During class, I was called to meet someone waiting for me outside the school office. As soon as I saw Tomasi’s uncle, I knew what it was all about. He asked for his pair of sandals back since he was returning to his place of work in Nasigatoka and needed to wear his police uniform with its regulation footwear. I felt so embarrassed and was so tongue-tied that I didn’t even apologise to him. I took one last look backwards in the direction of my classroom to make sure no one was watching, quickly unbuckled the sandals and handed over to him.
For over a half century now, that incident has remained the most embarrassing moment in all my life. In retrospect, however, my embarrassment was essentially self-inflicted and rather exaggerated by my inflated young ego.
It has to be the most embarrassing moment because I can’t think of any other that has taunted my consciousness in the last fifty-four years. In 1964, I was into my fourth year at secondary school. My family was still struggling to make ends meet. I still had to wait for another year before I got my first ever footwear. At home in Nabua, we had other students boarding with us including Tomasi, a relative from Nabouwalu, my mother’s village. His uncle, a policeman in Nasigatoka, was a regular visitor at home. Getting ready to go to school one morning, I saw beside the front door this pair of black sandals which fitted me nicely. Having always wanted nice footwear, I decided to wear it to school that day.
I did feel good and smart at school and I was beginning to experience the sense of comfort that came when all your needs, or most of them, were being met. There was also a sense of camaraderie with the ‘in-crowd’. I had always felt that I was part of the ‘in-crowd’ through being clever but certainly not through my own perceived means or through the means of my parents. In retrospect, such association with privileged classmates in those days, did contribute to my sense of belonging to some extent and a degree of ego-building to boot. However, it soon came to an abrupt halt.
After mid-day, I got the message: a gentleman wanted to see me. It was Tomasi’s uncle wanting his pair of sandals back. I had no choice but to hand over the sandals to him there and then. My feelings at that point were very much mixed and confused. I was deeply embarrassed – embarrassed at what I had done wearing someone else’s footwear without permission and had to return the same in a very public place. In my mind, it was a very public place indeed – in front of the whole school! I only realised later that it was also in front of some of my relatives watching from the comfort of home across the road and who took a lot of delight in taunting me afterwards, increasing my sense of embarrassment and frustration.
Moreover, the fact that the owner of the pair of sandals happened to be a policeman only added an element of comedy to the whole incident. I was humiliated since my newly-found sense of comfort and conformity with fellow classmates was going to be rudely frustrated. But more so that my excitement arising from the pretext of being part of the in-crowd was going to be dented and that I would be fully exposed as a fraud.
The handing over of the sandals took place outside the school library that was only partially visible from my classroom. When I did look cursorily back toward that direction, I could make out the outline of two or three of my classmates sitting alongside the windows. But in my state of humiliation, I had imagined that all my classmates and even some others in the school were witnessing what I was going through and were fully aware of the nature of the transaction between Tomasi’s uncle and myself. I felt and believed at the time that I would remain the butt of their ridicule for years on end.
That thought has stayed with me all these years. In writing this reflection, I was determined to place objectivity over subjectivity. Be clear about the evidence and reach the correct conclusion. The evidence really was that no one at school was even watching me when I handed over the pair of sandals to Tomasi’s uncle. My secret was safe with me. My feeling of embarrassment and humiliation was totally misplaced. I had just imagined all of it. As for my relatives, witnesses to the event, I felt at the time that I was quite able to give back to them whatever taunting they dished out at me.
In reliving my most embarrassing moment in writing this reflection, I can say with great certainty that I have now seen clearly in my inner mind, not the reliving of that embarrassing moment but its long overdue purging. The ghost of the past is now buried and gone!