I have always had a knack for lying. It was sometimes about small things, sometimes about big things and sometimes without reason or purpose. It wasn’t that I was malicious or that the situation necessitated a sprinkle of the old fibbing, it was just that I occasionally opened my mouth and a swarm of lies stormed out like angry hornets. I would colour in any event. However, please understand that I felt at the time that my life was terribly boring. Growing up in a military base where all the houses looked eerily similar in style and colour and the only excitement was when someone’s father came home drunk and caused ructions, I had to do something to make my life seem as glamorous as I wished it was.
If my mother sent me to one of the neighbours, or draadmense, fence-people as we called them, for a cup of sugar, on the way back I would have seen a white dog climb up a tree and up the roof, that jumped off the roof and landed on it’s two back legs. I would tell my mother the whole invented event with incredible conviction, starting with “Ma, you wouldn’t believe…”, pausing at all the right places for emphasis. I knew my mother would conclude that it was a witchdog; and spend the next two weeks throwing out whatever food neighbours shared with us and peering through the curtains to figure out who’s practicing witchcraft. They want to bewitch her children because they go to a white school. I guess I loved making up stories to see who would believe me.
When I was in grade R, I was the first person, after my sister, in our family to attend a white school. Most of the children in my neighbourhood went to the same school and could wake up later to go to school. They could go to school together and sit together during break. If one was sick, the other could bring back the homework. None of that was in the cards for us. We had to wake up at five, have my mother plait our hair with patience, prayer and coconut oil, and be out the door by six. When we got to school most mornings, it was still dark. My mother would always say to visitors while serving them coffee or tea, “Sorry, the milk is finished. My children go to a white school”.
I still remember our classroom very well. It was the size of our entire house and looked like something you’d see on TV. It had laminated posters on every wall in every colour on how to brush your teeth, what to do when you sneeze, never walk with strangers. The colourful little tables and chairs looked like large Smarties and I remember thinking, “Wot a lot I got!”. There were hangers on a rail at the side of the class, full of clothes that we could put on if we wanted to be doctors or lawyers, construction workers, house wives with red nail polish on their fingernails. The possibilities were endless. Our teacher would always say “Remember, you can be whatever you like” then turn to me, in what I would now call a condescending, well-meaning pity, and say “whatever you like”.
That was all very great, but my absolute favourite part of school was the playground, and in particular, the playhouse. It was large and yellow and vacant. It didn’t have windows or a door or roof and looked a little unfinished. Despite its rooflessness, the sun was never unkind in there, because next to it was a large green tree throwing its shade into my fortress. None of the other kids ever wanted to play in a house without any furniture, but I was used to adding my own sauce to things. I didn’t mind the emptiness or the solitude. That little blank house was like a canvas for me and my lies. In there, I could make believe all the friends I’d ever wanted. We could be a clique of mean girls who wouldn’t let anyone else play with us. I could be whoever I wanted. It was there, in that little yellow house that I became comfortable in my own head.
One day my imaginary friend, Patricia, had to go to the dentist, something all the white kids seem to do. The loneliness became unbearable in that little house without Patricia’s jokes and understanding, so I sought the companionship of my classmates (I’ve never told Patricia this, she’s terribly jealous). At first it was so intimidating I almost wet myself. They were all comfortable, lazing on the grey rug, clearly socially organized. I was an alien to this whole situation because I never played with them. I had no idea where to sit or what one says to a group of kids you don’t even want to play with in the first place. I glanced around for something or someone to give me a sign. Then, I saw it! The beautiful bookshelf, almost like the one from Beauty and the Beast.
The one I had fantasised about all my life. The one where Belle sings and sings but doesn’t fall off the ladder while gliding from one shelf to the next. I proceeded to the shelf, lovingly stroking the backs of the books the way Belle does and picked one out. It had birds on the cover and the bluest sky I had ever seen till this day, with clouds so white I swore I could eat them with a spoon. I opened the book and with as much conviction as I lied to my mother, started conjuring for my classmates. I told them about Betty Bird who had to pack her things because winter was on its way and little Betty Bird didn’t like the cold. She was sad to leave but happy to go. And imagined all the fun she would have with new friends baking in the glorious sun of her new destination. They were staring at me wide-eyed, glued to my lips as I lied my way through all eight pages.
Everyone wanted to be my friend after that. And that was the day I decided I could read. I would borrow books from class and have my sister read them to me at home. Then I would memorize every single word she read, her pauses, the inflection; and recite the stories to the class the next morning. My teacher was so impressed with me, she paraded me class after class, book in hand and I would read to the bigger classes. It got to the point where I truly believed I could read. But just as it is in every story, in every book, life always has a climax that leads to the falling action.
I think one of the teachers became suspicious. She stared me up and down and for a minute I thought Michael Jackson, “This is it”. It’s over. She walked over to the blackboard and wrote the word “pyramid” on it, the chalk screeching against the surface; and in front of a class full of gigantic, smart and terrifyingly intimidating grade fours, she asked me to read it.
Now just because I could not read, did not mean I was stupid. I stared at the word mocking me on the blackboard and scanned every crevice of my memory. I remembered my colourful story book, an old hand-me-down passed down from my aunt to my sister and then to me. A book that I could also quote from beginning to end, that would make anyone think I was able to read. It had stories of a donkey that wouldn’t get up in the middle of traffic, of a disobedient daughter who didn’t listen to her mother and stories about Jonah in the fish’s tummy and David dancing naked for the Lord.
This wicked old teacher set a trap and although five-year old me could not read to save my life, I remembered the story of the Israelites enslaved by the Egyptians. Moses’ mother placed him in a grass basket and sent him down the river because pharaoh wanted to kill all the baby boys and it turned out that he led his people to freedom. Kind of like a Biblical Mandela, only I don’t think Madiba ever beat anyone to death with a stick. And in my hand-me-down book, at the top right corner, there’s a picture of a pyramid and a fun fact about Egypt.
I remembered thinking of the P which to me looked like a man wearing a hat which then made me think of a pointy hat, which clearly would remind anyone of a pyramid and that’s how I associated the word with its phonetics. I read that word as if I was Beyoncé performing at the Grammy’s. The entire class was cheering, and I truly felt like I could fly.
I went home that day and forced my mother to teach me to read because I never wanted to feel the way I felt that day, confronted by a word that threatened to expose my lies.