The blade of the penknife sliced cleanly into my thumb and a thin stream of crimson blood appeared immediately, getting thicker by the second. I dropped the penknife onto my lap and reached for the green hem of my school skirt. I pressed it tightly against my thumb. Only then did I glance up at Sister Giovanna who was standing, as usual, slightly to the right of the black board. I raised my hand and hoped that she would call on me soon.
“Yes?” she looked at a point above my head.
“Please may I go to the bathroom?” I whispered. Of course she heard me; no one spoke in Sister Giovanna’s class unless they had to.
She nodded to the point above my head. I contributed little to the class. I spent every Religion lesson sitting at the back of this second grade classroom in Consolata Primary School with my guide book, The Holy Land, open on my desk and my ears closed to all her polemics.
I slipped out and ran to the bathroom. I held my thumb under the running faucet and watched how the two sides of the neat slit were pushed open by the force of the water. After a few moments, I knew that the wound was bleeding less: the water that was flowing down the drain was more fuchsia than crimson. I ran into the toilet holding my thumb high and pulled of a wad of white toilet paper to fashion a bandage. I washed the basin clean and rubbed my foot over the drops of blood that speckled the floor, leaving no trace of my pain.
Once I was back at home, I showed my mother my cut and earned myself a trip to Dr. Veronica Sacks for an anti-tetanus shot. My entire arm throbbed for two days.
The next day, in the Religion lesson, I paged through my book obediently, the pen knife once again safe in my father’s drawer where it belonged. Occasionally, when the pictures of my traveler’s guide had become monotonous, or when the accompanying text became too convoluted to decipher, my eyes and ears would open to Sister Giovanna’s snapping.
“The Ten Commandments were divided between two stone tablets: three on one side and seven on the other,” she called stridently. Every head in the class nodded. Lest any one in the class think that the asymmetrical division came about because the Lord couldn’t divide, she went on to explain the reason for this division. I knew she was wrong because every Friday evening, when I glanced at the stone tablets above the main entrance to the Nairobi shul, I clearly saw that the Ten Commandments were divided with five on each side. But I was much too afraid of Sister Giovanna to contradict her.
Recalling my mother’s repeated warnings not to listen to this lesson, from my temporary position at the back of the class, my eyes began to wander round the classroom. There next to the empty seat that was my usual place, was Anita, my close friend and a fervent Moslem. In front of her sat Bernard, a half-caste who never told us if he followed the religion of his father or mother. Earl, a quiet Hindu who probably went on to join his father’s thriving business sat next to Bernard. Jeremiah, a true Italian Roman Catholic, Sister Giovanna’s pride and glory, sat in the front row. Andrea, a Protestant Asian friend, was next to him. The rest of the class, twenty-five students in all, was a mixture that followed this pattern.
At this point, the class began to chant their way through the Ten Commandments, pausing momentarily after the third. My arm throbbed in rhythm and my heart beat out the lesson I had learnt: You shall not play with a pen knife in Religion class. You shall look at your traveler’s guide.
In Nairobi in the 1980s, the Consolata Primary School, run by Catholic nuns, offered high academic standards and was therefore a popular schooling option for many families. When my parents enrolled my brother and me they were following a family tradition of sorts: my cousins had also attended the school.
“Gail and Doron were such good students,” Sister Giovanna told me on many occasions.