It was the early afternoon, around 2pm and our driver had just dropped me off at our home in 1004, Lagos. It was 2003; I was turning 7 and slowly taking my tiny feet up the rickety steps of our building when my mother slapped me across the face.
I was just like you at the time. Wondering.
My mouth gaped open and I stared at her until she got fed with my silence and dragged my head down by my ear. “You don’t know what you just did?” she asked. I shifted my head from left and right and then looked up at her. She pursed her lips, put her hand on her hip and then asked, “What did you call Mr. Gabriel?”
I thought about the time that had passed since I got down from the car and placed my foot on the pavement and suddenly dropped my head in recognition. Oops. I whispered a “Sorry” to my uncle for calling him by his name. Of course, that wasn’t what he was. I mean, he wasn’t my uncle…. in the real sense of the word, but I had to call him that as a sign of respect —As I had to call all women that could be my mother, aunty. It was a lesson learnt and never forgotten – buried into my head by that heavy hand on my face.
Years later, I was walking another set of steps. This time into the room where my first college class was taking place. I sat down at the corner of the round table and listened as the professor introduced himself and wrote his name on the board. We all introduced ourselves, one after the other and then my professor, Mr. Hewhoshallnotbenamed, passed out papers – the syllabi and course descriptions. As he stood up from his chair to commence the lecture, I realized I was missing the course syllabus. I called out to my teacher who turned towards me with a wide smile on his face. Within seconds, all my classmates had turned towards me and were either grinning, straight up laughing or seemingly perplexed.
I jutted my lips out and rolled my eyes around confusion. They were still looking at me. I then stretched my arms out and gestured what before my head drooped down in recognition. It dawned on me what I had done. I had called my middle-aged, American, writing teacher Uncle Hewhoshallnotbenamed. I placed my hand on my forehead and with a wide smile on my face, corrected myself. “I mean, Mr. Hewhoshallnotbenamed, can I have a copy of the syllabus please?” He smiled as he passed it over to my classmate who reached over to pass it to me. Then as he directed his chalky hand back at the board, he remarked, “I mean, to be fair, I did say call me whatever makes you feel more comfortable.”