Because all references to sex in Shona were vulgar, schools would ask their foreign aid workers to teach about AIDS. You’re doing God’s work, my friends back home used to write—but if only they could have seen me standing in front of my students, switching back and forth between broken Shona and broken promises, calls for restraint and overripe bananas that would split and ooze when I tried to force them into condoms.
For major infractions—like cheating or stealing—Mai Mavhundutsie would make students peel the bark off the branches in front of her. She’d examine each stick silently then switch boys on their hands, girls on their inner thighs. It was always the return to normalcy that struck me the most—the way students would walk so calmly from her desk to mine to ask me a question about commas.
As a running joke, Edwin would interrupt me at the start of every class, walk to the front of the room, flip the broken switch and say, there, sir, that’s better. When the new headmaster told students that he’d be implementing some changes, Edwin asked if he could start by changing the light bulbs. He received three switches for that one—the one fixture he could rely on.
Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, is recently out from Able Muse Press. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches in the Boston area, where he lives with his wife and daughters.