The Letters Dance



I was blue, due to the news my parents broke to me that morning. It was a family thing, so I should have known it was inevitable. All of my cousins and my nieces grew up away from their parents. They must have been lugged to one aunty or uncle at a particular age, but it never came as late as mine. So I relished the joy of having escaped what I called a curse, until Mum shattered my happiness that morning. My glee broke into irreparable shards and for the first time, words failed me.

“Mum I would study harder.” I cried.

I scooped some of the fabric of her lavender colored gown in my palms, hoping that if I held tightly unto it, I would not follow my suitcase into the car waiting outside. Mum shook her head, as she pried my hands off her dress. Her hand caressed her rotund tummy. I knew a child sat in there –I did not care if it was a younger brother or sister– whom I would not welcome. I had lived as an only child for so long- twelve years really made one believe the finality of it- that I found it hard to accept someone else in our small, cozy family. I had older step-siblings. They however had families of their own, that they need not fight for attention with me.

“Chioma, this is not about your school grades you know?” I was wondering too, what all of these was about. What then is it? My expression questioned.

“You have become too naughty for my stressed nerves. You broke some of the baby things. Do you even know how much it costs to buy flasks, and that flannel you tore into shreds?” I swallowed saliva.

I knew what I did was awful, but I was jealous of the foetus. Everyone seemed to be already raining attention on it, even before it was born. I wondered if they would triple their attention when it was out, or if they would forget about my existence.  For the first time, Mum did not attend Parent Teachers Meeting (PTA). She did not remember my birthday, because it just had to have clashed with her antenatal schedule.

Eventually, someone succeeded in severing me from my Mum. In a flash, I found myself locked in the back seat of a Ford jeep, with a child-restraint fastened unto me. I shrieked, flailed and cussed, until someone who knew I was a chocoholic, slipped an M&M into my mouth. I could not stop myself from sucking the candy and with that, the crying stopped.

Aunt Nike had a kind face and her purple lips were locked in a perpetual smile. Her daughter, Mary-Anne, looked like a copy-and-paste version of her, except that she was always looking sickly. Everyone in my new home treated me like family, including my Mother’s brother, Uncle Eugene.

It would be fine, I reminded myself every time I missed home and the tears threatened to fall.

I settled into Mary-Anne’s room. Her queen-sized bed was big enough to house both of us. We were comfortable, since for a child my age I was relatively small and being five years younger, she was even smaller. She was quite a nice girl, but just from the way her eyes shone, you could see that she was special.

When the summer holidays were over, Auntie decided to enroll me in school. I passed the required test, and was admitted into Junior Secondary School Two (JSS2). After she had settled the bills and ordered stationery for me, the director of academics still kept us seated in her office.

“This is about Mary-Anne.” Her face turned solemn.

“What about her?” I was sure I saw Auntie Nike’s ears perk up.

“She’s had as woeful a result as ever last term. Her teachers are fed up, but nothing seems to stick into her thick head. Have a look at her assessment sheet.” She handed over a report. My eyes widened at the outrageous scores imprinted in the report. She had 10 out of a 100 marks in Mathematics, even less in English and the rest, but a thick 98 sat in the column for creative arts.

“I do not know what to do with her anymore. I have employed a tutor who’d tend to her after school, hoping it would work. It seems like it yielded nothing.” Auntie Nike was crying. She looked miserable at the moment, with her make-up smudged, and her shoulders slumped. I tried to comfort her within my ability.

When we got back to the house, I heard her yell at Mary-Anne. I could not blame her, for I was also disappointed. I thought the child was indolent. When I returned to the room however, I saw the kid sprawled on the bed with a book in her hand. She was trying to study, even as her body trembled. She was crying. When she noticed me, she tried to wipe away her tears, but I had seen her already.

“Why do you not study? Do you do it to spook your teachers, because if so, then it is not at all funny.” She stared at me through lachrymose eyes.

“Do you think I am bad too?” Her small voice questioned.

“All of you do not understand. I want to read and write. I want to become a Wole Soyinka, Ben Carson or Bill Gates like the rest. I don’t like to fail too.” The tears strolled down her jaws. Phlegm spluttered from her nostrils.

“Then what is wrong with you? Do you not like school?” I was not impressed with her explanation.

“You would not understand.” She said.

“Just spill it.” I told her sternly.

Then in a whisper, as if it was a secret of hers, she stated. “The letters dance. When Mrs. Math writes the numbers, they wriggle off like they do not want me to understand. The sixes and the nines look almost the same, and alphabet ‘S’ and ‘3’ disturb me too. Many of the numbers and alphabets do not want me to know them.” I laughed so hard, that tears descended. The child was funny. Who calls her teacher Mrs. Math, and who makes up a fallacy about letters dancing? She was incredulous!

“You don’t believe me, do you?” I shook my head, at her foolishness.

