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Opinions of Saturday, 13 August 2022

Columnist: Cameron Duodu

In the footprints of great teachers

Photo to illustrate the story Photo to illustrate the story

My state of mind, whilst sitting the General Certificate of Education (GCE) examination in Accra in June 1956, was not the best.

Because I’d been dismissed as a pupil teacher, I was quite indigent. And having been favoured with the cash to enter the examination by my generous grandmother, I couldn’t go back to her to ask for the money to go to Accra with. It was one of my PEA friends, Mr Kwabena Ettoh, who lent me two pounds or so to go to Accra to sit the exam.

Armed with such a tiny sum of money, I found it hard to survive in Accra on a day-to-day basis. My routine was to study; next, make my way to Atukpai taxi station at Adabraka to see whether I could do some “aplanke” work (such as washing the cars of the more friendly taxi drivers I knew) and then grab something to eat (with whatever “dash” was given to me for the work) and return to Kwaku Dakwa’s room to revise and revise.

Finally, the first day of the exam arrived. Some of the first papers I wrote went well, to my great relief. But those were like the “comedies” before the showing of a nice film. As it got nearer and nearer the main “feature”, in this case, the English Language paper, I was struck by fear. This was because even if one passed in all the other five of the six subjects one had entered at the GCE Ordinary Level, and one happened to fail in English Language, one would have failed the entire examination!

Yet, the trouble was that the English Language syllabus was that it was extremely wide. There was essay-writing; grammar; comprehension; then vocabulary, followed by spelling ability. It was a maze of traps!

On the day before the English paper, my panic reached a zenith point. It even took on a physical form, in that, I couldn’t sleep. Yet my mind kept wandering and I couldn’t make any real headway in my revision of lessons.

By early morning, I was in a storm of confusion. I knew I must eat, but what? I went out to find something to buy for breakfast. But because I hadn’t been eating breakfast before going to the taxi station, I didn’t know where to buy a ready-made breakfast. Luckily (I thought) whilst I was wondering what to do, a woman passed by, carrying koko [porridge] on her head. I wasn’t a koko eater, but the fear of arriving late at the examination hall if I spent too much time looking for the right food, made me throw caution to the winds and I bought some.

Worse, when I got home, anxiety made me wolf down the koko at tremendous speed.

I then bathed, put on my clothes, checked to see that my pen was working well and then set out on foot. I wanted to walk from Adabraka right up to the West African Examinations Council examination hall, adjacent to Cinema Palace and Makola Market. Walking would enable me to carry out mental exercises, I figured.

I was sweating a bit and trying not to shake with anxiety as I got to the hall and took my seat when directed to do so.

The omens weren’t good and things didn’t go well at all for me to begin with. For the examination invigilator, an English woman spoke in the posh accent known as “Received Pronunciation” and her speech was almost unintelligible to me.

First, she asked us to write our names on the front of the paper, and in the space where it said “Examination Centre”, to write “Accra 02.”

I heard her say “Accra 02,” but in her upper-class accent, the “0” was said in a lower tone than the “2” and she sounded as if she had said “Or-TWO!” Could anyone ask her to write “02” down? Where would she do that? There was no blackboard in the examination hall?

I wrote down something, and to this day, I don’t recollect whether I wrote “Accra 02” or “Accra or 2”!

Imagine starting to write such a crucial paper with an unnecessary hassle like that to contend with. Why didn’t the examiners choose an invigilator whose English could be unmistakably understood by everyone? In my state of mind, I became political and figured out that the examination board trusted its own people more than a Ghanaian invigilator. But what could a Ghana invigilator do? Show sympathy towards the candidates, in public? Nonsense! I ridiculously argued with the examiners in my head, not knowing what was coming.

Well, the woman soon gave the order to “Start writing!” and I had to stop worrying about whether I had written the correct name of the centre. I started on the essay first, because I knew that was where the greatest amount of marks would be awarded.

I had almost finished it when a tragic disaster suddenly struck: the koko I had wolfed down in the morning chose that moment to – erupt from my tummy: WOOOOH!!

Vomit splashed all over the essay I had been laboriously writing!

My God, what to do?

Shaking, I put up my hand. The lady came over and to my embarrassment, discovered that I was sick.

She called over a Ghanaian assistant and asked him to escort me to the toilet. I went there, finished puking, and washed my mouth and hands, all the time being watched carefully by the assistant. I then went back with him to the examination hall. So busy had people been with writing that my drama seemed to have passed completely unnoticed by anyone in the crowd!

Well, as a man possessed, I now rewrote, on a new sheet, everything that I had written before I threw up. I was doing quite well, for I can write fast when I need to do so. But then, yet another disaster struck me! It was completely unexpected and had nothing to do with me, personally.

Without any preliminaries, the English woman suddenly announced: “You have thirty minutes left!”

However, this was clearly wrong: thirty minutes would add about twenty minutes to the duration stated on the front of the exam paper!

But who cared? Everyone appreciated the announcement, probably rationalising (as I did!) that perhaps, a new instruction had been given to the invigilator, without us, the candidates, being told.

For me personally, the extension of time came like an “Act of God”. I saw it, gratefully, as a sign that The Lord had had pity on me because of my plight earlier, and had miraculously made the woman extend the time for writing the paper, so that the time I had lost by going to the toilet, had been given back to me!

So, happily, I relaxed from my fast writing and tackled the rest of the paper with normal speed. However, about ten minutes before the time that the examination was originally scheduled to end, the woman made another announcement: “You have ten minutes left!”

This new announcement erased the one she had made only a few minutes ago, of course. She had, somehow, reinstated the original time!! To say that this caused consternation in the examination hall would be an understatement. A yell of palpable pain rents the air, emanating from the throats of every single one of the 300 or more candidates. It would have choked the English woman dead if it had all been collected and pumped into her throat!!

But she remained insouciant -- apparently, she didn’t realise that she had done anything wrong. And, at the end of the originally scheduled period, she did command us to: “STOP WRITING!”

People were still murmuring with pain, but we stopped writing. And the answer papers were duly collected from us without ceremony.