I Don’t Know!


We were not allowed to say ‘I don’t know!’

In primary school, we had a ritual. One that was so deeply inculcated in us that it would need a shrink to undo. So we’d be seated in class, quietly or otherwise in between the lessons and the teacher would walk in. We’d shoot up from our seats like a plane’s ejector seat and yell. Like literally yell the way those military guys do during that parade thing they do on Mashujaa day.

Kids: You are welcome Madam!

(Then we’d take a microsecond for the Madam to acknowledge that he or she is welcome to class)

Kids: Good morning Madam!

Teacher: Good morning pupils, and how are you?

Kids: Fine thank you Madam!

Teacher: Be seated!

Kids: Thank you Madam!

(Then we’d all collapse in our seats as fast as we’d shot up)

See how clearly I remember that? I remember it so vividly like it was yesterday. I even see some of my teachers now and feel like doing the same thing. Like I’d never be caught dead talking to any of my former teachers with my hands in my pockets or in broken English. No, I am always proper around them. School was more of a military base than it was school.

Anyway, this one particular teacher (name withheld for fear of reprisals) would walk in and make us go through this greeting ritual then she’d leave us standing. Please note that it was illegal for you to sit before the teacher said so. So we’d be standing.

Teacher would be walking around like a military commander inspecting the guard of honor. The she’d abruptly stop next to you and shout, ‘question tag… The teacher is here!’ At this point, you, because you were no dimwit and your brain wasn’t full of porridge would be expected to give the correct question tag to that statement. So you had to think fast, as fast as lightning! If your mind was fast enough, you’d yell back, ‘Isn’t She?’ And the teacher would walk past you.

You had by then dodged a bullet. Teacher would keep walking and get to another kid. By now, all of us would be trembling because, well, not all of us could think that fast and even if we could, not all of us actually knew all the answers. Those few minutes of pop question tags would be a nightmare in the midmorning. The teacher would stop next to another pupil and shout again, ‘question tag, I am coming tomorrow!’

Student would start processing and wondering what the question tag for that is. The kid’s mind would now scroll through their primary memory as fast as possible to trying to find the answer. The heart is beating fast, the palpitations increasing by the minute. But no, kid doesn’t have an answer, no wait; he doesn’t even know the answer.

So he opens his mouth, stutters, tries to mumble something. His mouth is now dry as the Sahara. He’s trying to find something to say to get out of this tricky situation but nothing comes to mind. He’s both scared and speechless so he says, “I don’t kn…!” He doesn’t even finish that sentence before his face meets the speedy flying hand of the teacher. He sees multiple stars, a staircase to heaven; he hears many birds chirping away and crickets stridulating. Oh, and then there is that ring in his head like a distant buzz that doesn’t stop. He’s been slapped! Slapped so hard that he will never ever dare utter the words ‘I don’t know!’ in public.

I carried this lesson into my adult life.

It is funny how habits we learn when we are kids carry on into our futures without us even noticing. I was afraid to ever say I don’t know because what if life slapped the living daylights out of my ignorance? So this one time I had just started my first job. Moderate job, making a bit to live in Nairobi and make ends meet.

I had never been employed before; I had just gotten off campus. I didn’t doubt my abilities to perform or do the job at hand; I knew I could hack it. My boss was a good man. He knowing that I was a fresh graduate decided that he wouldn’t give me a hard time. He would show me the ropes and mentor me into his protégé. This mentorship role included me doing majority of his paper work and tagging a long everywhere he went. I also sat in all the meetings that he attended.

My boss didn’t enjoy driving. Could he afford a driver, he would have hired two, a day and night one. Since he couldn’t afford one, he would ask me to drive him from time to time to meetings in town, mostly. I would always find a flimsy to avoid driving him. He never asked about it much, he was a cool boss.

So one time, boss walks into my office and asks me whether I have a driving license. I say yes. He says, okay. Then informs me that we’d be traveling for a field trip the next week and that I’d need it. Now, you need to know that even though I had gone through driving school after high school. The most driving that I’d done was parking my dad’s car while cleaning it. I had driven a few times around Machakos town but really; driving in Machakos doesn’t qualify as driving experience. You know you can’t drive when you get to Nairobi and find a road that has two lanes all going the same direction. Then you have to use all your mirrors and change lanes without running into another vehicle. Those are things you only saw in movies on television.

You also need to know that my license had long expired and I had not bothered to renew it because, what did I need a driver’s license for anyway? So as soon as boss had left, I go off and ran to town to renew my license. I succeeded. Now I was ready for the trip the next week.

Travel day came; I came ready, armed with my luggage and driver’s license. We were headed to the rift of Kenya. So we started off early, it was quite a journey. The boss had asked that we start off early because we had a long way to go. I crossed my fingers praying that he would not ask me to drive because, I had never driven in Nairobi and worse still, anywhere on a highway. God heard my cry boss decided to drive. I sat pensively in the passenger’s seat listening to him talk and give me stories as we drove a long. He was a much-experienced driver; I think he’d driven for as many years as I had lived. At this point, I need to mention that his car was a manual car. You know those ones that have that kastick that you pull up, down and sideways when you need to change gears? Yes, that one.

So we get to Nakuru and boss tells me to drive.

I start shaking, quite literally. But I compose myself and it doesn’t show that much. I take the driver’s seat. I turn on the ignition, the car raves, clutch pedal down, I move the gear lever from neutral to the first gear then engage in the act of balancing the clutch and accelerator, I am about to take off then, the engine goes off! Oh dear, now I am sweating profusely. The boss is a bit surprised but assumes that that’s normal so he tells me that its okay, and that I should be smoother. Second try, I go through the same process again, up to the end, and the engine chokes, the car shakes and goes off again! Boss is patient, he says to try again, but by this time, he has figured that I can drive yes, but I probably have zero experience.

