The mauve rays of early dawn on the 21st of July, 2021, met me awake, gawking at my laptop, unable to type, words refusing to come. The few words I typed were bland, lacking rhythm, and soulless.
I felt a nudge in my spirit, lethargy swaddling me. I shut down my laptop and glanced at the clock. It was 5:56 a.m. I had been awake since 2 a.m. and had nothing to show for it. I slumped into the bed, doleful, and slept off.
The blinding morning sun woke me up. I picked up my phone, and strolled to my Instagram app. Three new messages from Rita, a junior student from my ex-secondary school. It took minutes before I opened the message. Did she need advice from me? I thought. She had come to me for advice a few months back because, in 2019, I won the Best Graduating Arts Student award. I was not in the mood to advise anyone. My writing was not going well, and that ruined my day.
While scrolling through other messages, I mistakenly opened the message. It read:
—Dear Senior Nonso,
We lost a beloved teacher this morning, Miss Oge.
I read the message once more. A flush of adrenaline throbbed through my body.
Did she mean Mrs. Okeke, the aged Catering Craft teacher who limped?
—Did you make a mistake with the name? I asked
—No. Our Miss Oge. Our literature teacher. Low blood pressure.
—How can you even say this? I asked.
A lump formed in my throat.
She did not reply again. I sat on my bed, numb.
My phone rang. It was Alabi Mercy, an ex-classmate.
Her voice was unsteady, each word rising and falling without tempo.
—Miss Oge, she’s dead. Our literature teacher don die.
I cut the call immediately. A certain kind of heat was surging behind my eyelids; the world began to spin fast.
Die. Dead. Lost a beloved one. Those words were not presumed to be compatible in one sentence with Miss Oge’s name. She was life itself. But now, this young, vigorous, and fiercely brilliant literature teacher was dead.
Drama, a mini subject in the Cultural and Creative Arts department, was the first subject that I took on the first day of secondary school in 2013.
That morning, I sat in the last row of the class, timid, glaring at my new, hyperactive classmates who walked around. The boys in their well-ironed white shirts, blue trousers, and shiny black shoes. The girls in their well-ironed blue pinafores, white socks that reached their knees, and shiny black shoes amplified with peacock gaits.
She ambled into the class, her pointy-heeled shoes making clicking sounds on the ground. She wore heavy makeup with eyelashes that made me imagine, when she blinked, a blackbird flapping its wings. She did not smile. She held a thin, flexible cane that she swung in the air at intervals. A cane that would land on my back one blustery morning, months later, when I presented an incomplete note to her.
My name is Oge. Miss Oge. Your new Drama teacher. Miss, not Mrs.
I feared her. My stomach churned whenever we had Drama classes every Monday and Tuesday. I found her terrifyingly intriguing: the way she spun her eyes, the way she roamed around the class with her shoes making click-clack sounds, her flowery cologne, the way she talked—measured words with a steady voice. Everything about her.
Her exams were easy because they were multiple-choice questions. No theory. You just had to pick the correct answer. I aced the exams for the whole session she taught us.
Moving to senior secondary school, I chose the art class because I wanted to be a lawyer and because I loved art. Seniors trooped into our class to warn us of a literature teacher whom they called Bloody. It was Miss Oge, they said. She often gave surprise tests that she called Bloody. You would write and write, but you would not pass the exams. Nobody got anything higher than a C in her subject because it was just the way things were. If you read too much, she’d make you fail. Only God could help.
Again? I thought.
However, she was a little different this time. She grinned often. She was detailed and immediate. She knew our names and our faces. And she made sure to let us know that she did, identifying us by our names from time to time. Opeyemi, right? She would say, pointing at Opeyemi, a scrawny girl who wore braces. She told us personal stories. She had a distinct sense of humor.
Bloody tests trudged upon us. I have this memory sharp in my head:
A dingy, rainy Tuesday morning. Miss Oge was complaining about how unnecessary the rainy season was and how her roof fell off a week before because of the heavy wind that came with rain. She made a joke about how God wanted to punish politicians with the rain, but the citizens ended up falling victims.
The class rumbled with chuckles, and, while we were still laughing, she stopped, wore a straight face, and said: Tear out a sheet of paper, write your name, and answer the following questions. Stillness followed.
The next morning, she came with the scripts and the highest score was 9/20.
The result for the first term Literature examination came, and I had a C. I was not surprised. I did not expect anything more. The second term came, and I got a C.
The third term came, and I wanted to be daring. I read very hard for the tests and the exam; I aced them. I got an A. This was new, acing her exams. She called me to her office and said well-done. And from that moment, I debunked the stories our seniors told, worked hard, and had excellent grades all through.
She caught me scribbling a short story at the back of the class, and she seized the paper.
I cannot be teaching and you’re doing something else! She yelled.
The story meant so much to me (even though, now, I cringe at the sight of it).
I went to her office to plead, told her it was an important story, and she said, so you are a writer?
I said yes.
She told me to go, that she would call me when she’d read the story.
I was in class when she sent someone to call me. My heart was pulsing fast, and my senses heightened. I knew she would like my story. When I entered, she smiled at me and said nothing for a while.
I get the concept of what you’re trying to write. You’ll make a good writer. But for now? Hm. You need work. This story is badly plotted and too cliche.
My heart shrank. I said nothing.
