For one moment, let’s ponder a rare greatness.
A greatness wrapped in relative obscurity. The greatness of a man who is arguably Nigeria’s longest serving teacher. The greatness of a man who has taught over 6,000 Nigerian children in an incredible career that has spanned …58 years!
I would never have come to be acquainted with the story of Mr. John Chukwuemeka Nwafor, and eventually, the man himself, if not for one surprisingly serendipitous occasion. One of my telephone conversations with Justice, a friend I had met at the university, for some reason, pivoted from casual banter to his father’s job.
We had never discussed or broached our fathers’ vocations in our half a dozen years of friendship. He even remains in blissful ignorance of my dad’s vocation to this day. But as Justice began to elaborate on his father’s enduring work, I realized that this was one of the richest stories of purposeful living anyone could possibly experience.
This would spur me to request my friend to introduce me to his father. A teacher who has taught a man, taught the man’s children, and is currently teaching the man’s grandchildren. A teacher’s whose unprecedented generational significance is an ironic secret to his own country.
Mr. Nwafor doesn’t give himself airs and graces. He is a self-effacing, reflective, and quiet man. When you encounter him and interact with him, it won’t be long before you perceive that he contains a rich seam of self-fulfillment. And you figure out that the essence of his aura is humility. That the gravitas of his person emanates from the security of knowing that he is a successful man and that the impact of his service to humanity needs no external validation.
Nwafor is hesitant to take credit. He declines to be lionized. He says he was a lucky vessel. He is only grateful to have the gift of life and the good fortune of having discovered his life calling early and the grace to pursue it.
John was a precocious child. He grew up with a clear sense of destiny. He knew what he was made for. He knew he was born to be a teacher. A teacher of children. That formed his dream. He wanted to be nothing else.
So, in the face of a boundless opportunity to study just about anything, including the highly regarded, money spinning courses, he had no difficulty in choosing. He chose one of the least financially rewarding. He chose to become one of those told their reward was in heaven. He chose to train as a teacher.
He qualified in 1957, at the age of 18. But the authorities of the day postponed his deployment to the classroom for one year. The decision to defer his posting had nothing to do with John’s competence. The young man was manifestly equipped, whip-smart, and ready to teach. The recruitment officials held him back because they feared that John’s potential students would hold him contempt. John was below the average student enrollment age. And, he had a physique that made his years obvious.
He wept when he was told he would have to wait.
For some context: In that era, the road to school was the road less taken. One risked reproach to seek formal education. Because the acquisition of literacy skills required no physical exertion, and conferred no instant, visible, material gain, schools were deemed the hiding place of loafers, the refuge of idlers who couldn’t do strenuous farm work.
In that time of limited light, sons inherited the farm of their fathers and strived to excel the riches bequeathed to them by using the same crude hoes their ancestors had used. Success, in those days, was largely a function of the bounty of your barn; which, in turn, was a measure of your strength and manhood. Thus, the boys competed among themselves for who would cultivate the largest land.
Others who desired something other than the torpor of a predictable farming life headed to the township. They migrated to the city to learn a trade, to become apprentice artisans. They became their own masters after years of tutelage under an older merchant or carpenter.
In those days, students were few and teachers were fewer. Students who showed up tended to be past their teenage years. They were mostly adults in their own right.
After the one year delay –eternity in his reckoning!–he was posted to Central School Mgbidi. His first day in the class is one of his happiest memories. He recalls that he could barely contain his joy while he taught. He said he felt the surreal thrill of living a dream.
Almost six decades after his first day as a classroom teacher, that enthusiasm has not waned. It abides still. Making him tenacious, resilient and dogged.
Nwafor says his life is inextricably tied to teaching. Life would end if he ceased to teach. He would not retire. He would quit teaching the morning he doesn’t wake up from his sleep!
When he attained the retirement age and left the public school system, he crossed over to private schools. He taught in many of such schools until 2012 when he founded a nursery and primary school in his village of Ogbaku. He has grown it to become one of the leading schools in his area. He doubles as the school’s head teacher and primary four teacher.
Nwafor teaches like a true professional. He teaches with integrity, vigor, and energy. To observe him engage his students in the class is to witness an animated man who is in awe of the privilege he has to shape the minds that will shape the future.
He has a special love for mathematics. He loves to demystify the subject. Many pupils dread maths so much their minds are almost impermeable to the lessons.
Nwafor has a talent for composing songs. He brings this gift with him to the classroom. With it, he improvises music mnemonics that make maths easy to learn.
His strategy of simplifying maths and recreating it as a game is highly effective. The students conquer their phobia. And the lessons stick.
Scores of years after they have left his orbit, his former students are able to recall the songs that Okafor used to cheapen maths in their eyes.
Nwafor reads as dutifully as ever. His strict study regimen and appetite for new knowledge means that his personal library is stocked with the latest teaching resources. He updates himself as a matter of personal policy and daily habit.
He practices this discipline because he believes that the teacher must never be behind the curve. He believes that the foremost obligation of the teacher is to be a permanent learner. He believes that a teacher is only as good as his ability to impart to his students lessons that represent the full complement of credible knowledge available.
Nwafor started teaching when kids carried wooden slates to school. The times have changed. Children of nowadays come to school with a fair knowledge of smart phones and iPad. He has evolved with the times and adapted himself to its trends. He speaks the language of the kids and the language of the age they live in.
Nwafor is also a sports enthusiast. He oversees physical education in his school. Just like he was the Games Master in all the schools he had served.
In his years of teaching, he has discovered, groomed, and unleashed sports talent that went on to play in the global arena. He taught and coached ex-Nigerian international and PSG defender, Godwin Opara.
Nwafor craves no honor. He is at peace with his station in life. He is satisfied that he has sculpted the beginning of numerous professionals. Professors. Doctors. Engineers. Lawyers. Bussinessmen. Religious leaders.
Nwafor stands as a lighthouse. His example provides direction for a profession at sea. A profession that doesn’t appeal to the young anymore.
He is currently writing The Funeral of The Village Headmaster, a fictional story that depicts the near extinction of the professional teacher in Nigeria.
In today’s Nigeria, teaching, especially teaching in primary and secondary schools, is a veritable curse. It is the last resort of unemployed rejects. It is the contemptible job the graduate grudgingly embraces after years of futile job search have made him frustrated, cynical, and bitter.
The Buhari administration, this weekend, will commence the recruitment of half a million graduate teachers. Majority of the applicants for the positions have no passion for teaching. If a truth serum was administered on them, many would confess that they hate teaching. They just want to secure an employment that would relieve them of the reproach of joblessness and pay their bills.
The Nigeria that inspired Nwafor to dream of becoming a proud teacher has transformed into one that motivates youths to fantasize about becoming an overpaid politician. But it is a testament to the strength of his dream, stamina and honor that he has kept faith with the classroom. He continues to teach with enthusiasm after 58 years.
Emmanuel Uchenna Ugwu
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