The Peacock Mosaic

Straw Manners


 

My new school friends think my home in Zambia is perilous but there are perils in England that I’d never encountered there.

Today, my teacher is angrier than I have ever seen anyone angry. She looks at me as if I have no place here. She lifts her head and faces the class. Her voice cuts me like a machete: “She pretends she cannot drink through a straw. She is flattening her straw on purpose because she thinks it is clever. She thinks we will find it funny.”

My head droops over the half-pint bottle of milk and Exhibit A – the flattened straw. I can’t see why she would think I find it funny. The only thing funny about it is why anyone would need to drink milk through a paper tube that they call ‘straw’ and that’s not funny ‘ha-ha’ that’s funny ‘peculiar’. It’s the first time I’ve been made to do it and though it looks easy, somehow for me it isn’t. The milk tastes different to begin with and then it has to be sucked up through this idiotic contraption. It seems that everyone else in class can use it to drink through; so clearly it is my fault that every time I try, I flatten another straw. Why can’t I just drink my milk from a cup?

“Since she thinks it is so amusing, she can entertain us all in front of the class.” I feel the teacher pulling at the back of my chair.

In this chilly English schoolroom, my face feels as hot and glowing as the Zambian sun on a mid-summer afternoon, as she pulls me from my chair and drags me to the front of the class.

I stand there trembling, what will come next?

Her eyes are bright with victory. ‘Kneel’, she says.

I kneel.

‘Hands behind your back.’ Her voice is cool now, calm and controlled.

I will not shake, I tell myself as I clasp my hands behind my back. I will not shake and I will not cry. I won’t let her make me do that.

The teacher grabs an empty chair and sets it facing towards me. She fetches another half-pint of milk – and a new straw. She removes the milk top and inserts the straw. She lifts the milk bottle up for the class to see. ‘Let’s see how funny she is now.”

The milk bottle is on the chair in front of me with a brand new straw poking out of the neck.

‘Drink,’ she commands.

I lean forward. I know there is a way to do this. Everybody can do it, without even trying. I have watched them. The whole class is now watching me, every face turned towards me. Teacher looks as if she is almost smiling. I take a deep breath and place my lips carefully over the end of the straw. Nothing happens. I breathe out and make bubbles. Teacher looks at me sharply. ‘Drink!’

Confused, I quickly suck at the straw. Too late, I realise I’ve sucked too hard in my effort to do as I’m told. The straw flattens. The teacher’s face drains of colour. Before I know it, I’m out in the corridor.

At least I’m away from all the accusing faces. The principal will be writing a note to my mother, apparently, to decide on punishment. That is the only bright spot—it’ll take ages to get a reply from N’dola on the Zambian/Congo border. And I’m betting they’ll be disappointed to find that mother has far more pressing matters on her mind than English peculiarities.

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