Having a lisp is a problem. Every time you speak people laugh at you. They don’t seem to care that it hurts your feelings. I mean, what can you do when – despite your best effort - you are just not able to say that ‘ess’ sound? My name is Letsema and I have a lisp. There are these kids at school who like to draw attention to my lisp by engaging me in meaningless conversation. They will taunt me until I relent if I choose to ignore them. So, I decided to become a comedian. If I am also laughing at myself, then the hurt will be negated. I pour over material on youtube to find jokes that have not become popular yet and I modify them a little so as not to plagiarise them.
Let's face it; I am bound to be a sensation because my lisp is guaranteed to have people laughing even if my jokes are not funny. But – of course – I am a stickler for perfection and that means I must always be at the top of my game.
I go to this multiracial high school located in a suburb I don’t even live in. I have to catch two taxis and then walk from where the taxi lets me off to get to the school. I am doing grade 8 this year. I decided to do this comedy thing when I was about to start high school because I wanted to make my high school experience unique and memorable. I could sooner forget about my formative years in primary.
I call myself ‘The coup’, which is a play on my name, like the ‘coup d’etat’. That’s what everyone is calling me now - The coup.
“Hey ‘The coup’, wait up man!” That’s one of my friends. This new lease on my life has started off really well. I made friends on my first day of school.
“Thure man, whathup?” I respond as he catches up with me and matches his stride to mine.
“Did you do the math homework?” he asks in an anxious voice…
“Of courthe!” I beam, “I don’t exactly have the luxury of being the clath clown without the obligation to keep up my gradeth to keep teacherth off my back.” I add, slapping him on the shoulder.
“Can you borrow me your book?” he predictably asks me. The price of keeping such friends can be steep sometimes.
“Thure man, what are friendth for?” I give my reluctant acquiescence.
“Thanks man!” he says, sounding relieved. As if he was expecting me to say no. I wonder if I have that kind of power.
I am walking very fast because I am slightly late this morning and he is struggling to keep up with me because he had been running after me for a while without catching up. I can see the prefect at the gate, shooing the late comers in and the other prefect stamping their school diaries. That means detention. Darn it! I don’t like citations on my diary or school records, but today they seem unavoidable.
“Slow down man, I can barely keep up!” complains my friend.
“I can’t man, you know what being late meanth.” I say, even though I know that my hurry will not save me from this detention. I am hoping to tell the prefects a joke or two and distract them from their task.
“It’s not like you are going to avoid it now.” My friend states the obvious. Sometimes I hate Moremi. He has these annoying tendencies to say obvious things as though he does not realise that they are.
“Detention is not that bad. Think of it as way to gain a diverse audience, a bunch of misfits unlike yourself.” He cajoles me. Moremi is a regular at detention and even the principal’s office. It’s like the boy has no fear.
Thinking about the principal makes me tremble. I don’t even want to think about his office. We are the last students the prefect lets in and as I watch the other kids grab on to the mesh fence that surrounds the school, I see an opportunity to avoid detention.
I signal some of the kids to attempt jumping the fence and they start to climb like monkeys up that fence. The prefect giving detention stamps sees the other prefect struggling to stop the kids that are climbing the fence on either side of the gate and he waves us away without stamping us. Already four kids have jumped in and are racing as fast as they can towards the assembly area. We also race to assembly in case he changes his mind. Just before I disappear around the A block, I see the two prefects making darting moves, not sure whether to discourage the other climbers or give chase to the increasing number that has succeeded in scaling the fence. I hear him sounding the whistle and I realise that in his panic he must have forgotten that he has a whistle.
“Thew, that wath clothe!” I whisper to Moremi as we stealthily make our way to the Grade 8 line. He smiles but says nothing. I wonder if he saw what I did.
After assembly we make our way to our register class. The school has about ten blocks with three levels on each block. Our register class is on the D block, up one flight of stairs to the first level. It is the third class to the right of the stairs. As the teacher is calling out the register, I get new material popping into my head and I jot them down on the back of my school diary. Because I am distracted, I do not hear the teacher call out my name. My attention is arrested by an elbow to my left ribs from Moremi.