Strike three! I pull myself together, and this time, thankfully, I manage to start the car. We take off. But it is a highway, there are too many cars and I am very nervous. So there I am, driving at 60 kilometers per hour and my boss is wondering whether we are okay. He asks whether the car is fine, I nod because I am even scared to speak because speaking could get my mind off the road and get us into an accident. So eyes on the road, mouth shut, and now I am socked in sweat.

Boss says to drive faster.

But I have been stuck on gear three for minutes now and I am okay. I don’t feel like going to gear four because the car, according to me, is already moving fast enough. But boss insists and I comply. We are now at 80 kilometers per hour. I honestly feel like I am about to crash the car. I can see the boss through the corner of my eye looking at me, wondering whether I am okay. But I am not, I am scared stiff. No one wants his or her first long driving experience to be on a main busy highway.

You can always tell a newbie on the road. And because boss is long experienced on the road, he knows that if he does nothing, I most probably will crash us. But he is gracious. He let’s me drive up to the next shopping center then asks me to pull over. I do. He doesn’t say much, he says that the road we are coming to has too many twists and turns and that it is better if he drives. That’s a polite way of telling me that if I keep driving, I am going to take both of us straight to the pearly gates of heaven! I move to the passenger’s seat, feeling very stupid, but very relieved that I no longer have to shoulder the burden of getting us to our destination safely.

We got to our destination safely. The next day as we took breakfast, boss brought the whole thing up. He asks whether I have ever driven long distance. Now I have to come clean. I tell him that my driver’s license was just a paper, and that don’t have much experience, that I had never driven anywhere else other than Machakos. He laughs, a slighted laugh then asks a question. He asks ‘why didn’t you just say so?’

That question is the reason why I wrote this blog post. See, primary school taught me that I should never say ‘I don’t know’. That if you said that you don’t know, that would make you look stupid and incompetent. That if you said that you don’t know the world would slap you to reality. That successful and bright people never say ‘I don’t know’.

But that’s a fallacy.

There are very many things that we don’t know and that does not make us idiots. It is the insistence on the fact that we know something that we don’t know, that confirms that we are in deed stupid. No one, absolutely no one, can ever know everything at any one time. Even the most knowledgeable person still has some things that he or she doesn’t know.

I learnt later in life that the more you acknowledge that you don’t know, the more opportunities you create for you to learn new things. Steve Jobs, one of the smartest minds to ever walk the face of the earth, in a commencement address at Stanford University in 2015, said that ‘if you want to be successful in life, you should stay hungry and stay foolish’. Always allow yourself a certain degree of honesty to admit that ‘you don’t know’.

As long as you are willing to learn, it is okay not to know. When you are honest enough to admit that you do not know, you tap into other people’s reservoir of knowledge, and learn. It is the attitude of a kid. Kids are never embarrassed that they do not know. That is why kids always ask questions, even questions that we (adults) think are stupid questions. Kids have learnt that, staying hungry and foolish is the best way to attract knowledge. So kids are like a dry sponge, as long as a sponge is dry, it will always sock up water. That’s how kids learn.

Lastly, admitting that you don’t know is a sign of humility. Masquerading as a know-it-all is just pride. Only God knows everything and you are clearly not he. It is okay to admit that you don’t know sometimes. As long as you know something, you don’t have to know everything.

It is okay to ‘I don’t know’ because, honestly, sometimes, you have no idea!

  1. What’s with people and their boss’s cars… lol!! I ever wrecked a boss car just cause I couldn’t admit that I had zero experience back then lol!!!
    Staying hungry N foolish!!! Humble enough to learn.

  2. Fastofoo why do I feel like I know the teacher in question? 😂🙊Great piece though because I legit have trauma from primo. 😬

  3. Then there’re those when you say “I don’t know” make you feel stupid. I guess that’s a trait we learnt from the teachers that made us feel that way everytime 🙄

    Since we have not been wires to feel stupid…

    It’s soo interesting how “small things” define the rest of our lives, and even more astounding how realization of such can connect all the dots and help us change for the better 😊

    Great read!

  4. Oh how I remember shooting up to welcome madam to class….

    Nimecheka hapo boys alichapwa akaona multiple stars, a staircase to heaven; he hears many birds chirping away and crickets stridulating. Oh, and then there is that ring in his head like a distant buzz that doesn’t stop..😂😂😂😂

    A good laugh and a good lesson…I don’t know why I didn’t know this
    Good read

  5. Very funny; relatable though :-D. We must be teachable. We can only be teachable when we admit that we don’t always know everything, every time! Excellent piece.

  6. Lol! Good morning Madam! Walking around the class looking for whom to pounce on was torture, kajasho joh! Staying hungry and foolish, ready to learn. Good read, thank you.

  7. I love this. I have a friend who lost his job because of this very statement. It was taken as rudeness, SMH! I think it is genuine to say ‘ I don’t know’ and it shouldn’t be misinterpreted or even make us feel less. Its from here that we learn.

  8. Awesome piece again…. i think i know the teacher in question here…… Those moments were nerve wrecking not knowing what your question will be. Amazing how we are modelled into life from those early days, my take away today; always be hungry for knowledge. It’s also a great lesson as we parent in this age.

  9. Nimekwama kwa “”collapsing on our seats””….Hey! hey !!,Hey!!….Meanwhile ndio naanza kusoma will comment later.

  10. The primary school I believe you’re talking about was a military school, for sure 😀
    Amazing writing as always; witty and sober at the same time…

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