She doesn't need of all of both hands to count to her age. With only part of one hand she can let you know she is in grade 4. This is the first year she has had classes in the main school building, which means this year is the first year she gets buffeted by the bigger, louder, and more savvy students at Ricks Institute.
Today, however, Rhianna Musa stepped onto the biggest stage any nine-year old could imagine, short of discovering super powers and saving the planet.
It is exam week at Ricks Institute, the last days of the first semester. With characteristic gravity, Principal Olu Q. Menjay has been warning the students this week: “The last days are dangerous days,” he says. “You must be careful; these are dangerous days.”
The danger has nothing to with “the end times” associated with the lore of popular Christian science fiction. These last days at Ricks are fraught with the threat of failing an exam, or a grade, or getting expelled for “spying,” the by-word at Ricks for cheating.
All week Menjay has been warning the older students to review their lessons. “We are behind in Liberia,” he says. “If a ninth-grader can do grade 7 work, fine. But we have to catch up.” Today he put it to the test and set the stage for Rhianna Musa, grade 4, nine-years old.
Out-of-the-blue, the Menjay Way, in the middle of something else, he asked, “Who knows the ‘times tables’?” A number of fourth-graders shot their skinny arms in the air in the way that fourth-graders around the world must. Randomly, Menjay called a girl to the front of the auditorium to face more than 600 students.
Then Menjay saw a drowsy student in one of the upper grades: “Hey!” he said, pointing, “you sleeping?” Soon, the offending lad was on his feet, squared off in a times table competition—with a fourth-grade girl half his size.
“Times five,” Menjay said. The lad began barely in a whisper. “Speak up! They need to hear you in the back!” As Menjay slowly walked toward the back of the hall, the boy faltered, “Five times seven equals forty.”
The auditorium erupted in nervous glee because more than 600 students had been spared, they thought, the very public oral exam.
Menjay turned to the waif: “Times five,” he said.
Rhianna Musa stood up straight, spoke in a loud voice—suitable for out-of-doors—and rattled off the “fives” from one to twelve.
Menjay called up another upper-class student. “Times six,” he ordered, and slowly walked away. (I turned my attention to Rhianna and noticed her softly doing the “sixes” in her own way, warming up in case the bigger, now quieter, student stumbled.) And, he did: “Six times three equals twenty-four.” The hall howled. Menjay pointed to Rhianna and she executed the “sixes” in the same strong voice and rhythm as she had completed the “fives.”
She showed no pride or excitement, but she did gently cross herself (yes, there are Liberian Catholics).
The game was on! Seventh-graders, tenth-graders, twelfth graders, eighth-graders, and ninth-graders all had the chance to boast of the chance of defeating the Fourth Grade Wonder: Rhianna Musa. Eight tried and eight failed. Each time Rhianna made it through whatever Menjay asked. And each time she crossed herself in a gentle way.
Then Menjay made his point, standing next to a high school student who failed and wept. “We are behind in Liberia. But, we can catch up.” As Menjay made his speech about catching up and what hard work it is, I motioned for Rhianna. I asked her name and told her I was proud of her courage and excellent recitation. Then I slid a Liberian $50 bill across the desk where I was sitting. For the first time I saw her smile.
When Menjay was done, the assembly was dismissed. The other fourth-graders mobbed Rhianna as if she had scored the winning goal of a football match, and shared with her the day she took the stage.