“Prethent!” I say and everyone laughs. I am confused so I look at Moremi questioningly. He whispers that Mrs Inglewood wanted me to share what I was writing in my diary while she was reading the register. Thank goodness for brown skin, blood can rush to my face undetected.
“It wath really nothing interethting Ma’am. I was jutht noting down a reminder before I forgot about it.” I say while cowering behind Moremi.
The thing about our register teacher is that she does not like to be ignored as much as she does not like smart mouths. I hope that she will not think that I am being a smart mouth.
“Bring your diary to the front, please?” she asks in a tone that brooks no argument. Everyone is quiet now, watching me expectantly. I guess she thinks I was sassing her.
“Since you are reluctant to share this reminder with the class, I will do it for you.” She barks at me as I slowly make my way to the front of the class.
“Come on,” she encourages me “I don’t have all day!” She sounds like she is losing her patience and I don’t want to be sent to the principal so I scamper to the front and hand her Moremi’s diary. She leafs through it and does not find anything of interest except for the many detention stamps Moremi has already collected this early in the school year. I am crossing my fingers that she does not figure out that it is not my diary. With frustration, she flings the diary at me and asks me to show her the page I was writing on.
“I don’t remember the page Ma’am. I can try to look for it.” I feign an offer. She gives me a murderous look and waves me away.
“Okay class!” she says as I make my way back to my desk, “If any of you have similar tricks up your sleeve, I will make an example of you!” she warns and there is murmuring.
I give Moremi back his diary and we share a conspiratorial smile. “That wath clothe…, again!” I whisper.
The first class I go to is English while Moremi goes to Life Orientation. The math class is the third period so I give him my math exercise to find time to copy the homework while attending his first two periods.
The English teacher, after ushering us into her class single file, springs an unprepared speech on us. I mean, what does she hope to do besides cackling the entire period? Sometimes I think that the unprepared speech is a go to when a teacher has forgotten to prepare a lesson for that period. This is my time to shine. I open my diary and check out the jokes I wrote there to see how I can work them into my speech. One of the topics to choose from is travelling to countries where English is not spoken. I make sure that whatever I say has as many esses as possible as that takes the focus away from the content of my speech and rests it on each member of my audience, waiting to spot my next lisp incident. My turn comes and I walk with confidence to the front of the class. I stand about two meters away from the teacher’s desk. I clear my throat and begin my speech.
Within seconds of starting, I have them mesmerised by my uncanny ability to replace every ‘ess’sound with a ‘th’ sound and guffawing at my jokes. The bell rings, signalling the end of the period before I finish and the deafening sound of chairs and desks scraping the floor is heard as students get up and make to leave the class as fast as they can, some breathing a sigh of relief at being literally saved by the bell. The teacher shouts at us that those who have not had a turn will have a new list of topics to choose from on the next period and there are groans all around. I run to my desk and carelessly shove my English books into my school bag and I am the last one out the door. The next period is Natural Sciences. It’s one of those subjects that I hate and I cannot wait to reach the tenth grade and drop it. This class passes without much incident, just a lot of copying of notes off a transparency. Homework gets corrected and more homework gets dished out. It is always the same old boring delivery to the lesson. When the bell rings, I make my way to block A for the Math class. I will meet Moremi there and he will give me my book back.
“Alright class, please swop your exercise book with your neighbour and let’s mark your homework.” The math teacher instructs. We go through the solutions, with him writing them out on the chalkboard and us marking our swop mate’s answers against his. I get all of them right and Moremi only manages to get two right. I am amazed for the umpteenth time by my friend’s inability to cheat successfully. I like it because it removes any suspicion that might have been cast upon us if he had gotten point for point what I got. Moremi is three years older than me and is repeating the grade. I attend with him the most difficult subjects, Math and Physics. He battles with both. I am not sure how he does with the other subjects but I imagine that it is probably the same. He does Geography while I do Computer Science. We have other subject in common, because in grade 8 you are forced to do up to ten subjects, but we don’t attend them together. We have one more period before we break for lunch.
At lunch time Moremi and I are having our lunch peacefully when the prefect from this morning walks up to us.
"You boys think you scored one today neh?" As he is talking, my heart is pounding because I never thought that he would remember us. Now I'm wondering if he saw what I did and his words give me no peace at all.
