By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Americans observe the first week of May as “TeacherAppreciation Week” to honor their primary and secondary school teachers. In the spirit of this week, I want to reflect on and appreciate some of the teachers who influenced the course of my life; teachers whose teaching and mentorship made me who I am today.
My first real teacher is my father, Malam Adamu S. Kperogi, an 88-year-old retired Arabic and Islamic Studies teacher. He taught me to read and write first in Arabic at age 4—perhaps earlier—and later in my native Baatonu language in the Roman alphabet. So when I started primary school at age 5 at Baptist Primary School in Okuta (where my dad was also a teacher), in the Borgu area of Kwara State, I was ahead of many of my peers. I understood the basic principles of Arabic and Roman orthography and could sound out letters and read Arabic and English passages fairly well. That head start stood me in good stead throughout my educational career.
But he didn’t just give me a head start; he also let me know that he had invested enormous hopes and expectations in me. He told me several times as a child that he wanted me to have what he deeply desired but couldn’t have: get a bachelor’s degree, a master’s, a Ph.D., and shine a light on the world. I had no clue what that meant. I just understood him as telling me to take my studies seriously. And I did. I always made him proud by being among the top three students in my class. (The top three students of every class were often honored with prizes and a public applause every end of semester.)
One semester, in my fourth year of elementary school, I didn’t make it to the top three. I was petrified. I thought my dad would be so disappointed he would skin me alive. So I ran away after the prize-giving ceremony. My dad looked everywhere for me. He finally found me crying under a tree. That was the first time I saw him visibly emotional. “Son, I’m neither sad nor disappointed that you didn’t make it to the top three,” I recall him telling me. “Don’t ever think you always have to be the best to impress me. You tried your best. It’s just that other people tried harder than you did. Don’t always expect to be the best. That’s not the way the world works.”
I can’t tell you how much these words changed my life. They liberated me from the mental bondage of always wanting to be the best in order to impress him. They also taught me the virtue of humility and modest expectations. Knowing that I just needed to do my best and not expect to be the best was one of the greatest existential lessons my dad taught me.
Without consciously working toward it—and certainly not expecting it—I have received the top student prizes at every level of my educational career after this encounter. I owe that to my dad, my first teacher, who also taught generations of people from my part of Nigeria for over four decades. Unfortunately, as I write this, he still hasn’t been paid his gratuity by the Kwara State government years after he retired.
Three other teachers left permanent marks in my life during my elementary school years. The first is my Primary One teacher, whom I remember simply as Miss Bose. She strengthened the reading skills my dad first taught me, and laid the groundwork for everything I later learned in life. Of the many things she taught us, the one thing that stands out for me is that she made us memorize the names of all the major rivers in the world. To this day, anytime I come across the name of any river in the world, I remember Miss Bose. My Primary 5 teacher, Mr. Kazeem Umar, and my Primary 6 teacher, Mr. John Bello, also influenced me in many significant ways.
My secondary school education at Baptist Grammar School in Okuta, Kwara State, was one of the most defining moments of my educational career. The school gave me some of the best teachers any student could ever hope to have. My passion for English grammar was born and nurtured there. I particularly remember my first English teacher in Form One, who was a Ghanaian. I only remember him as Mr. Okon. His other name escapes me now. He was one of the most passionate and committed teachers I’ve ever known. On a weekly basis, he wrote and posted “Common Mistakes in English” on the school notice board, which I soaked up like a sponge. He was deported from Nigeria during the infamous “Ghana-Must-Go” madness.
In my third and fourth years, I had another English teacher by the name of Mr. Sule Umar who continued with Mr. Okon’s tradition of correcting common grammatical errors and posting them on the school’s bulletin board. Mr. Umar was an incredibly brilliant yet humble and self-effacing teacher who taught me the foundations of formal grammar.
I also remember a diminutive but enormously brainy teacher by the name of Mr. Shuaibu Aliyu whom we called "Mr. Jolly" because of his infectiously vivacious and radiant personality. He taught me social studies in my lower classes, and government and economics in my senior years. He was the master of bombast and is, in some ways, responsible for my love for highfalutin and intellectually fashionable phraseology.
It was through his mentorship that I got my first taste of journalism in my third year. He selected five students to form the “broadcast crew” of the school. We scouted for news about the school every day, wrote it, submitted it to him for editing, and read it in a mock broadcast setting during student assemblies on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
But the man who had the most definitive influence in my choice of journalism as a career is an Abiodun Salawu, who is now a well-accomplished professor of mass communication at a South African university. He came to my secondary school as a youth corps member and was assigned to teach us English. He revived our school’s press club and took over the mentorship of the literary and debating society, both of which I was the student leader of. Professor Salawu, a University of Ife English graduate who later studied for a master’s degree in mass communication at the University of Lagos and a Ph.D. in communication at the University of Ibadan, encouraged me to submit articles to the Nigerian Herald newspaper in Ilorin for publication, all of which were published with minimal editing. He pasted my articles on the school notice board and made me a “star.”
He awarded me the “Dele Giwa Prize for the Best Pressman of the Year” and for being the winner of the open creative writing competition he organized. He also set up the school magazine and made me its student editor. Above all, he encouraged me to study mass communication and assured me that I had a great future in writing. Incidentally, he is the only former teacher I am still in regular contact with.
Without these teachers—and many others too numerous to mention—I would never be who I am today. I salute them today and forever.