talk.
“What’s the matter with you!” he raised his voice and he said almost whispering: “You are young. The future for all of you is wide open. Our country just got its independence 2 years ago. We will need doctors to cure disease, pilots to fly planes, locomotive drivers to run trains, bankers, teachers, surveyors, architects to design homes, engineers. Any of you could even go to college at the new University of Zambia, get one or two degrees and become professors. You need to know not just about our school, our chief, your village, or our country, but about the world. Did you know that as we speak in the classroom now, on the other side of the world in Japan its midnight and people are asleep?”
I smiled and looked around my classmates. That was it! That was fascinating class for a kid who had only known about herding goats in the village at this point. My imagination was ignited and a seed was planted. I begun to dream night and day about going to University of Zambia if I worked hard. Our imagination as students was further ignited when word came around that our government of Zambia was raising funds all over the country to build the University of Zambia. This would be the highest educational institution in the land where students would gain degrees. Everyone donated ten ngwee ot ten cents toward the national project. I qualified to go to Chizongwe Secondary School, then qualified to go to our only national University of Zambia at the time and later went to do my Masters and Ph. D. in the United States.
Later that year when I was still in seventh grade at Tamanda Boarding Shcool, the Headmaster received an urgent letter from parents. He had to inform me in his office that my younger brother had passed away. I couldn’t go home for the funeral as my home village was too far. As I was weeping in the dark with deep grief alone lying on my dormitory bed that evening, I was summoned to the headmaster’s house. Students were often summoned to his office but never to his house. His wife made a cup of tea with some buttered scones. I wiped my tears as I sipped the tea. Mr. Phiri said he was deeply sorry about the loss of my brother. He wanted me to be strong because the big all important high school entrance exam was only three months away. He wanted me to pass, go to high school and may be University. This would be my only chance.
Teachers play many different complex roles. However, what is paradoxical is that people can also become excellent teachers of the extreme hatred as demonstrated by the Hitlers of this world and as demonstrated by the tragic terrorist events of September 11 and many others since then. If ever you have taught in a classroom, may be you are a parent, scout leader, trained police officers, members of the armed forces units, fire fighters, emergency service personnel, or have inspired young people to learn any useful skill or to do be good human beings, you are a teacher who should be celebrated and thanked. For teachers not only inspire us to read and write, but chances are that you and I are reasonably decent human beings because of teachers who may have prodded us when we were slacking and motivated us and gave us self esteem when we felt the least confident.