"I'm watching you very closely. One wrong move and your asses are mine chanas!" he warns us.
We don't dare talk back. He turns to leave and just as I'm about to whisper something to Moremi, he turns back and retraces the few strides he had already taken.
"I know a way you boys can make it up to me." he says with an evil expression on his face. "Tell me some really funny jokes. I heard that one of yous fancies hisself a comedian... and boys, I don't laugh very easily." he finishes off, shaking his head in the process.
We remain silent like ghosts. The rugby field is littered with clusters of boys in small groups, clowning around while eating their lunch. I can hear some of them laughing boisterously and I wish I could swop places with them. The school perimeter fence is a lifetime from the bleachers where we are standing. This guy is huge, like a rugby player. Being white, he probably does play rugby. He has the meanest looking green eyes. They remind me of a snake. There's a small scar that cuts across the side of his bottom lip. His teeth are yellowed and one of his big front ones on the top is chipped. His mean mug makes me think that is the reason they put him on detention duty. I want to object to his request but I am afraid of the repercussions. When I am nervous, my lisp gets worse and I also stutter. Moremi keeps looking at me. The burly boy starts to show signs of impatience and so I plunge in to save my neck.
"O-okay." I start, the stuttering making it hard even just for that one word to come out. "M-mm my jjj-j-joketh are-" he bursts into this high pitched laughter and interrupts my already interrupted speech and I can guess the reason for it. Moremi steps in with premature triumphalism in his declaration "There, we've made you laugh!" and I instinctively know that this hulk of a boy-man will not be impressed by his juvenile move.
I could almost have slapped the mouth that made that silly remark. I bend down to put my lunch tin to the side and raise my hands in a gesture of peace to stop the angry fist that was forming at the end of his monkey like arms, preparing to launch its trajectory towards Moremi's left jaw. You might think we were sitting down but everyone knows that boys eat standing up. We do this because with boys things are unpredictable. You have to be ready to fight or run should things turn ugly.
"L-lithen th-thir. Th-that wath-th-th a b-bad joke!"
His aggressive stance slackens somewhat and his mouth twists a little as he says "You called me 'sir'. I like it. From now on I'm sir to the both of yous...." he pauses and then continues through giggles "... you speak funny." Suddenly his mood changes and he snarls "I'm still waiting for those jokes yous clowns!" he exclaims.
I want to ask him why he speaks like that. He is a senior after all and when he first spoke to us, he spoke properly.
"Ath-th I w-wath thay-ying, m-my jjj-joketh are o-old. C-can y-you g-give me th-three m-month t-to c-come up w-with n-n-n-new mat-ter-rial th-that w-will b-blow y-your thockth o-off?" I say with false bravado. I am not expecting him to agree to it. I watch him thinking it over. Furrowing and unfurrowing his brow.
Eventually he makes up his mind and says, "Three months is a long time to wait. I'll give you a week!" and then he feigns attacking Moremi, to which we both cower away from. And then he saunters off; seemingly pleased with "hisself". We watch him until he disappears behind the C block before we speak, in case he pulls his earlier move and catches us ‘skinnering’ about him.
"You know this is your fault!" Moremi hurtles an accusation at me. "Had you not pulled that stunt at the gate with those wooses, we would have got our detention stamps and been done with this whole thing. Now we have a bully on our backs!"
Moremi likes to act tough and hates it when someone exposes his true nature. I imagine he must have peed his pants a little at the thought of that primate fist colliding with his jaw. Being a pretty boy, he does not like his looks being threatened. I have angular features while his are more rounded around the edges. He is yellow hued and I am light brown. He is tall while I am borderline short. I am scrawny while he looks like a well fed soccer player. I want to retaliate but he is still someone who could make my life hell if I get on his wrong side.
"Look dude, I have a week to come up with joketh to make that guy laugh and I don't think my lithp will help." I almost deliver that free of impediments. Avoiding words with esses is something I practice but it only works when I'm calm. Moremi just shrugs his shoulders. Clearly he sees this as my problem alone. I decide not to press the issue.
The rest of the day goes by in a blur. I am distracted by my impending doom. A week is not enough to come up with new material.