My first two morning classes were with 2E. This was an experimental class. They were at a second year level, but had one less year of schooling. The hope was that if the experiment worked, education could be cut to eleven years, which would enable the Empire to produce more students, quicker. There were twenty-two boys in the class and two girls and they were all bright kids, ranging in age from 15 to 23.
The classroom was on the ground floor; it faced the courtyard and when I sat at the teacher’s desk with the door it open, I could see the Haile Selassie bust, the open front gate, and the rush of traffic on Smuts Street.
And this is what happened that morning in early October in 1962.
The students stood when I walked in and said Tenyais tillin. I answered the same, they asked Indeminadderu? (How did you spend the night?) to which I reply, Dehna. (Good, or very well). The class monitor, Abebe Kebede Muleta, had placed the yellow attendance card on my desk, and I counted the heads and signed it.
The classroom was well equipped with desks and black boards and plenty of chalk. There were windows that looked out onto the back of the school compound, and there was a tennis court and a small football field. Compared to other schools, the Commercial School was a gem, and I had gotten a gem of an assignment as a Peace Corps Volunteer teacher.
The school’s greatest asset was its Ethiopian Headmaster, Ato Seifu Fellika, who several years after we left the country would be honored by the Emperor as one of country outstanding leaders. Ato Seifu was so good that even us young, inexperienced, know-it-all PCVs, realized very quickly how good this guy was at managing these students, at managing his faculty, at managing PCVs like the half dozen of us who taught at the Commercial School.
Of course, I was new to Ethiopia at the time, and all of this ‘wisdom’ would come years later, after I left the Empire, but on that warm morning in early October, I was about to start class. But first I had to return the students’ composition books. I moved up and down the aisles, handing out the small booklets to Ababayehu Asfaw, Konjit Wolde-Rufael, Asegedech Bzuneh, Emebet Awoke Gulech, and the rest of the students.
I was standing in the middle of the last row of the classroom, closest to the windows that looked out onto the empty tennis court when we heard what we use to call a ruckus in the compound courtyard. We heard shouts and yells, and the screams of several young girls. I glanced across the room and there in the middle of the doorway, filling the entrance with his size and bulk and wild garb was the mad man I had seen earlier that morning. He was still clutching his long spear and sword, and as I looked over he jumped into the room as if out of a tree or from another century and crouched down as I had seen him do earlier, battling the cars at the intersection outside our house on Churchill Road. Appearing immediately behind him was the school guard, a fragile and hopeless little man, sent to deal with this bizarre and dangerous situation.
I raised my hand to stop the guard who I saw had as his weapon a short wooden club, a crude looking shillelagh. He looked terrified at the possibility that he would have to battle this Rastafarian in his wild rags and leather skins.
I stepped a few feet closer to the front, and as always in situations like this, time slowed and every second had a life of its own. I was aware of the silence around me, of the students sitting frozen in their seats, of the enormous size and bulk of this man who was now standing beside my desk as if he was the teacher in charge, and I realized, too, that this situation was my responsibility and somehow I had to deal with him in my classroom. And I had no idea of what to do.