“Jennifer. Peter. Fatima…Thomas…Fikre.” One by one, Ms. Iliana, the elementary science teacher, called out our names. One by one, we slowly arose from our seats and nervously shuffled to her desk to collect our recently graded exams. Sloth-like, single file, and heads down, we must have appeared like prisoners on a boat inching our way toward the end of the plank.
Ms. Iliana was a challenging, demanding teacher, and fully dedicated to her craft. She was also a strict, no-nonsense disciplinarian. Like a drill sergeant. When she said class started at 8:00am, it meant to be in your desk, with books open and pens at the ready by 7:55am. If the clock read 4:05pm, and class was actually slated to end at 4:00pm, there was hardly a flicker of movement or an attempt to pack up. No chance. Class ended when Ms. Iliana said so. And it wasn’t enough to simply attend her class; we were expected to sit up straight. And to participate. Chewing gum? Passing paper notes? Whispering jokes behind her back while she wrote on the chalkboard? Fuhgeddaboudit. Unless, that is, you wanted to be assigned to some tedious task during lunch hour, kept after school in detention, or “drafted” into the school’s campus beautification program (i.e. picking up garbage around the playground).
On top of this, Ms. Iliana was a difficult grader. Very, very difficult. In fact, rumour had it that no student had ever received a score above 90 percent on any of Ms. Iliana’s exams – and she had been the school’s science teacher for 16 years.
Thus, it was with a great sense of trepidation that I approached her desk to collect my exam. Thomas, one of the top students in our entire grade, slowly passed by me as he solemnly trudged back to his desk. He was beet-red and I could see his eyes welling up. Fatima and Peter, now slouched in their chairs with similarly disheartened faces, seemed to have hardly fared better. “This can’t be good,” I muttered quietly.
Collecting myself, I extended my hands to receive my exam. My palms were moist and sweaty and my hands shook nervously as I grasped the paper. As I turned around to return to my chair, I made brief eye-contact with Ms. Iliana. She gave me the smallest of smirks before matter-of-factly stating, “Good.”
Good? What was she talking about? I was totally confused. “Is she mocking me?” I wondered. “What type of schadenfreude was this? How could she smile and take pleasure at the misfortune of her students?”
Like a seasoned poker pro keeping the faces of their cards hidden from competitors, I held my exam close to my chest as I glanced down to see my grade. I was taken aback. “Wow,” I said quietly before going over the exam several times to make sure the marks tallied up and to ensure I wasn’t hallucinating. It was like a shopper who had mistakenly been given too much change after paying the cashier. But there was no mistake! As I moved to sit back down, I broke into a wide smile, pumped my fist (like Jordan after sinking that buzzer beater against Utah in Game One of the 1997 NBA Finals), and whispered, “Yes!” I was elated. I received a 99 on my exam.
The rest of the school day seemed to pass by in a blur. I could hardly focus in any of my other classes, since all I could think about was how excited I was to show my mother my exam. Ms. Iliana was a strong believer in family involvement within education and she required that all students get their assignments, tests, and homework signed by their parents. Students usually dreaded the practice, but I was a firm supporter that day.
When I arrived home that evening my mother was still at work, and so my older sister prepared dinner for me and my two brothers. The macaroni and cheese was so delicious that I ate two heaping helpings, and the juice – you know, the frozen juice that only required you to add water – tasted extra sweet. Afterward, we went out for a quick game of footy in the neighborhood lot, before washing up and then heading to bed.
That night, I could not fall asleep. I just lay there staring at the ceiling with the radio playing in the background. I was so excited about my exam and sharing it with my mother. Although I left the exam on the fridge for her to look over, I decided I would stay up to see her, no matter how late she arrived. A single mother of five, my mother worked three jobs and often came home very late at night after a long day or extremely early in the morning after the night shift.
Screeeech. The front door opened as my mother made her way in. It was nearly midnight. Her keys jangled as she tossed them onto the table and I heard her distinct footsteps in the hall near the kitchen. Excitedly, I jumped out of bed and raced down the stairs. My mother was seated, still wearing her nursing uniform, scanning the large stack of mail. Bills. Bills. Ads. Ads. Bills. As I came into the kitchen, she looked up, surprised. “What are you still doing up?” she asked.
“Hey, mama…we had an exam with Ms. Iliana. I need you to sign it,” I explained.
Furrowing her brow, she put down the envelopes in her hand. “Bring it over…and also pass my glasses from the purse.”
She took the exam and then looked at me, before putting on her reading glasses. She slowly navigated her way through the exam, closely reading every question, poring over all of my answers, and analyzing Ms. Iliana’s comments. I simply stood there, wearing my black and yellow, Batman-embroidered pyjamas, with my arms crossed, and a wide grin stretching from ear to ear.
After what seemed like an eternity, she turned over the last page and placed the exam on the table. She took a final glance at the exam before shifting her attention toward me. I just stood there, proud as a peacock and eager to soak up the seemingly imminent plaudits. What transpired, however, shocked me and is something that I will never forget.
“Silomn’tye miti z’koney (why is it not one hundred)?” My mother demanded, pointing at the 99 circled in red ink at the top of the front page.
“Huh? I got 99,” I responded. “She must be confused,” I thought to myself.
“Yes, you did. And why is it not 100?” She repeated.
“Mama! It was the highest grade in the class,” I pleaded, my voice rising slightly.
“And why is it not 100?” She asked again, this time even more assertively.
I just stood there, perplexed and without an answer. After a brief pause, my mother grabbed her pen and signed the exam. Then she turned to me.
“Excellent. I’m proud of you. But I want you to be the best you can be. I don’t care about the scores of the other students. Just yours. Never be satisfied in anything that you do. There is always room for improvement. Okay?”
I nodded in agreement. She then gave me a hug and walked me to my room. Although it would take some time to fully sink in, the lessons I learned that night have been amongst the most important of my life and they have served as important guiding principles in everything that I do.
Aim high, do not settle, and never be satisfied. Today is about being better than you were yesterday, and tomorrow is about being better than you were today. If it is bad, make it good. And if it is good, make it better.