I want you to read Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I think you’ll find clarity in that book. I know the kind of person you are, and I know what book fits you.
I knew that name, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, but I was not sure how I knew that name. I went home and I cried. My precious story was called ‘badly plotted’. I loathed Miss Oge for moments.
During the weekend, I went to the bookstore to ask for the book. The salesman, a smiling man, brought a book from the upper compartment of the shelf. A lavender-coated book burnished with white layouts; a dark girl on the cover, wearing an African cornrow, her hands on her cheek: Purple Hibiscus.
That night, I opened the book, the first sentences pulling me to Enugu. I saw myself in Kambili, as shy, innocent, observant, and intelligent. Through the pages, we went to Nsukka, fell in love with Father Amadi; Unraveled fierceness from Aunty Ifeoma; laughed with Amaka, Obiora, and Chima. Papa’s whipping was intense. Mama and Jaja shared solace with us. We sucked the Ixora nectars and planted purple hibiscus.
I did not know that people like me could be characters in a book. I did not know that my language had a place in literature. I did not know that literature, African fiction, could be this cadenced, this elegant, this robust. I gained clarity. Miss Oge asked me how I felt, recommended more books, and scrutinized my writing.
I see something in you, Chinonso, she would say often. That’s why I’m helping you. And she would supervise my stories and criticize them.
I would later remember, on the day Miss Oge died, Kambili’s statement when she heard that Papa died: He was different from Ade Coker, from all other people they had killed. He had seemed immortal.
She seemed immortal.
She became a milder version of herself in the second term of our second year in senior secondary school. More vulnerable, genuine.
Bloody tests no longer happened. She laughed even more.
She hosted a play, Othello by Williams Shakespeare. I played Cassio. Often, she told us how she loved us dearly, and how she did what she used to do because she wanted to be taken seriously, and not because it was her nature.
Nobody took her seriously. She was young—probably the youngest teacher then. She wore well-patterned dresses and designer shoes. She was brilliant and full of grace. Most of the teachers, especially the women teachers, did not like her. It was obvious, and it felt as though they begrudged something in her that they no longer had.
I remember when we were having a literature examination, and Mrs. A came to supervise us for the examination. Something went wrong with the scripts and we needed Miss Oge to rectify it. When Mrs. A asked who our teacher was, we told her Miss Oge; she scowled and said: That one? She don marry? She likes making mistakes, she’s never good at anything. That’s why she cannot get married.
A couple of times, I heard teachers make a similar statement.
In our final year, we were told that Miss Oge would no longer teach us because our predecessors failed literature woefully. It was common for most art students during the West African Senior School Certificate Examination to fail literature. The school authority queried her and told her to teach only Drama to the Junior students. That she was not qualified to teach literature.
But it was not her fault. Literature is a subjective course. Three people could analyze a poem or a prose work differently, and still, be plausible. The examination council has a marking script that is objective. If your view does not go with what they want, you might not be awarded a full mark. I like to think that this was (and still is) the reason why people failed literature.
Even though she no longer taught us, we visited her often. She gave us advice. She chose the dress code for our valedictory service and our dinner night.
The last day I saw her was when I went to collect my testimonial two weeks after the valedictory service.
Her last words to me were: I cannot wait for you to happen.
Truly, she did not wait for me to happen.
A week before the 21st of July, I wanted to send her an email because it was her birthday. I hesitated because I thought I would wish her some other time. Now, I regret it. I regret not sending her that email. Sometimes, anger sprints deep inside me; I want to self-harm because I regret it.
On the day she died, I scrolled through her Facebook page; the posts on her timeline were gloomy: Rest in peace, Oge. Dark Tuesday. We lost a sister. Sleep well, beloved. Rest well, Soyinka’s junior.
I saw a comment from Mrs. A: You were a treasure to us, I hope you’re sleeping in hallowed peace.
I was so close to typing: You fucking old pretending bitch, why are you wishing her well?
I was a disgruntled lion wanting to eat Mrs. A up.
I became tired of the calls and text messages that came in. They were trite: Chinonso, Miss Oge is dead.
I spent a few weeks believing and disbelieving. On some days, it felt true. On some days, she was still alive, somewhere in the world.
It has been almost a year since she passed away. I have not cried. Whenever I think of her, I compel myself to cry, but the tears do not come. I feel like a fraud. Guilt drapes me whenever this happens.
Gradually, I am forgiving myself because I know that wherever she is, she understands why I feel this way.
She lives. Miss Oge still lives. Whenever I pick up Purple Hibiscus from my shelf, I feel her presence. Warmth jolts through my body as I nibble the sentences. I know it is her. Sometimes, my spirit jerks me when my writing is not going well. I know it is her. Sometimes, it’s a muse coming to me like a revelation. I know it is her.
Right now, I am sitting on the couch, typing this essay on my laptop. I think of her; her presence is in the coolness that trickles inside me.
She lives. Miss Oge still lives.
Chinonso Nzeh is Igbo, and his works have appeared in Isele Magazine, Black Boy Review, and elsewhere. He has forthcoming works in Evergreen Review and the Kilimanjaro voices anthology. He thinks of storytelling as a way to comprehend the world’s wonder. When he’s not writing, he’s reading or listening to old-skool music. He hopes to dump his law degree and become a professor in writing.