I wish I could say that I was truly miserable while living in hiding at the Couvent St. Joseph, but that wasn’t really the case. I was truly uncomfortable, yes; very uncomfortable. Always being ravenously hungry is not conducive to comfort, and neither is being lousy, dirty, itching from scabies, or being preternaturally cold, all of which were more or less natural and permanent states during those years. But there were also some very good things. I know this is inconsistent with the image of a poor, suffering child, but so it was. There were some very good things there also, and I wouldn’t want to forget or mention those in my rush to be consistent.
First among these good things was the realization that there was a school that could be attended within the convent, and Fela and I immediately rushed in to become students and finally learn to read and write. I took a desk way at the back, and waited for something to happen, I didn’t know what. There were many other students in the classroom and a teacher in a black habit up front, and she did and said all sorts of things, and I just sat there, completely bored. I didn’t return the next day, or the day after that. No one bothered me, because I hadn’t really been registered in the school, and I was somewhat young. I have no idea how I spent my time when I wasn’t in school, but the time passed, and by the following September, I was told that I had to attend school.
The schoolroom had three double rows of desks, with a grade in each row. I don’t know how the teacher did it, but she taught three grades simultaneously. This had the advantage of a student in any grade being able to follow whatever was happening in another grade when he or she was bored or finished with her or his own work. Of particular interest to me was a blackboard on an easel that was completely filled with numbers, the numbers in rows and columns always somehow matching. It was, of course, a multiplication table up to ten, but to me at the time, it was magical and an endless wonder, just standing there in front of the class, not being used for anything.
One day came the truly magical moment. The teacher took down from the wall just above a blackboard that ran the entire side of the room, a white card with a circle on it. She walked to the front of the room, held the card above her head, and told us that this was the letter “o”. She showed us the capital “o” and the lower case “o” which looked fairly similar, and after that the letter “l” both capital and lower case, and after that the letter “e” which was, after all only a short, squat “l”. And so it came to pass, I learned to read, and my life was changed forever.