Life in America: Ring around the roses

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

First published 2002

It is Sunday morning in America. My wife is going to work all day and all night, she is the major breadwinner of the family. I am determined to see her before she leaves, maybe share a cup of coffee with her, and if I am lucky a conversation that is not interrupted by the wants of our children. I make it downstairs just as she is flying out the door cursing the gods of our forefathers for not waking her up in time for work. She is late, she will call me on her cell phone, no she won’t, she doesn’t want to wake up the kids. We’ll talk tomorrow she says. I stand by the door and wave her good bye as dawn licks the sleep off my weary face. America is hard.

My children are still sleeping, exhausted from harassing me all day yesterday. The Christians must be right, there must be a God. Perhaps, it is time for me to re-evaluate my life as an agnostic. It is too early to call my friend. He never sleeps but his family does and I don’t want to incur their wrath. But it sure would be nice to just talk with him about my latest ideas for saving the world. Well, maybe later. The sight of my new laptop interrupts my peace of mind. It is a thing of beauty; it has everything in it that money can buy. The people I write for occasionally decided that the cure for what appears to me to be writer’s block, is a new laptop. So they declared my old laptop too ancient for me. I thought it was still good – a 15-inch monitor 300 Mhz machine, loaded with 192 MB of RAM, 10 gigs hard drive, a DVD ROM, a zip drive, and enough software to write a prize-winning novel. So, the other day, the MIS folks came and took that away, because it was now too obsolete for whatever skills I posted on my resume. In its place, they gave me this awesome 850 Mhz behemoth chock full of everything that is out there that has been invented for the laptop. America is hard.

My two toddler boys are up and I must suspend my thoughts. They are exactly one year apart and the Americans call them Irish twins, I don’t know what that means. Let me clean them up and give them breakfast. I may be back… America is hard.

Ring around the roses,
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down!

The cows are in the meadow,
Lying fast asleep.
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down.

The cows are in the meadow,
Lying fast asleep.
Ashes! Ashes!
We all get up again.

My seven year old daughter is up and has the two boys linked in a circle and they are chanting the nursery rhyme, “Ring Around the Roses!” and falling down in a dizzy heap after every stanza. My gratitude to my daughter for distracting the boys while I make breakfast is muted by my rueful self-admission that I have failed so far to teach them African nursery rhymes. I must find a book of African nursery rhymes. Or maybe write one myself. Who knows the lyrics of Boju Boju? I wonder if anyone knows of any book of Nigerian nursery rhymes. America is hard.

We have two daughters. They are of school age and they enjoy taking the bus to school. They don’t know it, but I enjoy walking them to the bus stop and watching them board the bus to school. Thanks to my work schedule (I telecommute), the opportunities to walk my daughters to the bus stop are plentiful. Whenever I announce my intention to walk them to the bus stop, they get frisky, squeal with unadulterated delight and they are as joyous as Nigerian puppies offered ice cream, apologies to Peter Pan Enahoro. I wonder, where can I get a copy of his hilarious pamphlet, How To Be A Nigerian?

For a kid born and raised in Nigeria, the coming of the school bus, as I call it, is a miracle. Every school day morning, at exactly 8:25 a.m., the bus ambles to a stop at our neighborhood. The kids have already formed a long line, at the head of which is the bus patrol, a little kid who acts like the school bus prefect, ensuring discipline among his or her peers. The kid wears a brightly colored sash, plumage of the peacock, and it is unmistakable who is in charge. The bus lights are on, cars are stopped on either side, until the bus moves, and there must be no movement on either lane. The penalties for infraction are too painful to contemplate. This ritual is repeated all over our local government by more than one thousand school buses. As parents, we take this ritual for granted. We don’t stop to thank the bus operator for being on time every day. However, let the bus be late five minutes, and parents become placard carrying pro-democracy activists. They call the local Board of Education Office and threaten fire and brimstone on the elected Board members for allowing such an injustice against little children. Apologetic staffers scurry around offering apologies, crafting carefully worded memos that essentially promise an improvement in services. The under-performing bus operator is hauled to class to participate in the continuous improvement program of the day. It is simply amazing.