“You’d better come down for dinner. We’re all waiting on you.” She stood up reluctantly, and headed downstairs with me in tow. I forgot about what she had said, and we lived on like that day never happened. Her scores however, continued to dwindle.

Some weeks later, I was sitting in the school’s auditorium listening as the guest-lecturer’s voice boomed out of the speaker.

“10 to 15 percent of all children have a reading disability. Learning disabilities are not caused by motor handicaps, physical impairments, a low mental ability, or emotional disturbances. It is presumed to have been caused by a neurological difficulty.” She paused to catch a breath.

“This doesn’t mean that the affected children have lesser mental capacity than the others. Most times, the children in question have an intelligence quotient (IQ) of average, and above average.” She saw how awed we were, and she smiled. I saw one of our teachers wrinkle her mouth.

“Is she trying to encourage these lazy children to continue on?” The woman my cousin called Mrs. Math whispered, to an adjacent teacher. Like me, they didn’t believe her.

“You are surprised, aren’t you? But believe it or not, they are geniuses.” Then she began illustrating with a projector, on the huge white board.

“In America, students who are not mastering reading skills may be referred to either a remedial-reading or a learning-disabilities specialist, both of whom employ a similar procedure. Referred students are given a series of diagnostic tests to determine how their strengths can be enhanced and their weaknesses overcome.” She skipped through her laptop, and adjusted the wired microphone, whose end jutted near her mouth.

“But here in Nigeria, such practices are not embraced. Some of these children, who suffer from dyslexia and other such learning disabilities, are labeled as ‘Olódo’. Yes, there are children who have a very bad attitude towards learning, but it is not always so. Most times, the problem is left undiagnosed. Teachers stick to canes, parents stick to yelling and the students continue to suffer. Their self-esteem is on its way to dust.” She adjusted her glasses, and tipped it to the bridge of her nose.

“Children suffering from dyslexia may see letters backwards or in a reverse order, but other children are as prone to this as they are. You say as easy as ‘ABC’, but that is exactly the problem for them. Also, they find it hard to distinguish sounds and phonemes that make up speech. To pronounce bag, you know that ‘B’ sounds like ‘bo’, and ‘A’ is ‘ah’, which makes it easy for you to pronounce the letters together. For them, the problem lies therein.”

“If they receive specialized instructions early, reading can be as easy for them as it is for you. Before I proceed, I would love to entertain your questions.” The lecturer’s words had touched a nerve in me. I compared my cousin’s situation with that of a victim of dyslexia, and they seemed to tally. I was shocked, and so I found myself raising my hands with the rest of the questionnaire souls. When it was my turn, I stood up unsteadily.

“Ma’am, can letters dance?” Everyone turned to stare at me. They must think I am foolish, but the woman smiled at me, and replied.

“No, letters don’t dance.” I felt disappointed. “But someone who finds it hard to understand them would think they do. That is exactly what a patient suffering from dyslexia could tell you. Who told you that?” she asked, wearing a soft, motherly expression.

“My sister told me that. I just didn’t understand why she had such poor grades. On grandma’s birthday she sat at the grand piano, and played Mozart’s piano concert No. 9. She did it so effortlessly that it was shocking. She draws and paints. I look at her paintings sometimes and vow that it is comparable to Winslow homer’s art.” I was crying, because I thought I had failed her. Even my heart had accepted the sweet girl as my sister.

“You don’t have to feel despair. Your sister can very well be helped. Have you watched the bollywood movie, like stars on earth?” I shook my head lightly, in response.

“The hero of that movie, Ishaan got through it. Your sister would too.” I nodded my head, as I blew my nose into a kerchief. When I looked around, I saw enlightenment spreading over everyone’s faces, including Mrs. Math’s.

During the weeks that followed, a learning-disability specialist was invited to the school. Indeed, more than twenty pupils and students were diagnosed of a learning disability. Remedial trainings began in earnest, with the support of both the school and the parents. Auntie and Uncle were not keen on the idea. They did not come to terms with things, until when the trainings began to yield results.

“Praise the lord!” Auntie muttered, as we stood side-by-side, by the railings. We were observing, as Mary-Anne scribbled letters and figures in the sand outside, this time not upside down. The letters did not dance anymore.

“Spell Mummy,” we heard the nice instructor say, and when she started with ‘M’ and then the ‘U’ came afterwards, I was sure she would make it.

“Congratulations!” Uncle screamed, as he entered the living room. “Sister gave birth to twins.” He grinned.

“Wow, really?” Auntie was smiling too. My eyes lit up.

Having been a big sister to Mary-Anne, having two younger ones did not seem so distasteful any longer.





Mahmoodah Temitope Oyeleye, age sixteen, lives in Nigeria. Her poetry and prose have been published in Kalahari Review, Atherton Review, Honeyfire Literary Magazine and Microfiction Monday.