Geography class, 10th grade, Romania, the recent past:
Me: Prof, I will cut you a deal: I haven’t studied today’s lesson on the African continent, but ask me the capital of any country in Africa, and if I get all of them right, give me an A. If I get at least one wrong, give me an F!
Geography Professor: You’re ON, you prat!
Wait, what? Rewind! Early morning, May, inside a Romanian provincial high school. The air stands still, not even a puff of wind through the chestnut trees. Time for the geography class. Meh…The professor enters the classroom, greets the class, sits down at her desk, whips out the class register book and proceeds to examine students. In Romania teachers have a class register book (catalog, we call it) where students are listed along with their grades and absences. Teachers use it to call out a student, have them stand up and be asked questions from the previous lesson, for a grade. This is customary.
I, oblivious to this event, am sitting in the desk farthest back (we have desks made for two students, so you’re always stuck with a desk mate), conducting myself with the most brazenly insolent attitude a student could: whispering jokes with Lizzie, my desk mate, giggling and snickering, tickling each other and occasionally laughing out loud. Positively impertinent behavior!
From her ivory tower at the front of the classroom, the prof catches a whiff of our leisurely demeanor, and without batting an eye lash, utters, eerily: Is this Mr. Alexander? Why, stand up, child! I heard the flippant buzz of a mosquito disturbing my examination of this humble student (somewhere close to the blackboard, a tormented, long-faced boy was enduring the agony of the great Congo river and its role in the economy of the Zaire). You fashion yourself a defiant lion yet your howl is but a caterwaul, a fierce roar it’s not! How would you like to come up here in his stead?
I know this isn’t a question of choice. Beyond the genteel veneer of this invitation lay centuries of refined student-opressing deftness. I have but one thought, strike now, strike boldly! Somehow, I see acclaimed Beninese actor Djimon Hounsou’s face, staring at me: DO IT! Stealing one last furtive look at Lizzie (by now grinning contently with schadenfreude), I utter, unflinched:
There is no use in pretending, Miss, I am unquestionably guilty of not having studied today’s lesson! Yet, I will propose a deal! Ask me the capital of any and every country in Africa (totally NOT the point of any lesson that semester), and if I get each of them right, grant me an A, if I make but one mistake, give me an F!
The whole classroom is frozen. No one dare laugh, cry, breathe. Peering at me from above her bespectacled and highly respectable aquiline nose, Miss utters, calling my bluff:
M: My pleasure! Won’t be long now…Let’s start with an easy warm-up: Egypt…
A: Cairo, like the purple rose! Heh, you’re spoiling me…
M: Patience is a virtue sir, Libya?…
M: Steady now, South Africa?
M: Final answer? Not Johannesburg?
A: Well, Pretoria is the administrative one, Cape Town the legislative and (with my most pedantic, and certainly wrong improvised Afrikaans accent) Bloemfontein is the judicial. Certainly Johannesburg is not among any of them.
Shots fired, blood has been spilled! Everyone in the classroom is imagining an escape route, hiding their faces in their hands, the tormented, long-faced boy is crossing himself, thrice. Djimon crosses his arms and nods.
M: I see, we’re running with the big boys now. The Centrafrican Republic, Chad, Guinea!!!
A: Bangui, N’djamena, also, Chad has the same flag we do…umm, which Guinea?
M: ALL OF THEM!!!
A: Guinea Bissau, Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Malabo, mmm but to move to Oyala soon,…Guinea Guinea, Conakry!
A tirade of countries ensues, followed closely by my shouting of each and every correct capital city, in cadence. Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Sierra Leone, Senegal. The mighty Benin! The Great Zimbabwe! Ethiopia, the cradle of humanity! Djimon is standing tall and the corner of his mouth ekes into an imperceptible smile.
Miss, beaten, but not defeated, awards herself a little luxury. She will cross the line and go where no Geography Professor has gone before. With reluctance in her eyes and trembling hand, she grabs for the geography textbook. A sad, suffering sigh escapes her mouth. The monolith has been moved. Suddenly the centuries of scholarly oppression from the height of which she was looking down on us by way of her aquiline nose, much like the empires of yesteryear, is crumbling. One lonely tear glides down her wholesome face. Had you blinked, you’d miss it. But I see it!
M(now shamelessly referencing the book for countries’ capitals she hasn’t even heard of): Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles, Comoros – and softly, to herself – you impudent kitten!…
The classroom is dead quiet. Somewhere a pin drops with the rattling of a thousand train engines. The tormented boy passes out. Djimon lifts but one finger, the index, and points it at me. I begin…
A: Sao Tome, Sao Tome, Seychelles, Victoria, and…I let out a weary sigh, a roar…Djimon raises a brow…Miss covers her mouth with her hand as if to suppress a shriek, eyes bulging…and Comoros, a fateful word, Moroni! The lion has spoken!
Seconds seem minutes, nay hours, nay centuries! The classroom resumes its usual bustle. The tormented boy is flipping through the textbook conscientiously. Awoken from her fervor, Miss finally reacts. M’yes, it would seem you have a handle on these. Your grade is a B, Alex. But… miss?? We had a deal? Unmoved, Miss effaces all signs of previous weakness, real or imagined and denounces, with familiar tone: In school we make no deals!…You knew all the capitals, it’s true, but you are insolent. For that, you get no A! Be thankful you didn’t get an F!
Taken aback, I slump into my chair, eyes captured by the chestnut trees outside. I see them through the window. The air now stirred, blows, fussy, through the leaves. Tall, firm, kind, the trees are unwavering – among them, Djimon. He puts forth a steady, closed fist with an extended thumb, parallel to the ground. I check my goggling eyes, wiping them repeatedly. Around me, the class goes on, unaware. Djimon stares back, turns his arm and extends the thumb up. A battle has been won today! Dumbstruck, I turn back to Lizzie, watching me with a puzzled, wanton smile.