As a first-generation immigrant, whenever I witness this drama, I alternate between amusement, and amazement. The other day, my little girl’s friend claimed that as she was going to the bus stop all by herself (gasp! What horrid parents, to allow a seven year old walk 100 yards to the bus stop ;-)) she was accosted by a strange man as she dashed through the woods to the bus stop. Man, the ensuing fracas was a major performance. The school system held a press conference denouncing this strange man (who was never caught). The girl’s divorced parents united albeit briefly to denounce the school system and the police and everybody else for what happened to this little girl. And the police, not to be outdone, held a press conference to denounce itself and the strange pervert who almost abducted this sweet little girl. For about a week, there was a police cruiser at our bus stop to ensure that no sweet little girl would ever be irritated by a strange pervert posing as a man.

My children have no idea HOW lucky they are. They are cursed or blessed by a life of perpetual prosperity. They don’t understand real want, they’ll never understand the pain of not having and the joy of really getting what you really want. The other day, my little girl came running into the house from school, really upset. “Daddy! Daddy!” she shrieked, “The bus ride was bumpy!” Man, I really would have loved a bumpy bus ride to my primary school, FIVE miles from what passed as my home.

The divide between my adopted local government in the US and ALL of my country Nigeria is beyond a sad joke. The annual operating budget of this local government’s public school system is 1.3 billion US dollars. The cost per pupil for a regular education is almost $9,000. The cost per pupil for special education (developmentally disabled) children is about $17,000. My daughters have access to things I would never have dreamed of as a boy growing up in Nigeria. Sometimes I wonder if this is not unnecessary icing on the cake. They have teachers, school psychologists, and all sorts of counselors. Pray, what is a psychologist doing around a six year old? You should see the school’s library. It is really not called a library, it is a media center, chock full of the very latest in instructional computer technology. It just seems that Apple and IBM are in competition at these schools over who cares more for our children. So my children have everything that I did not have growing up. America is hard.

In America, it appears that power and resources bubble up from the local government up to the central level. That in my opinion is what a true federation should be. It took the genius of the perpetually troubled Bill Clinton and the vacuity of the perpetually clueless George Bush to convince us in America of the near irrelevance to our lives of the American presidency. The war over the annoying Gore and the blank Bush was really fought over the supremacy of two ideologies each of which some note, with biting cynicism, claim a difference without a distinction. We woke up one morning and realized that our energies were better spent at the local level trying to effect change for our children and us. The money is in our village. The advocates of a Sovereign National Conference in Nigeria (SNC) are right on the money. We must restructure Nigeria in the interest of our children.

I am not saying that just having gobs of US dollars is the panacea for whatever ails our society. Problems abound in America and throwing money at the problems appears to simply exacerbate a bad situation, like the war on drugs. Take my children for instance. As African Americans they have been identified early as at-risk children, least likely to succeed in America. There are all sorts of studies out there (outside the profoundly silly Bell Curve) that indicate that there is a persistent academic gap between African American children of all socioeconomic backgrounds and white children. This gap persists despite all the resources that my children are exposed to every day. It seems that excess is not enough in America. But then I wonder, would my children be better off in the Nigeria that I grew up in?

I am convinced that they would be worse off in today’s Nigeria. I am really thinking of the Nigeria of the sixties, the seventies and the early eighties. I don’t know. I am stuck in time; of a halcyon period that holds some really pleasant boyhood memories. My children will never know the thrill of going to BATA to try out new shoes. They seem to get new shoes every month! They will never know the thrill of sitting down at Christmas in true anticipation of a once a year bounty of lots of rice and lots of meat. They will never know the pleasures of traveling through books to far away places like New York, London, and Paris. They have been to those places already. Where do they get their joy from, I always wonder as I watch them from the corner of my eyes. I am convinced that these children derive their joy from things and events that are alien to me. I have seen them at the beaches squealing with what has to be pure delight as the waves kick their little butts. What kind of fun is that? I have seen them at the pool chase the ice cream truck with my wallet and marveled at the pleasure in their faces as they emptied my wallet into the wallet of the ice cream man in return for soggy ice cream sandwiches. Well whatever turns them on, to each his or her own…

So you can see that there is a lot on my mind this morning. There are several stories in my head and my editor expects them out of my head and into this new laptop. Seeing how disoriented I am this morning, I wonder how Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka wrote their classics without a computer and definitely without the Internet. Excess retards progress. America is hard.

So, you, my friend in Nigeria, think about my children here in America and I shall think about your children in Nigeria. If we think about what we need to do to help all our children, perhaps, we can save both nations, America and Nigeria. I shall be back. I have a lot to talk to you about. Maybe my writer’s block is wearing off. Maybe. My boy wants me to pick him up and pirouette around the living room. That is his favorite treat. Hold on, with luck he might go to sleep… America is hard.