Pencil sharpeners remind me of a snitch. I went to a school called Little Flower after my mother removed me from the village school. When I got there as a nine-year-old soon to be ten, I couldn’t speak English. The extent of my English was, “My name is...” The school was run by an Austrian nun who was a strict disciplinarian. We were all given three months to speak English without lacing our sentences with Xhosa words. If you were caught speaking complete Xhosa sentences you would be punished. For those of us in boarding school, they would cover your mouth with tell-tale for three hours, if your three hours fell between meals, tough luck, you wouldn't eat.
Unfortunately for one boy, Thobile, it took him a really long time to learn to speak in English.
One day, he needed to sharpen his pencil. Another boy was already standing over the dustbin sharpening his pencil. He was the smallest boy in the class and constantly seeking the teacher’s approval. I saw him hand a sharpener to Thobile and then approach the teacher. ‘Thobile just spoke Xhosa, Miss,’ he whispered to her, just loud enough for the rest of the class to hear, but faking discretion at the same time. We all looked up from their books in horror. He did what? We were all thinking it. ‘What did he say?’ she asked.
‘He said, “Khawuthi umshini ndithishwele-shwele.”’ (‘Give me the sharp- ener so that I can just, quick, quick.’) Upon hearing this horror – a child speaking his mother tongue in class – she summoned him.
She made him lift his hand and began hitting him on his palm with a stick.
‘What did I say, Thobile?’ she asked as she struck him.
‘Did you say Miss!’
’Did you say Miss!’ Thobile tried in his best English while screaming from the pain.
‘What did I say, Thobile?’ she asked him again as her stick repeatedly came down on his hand.
‘Did you say Miss! Did you say Miss!’ Thobile failed again to respond in appropriate English.
Back then it was amusing but when I thought about it years later, I was bothered that we were somehow made to feel ashamed of speaking our mother tongue.
Anyway, I will never look at a sharpener and not think of, ’Did you say Miss!’