When I arrived at Saint Patrick’s College (SPC) in January 1991, to start my secondary school education, I knew something was up in my life. The school had more expanse of land than my primary school. The lawns were well manicured and there were multiple football fields. Other sports (handball, tennis, basketball, etc) that I only saw on TV were actively played there. The premises was fenced and there were Irish priests around us. White men engaging with and encouraging local boys. It was a big deal. Big … big deal.
My dad did not have a secondary school education and for him, my going to the famous SPC was a landmark in the family history. Things were fast changing — the teachers had to teach in English and no one was “bending over” to use the local dialect to teach. My classmates were sophisticated. They came from all manner of backgrounds — the beancake (akara) hawkers, tomato sellers, cattle herders, children of low ranked and high ranked military personnel, kids of professors, kids of technocrats, etc. We were a whole and wonderful cast. By the way, the most prominent akara hawker in my class then is now a pilot. For real. You might have travelled with him without knowing.
I was thrown into the deep but I was not going to drown. The mix was intimidating. A classmate had a skin colour that was not black — this was surreal. There were two such in the nearby class. Someone said they were “half-caste”. I had no clue what that was. I was told it was a great thing. I asked around and I was told it meant a person of mixed white and black ancestry, especially a person with one white and one black parent aka mulatto. It was an interesting concept to me. Wonderful!
My classmates discussed world politics and it was very strange to me. It was about the time that the Iraqi-Kuwait saga was ongoing. Every day, they had a story to share — Saddam Hussein and his weapons, the might of the Americans, the UN position, General Norman Schwarzkopf Jr, Colin Powell. Names were dropped and postulations were made but I had no iota of what they were saying. They said based on what CNN said. What was CNN? They said you needed a satellite dish to access it. That was where they lost me. I was happy to hear about what was happening through their lips. They talked about a phenomenon called “Oprah Winfrey”. I had no clue. All I did was listen to the conversations and make mental notes. It was exciting stuff. I was literally transported to another galaxy during those conversations. I never contributed because I had nothing to contribute. Wetin you wan talk. Wole Soyinka, our own William Shakespeare dey speak English, you sef wan contribute … you get mind o!
Then they talked about movies. Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger were their favourites. From one movie to another. They talked “Coming to America” and then “Pretty Woman”. Again, I was lost but I just kept following the conversation. Everyone accepted me as the quiet boy but what they did not know was that if I did open my mouth, atomic missiles made up of wrong tenses and grammar would fly through. Also, they were discussing Martian stuff with a guy who had not left his part of the earth to the next village around his.
By the end of the first term, I stunned the class. I topped the class and my cover was blown. More people were attracted to me but I was useless to them. I must admit, I was celebrated and adored but it put an uncertain pressure on me — unknown to them. There was no discrimination even though looking back I might have looked like an enigma. I rarely talked to anyone. In my second year of Junior Secondary School (JSS2), I was made the class prefect but with what you now know of me, I was bound to fail at that job. And fail I did. In JSS3, I was more social because I had been discovered not just for academics but also for my football abilities. It gave me something to chat about with my classmates.
I knew my life could not be in this “hide and seek” mode and so I approached someone who had a good command of English in my opinion. That was Henry Akpede. Though I did not tell him I wanted to learn how to speak good English, I did ask him to explain to me how he knew the plot of movies. Henry was one person who could summarise a movie and make you want to see it. He told me to “just listen”. Here was I that only was interested in movies that there were physical fights or bullets were been blazed. Why should I spend my time watching boring movies that there was no fight?
Henry arranged for me to see “Unforgiven” by Clint Eastwood and “Revenge” by Kelvin Costner. As we watched, I would ask him why “xyz” happened and he would say “you did not listen”. Henry would graciously rewind the movie and I was forced to listen. Over a short period of time, one of the things I realised was that I was picking up lines from these movies. Some were familiar with the things Henry said. Slowly but surely, I was picking up. It boosted my confidence. I could contribute to conversations. And hold a view in arguments. This is how my journey in self-improvement started.
Meeting folks such as Henry and other classmates pushed me to push myself. But they had the reverse effect on some of my classmates. They felt they were “showing off”. I heard them. But I am a realist – you cannot get jealous of a man because of what he has. You can if you chose to. Well, it is within your right but you will be doing a disservice to yourself. If someone is finer than you, don’t accuse them of using too much makeup. You also can do with some make-up. What do you think?
What I was looking for in self-development was right there with me. I needed to recognise it and utilize it. So, what are you looking for that you are not aware of its existence around you? Do you need to make that cold call to the CEO? Or do you need to tell Shoprite, SPAR or Ebaeno about your product? Or find the courage to say “hello” to that special person? Think through it and the fella right next to you might be your “Henry Akpede” who will help you to navigate and manoeuvre your way to the promised land.
I will end with a story. While I was planning to apply to business school (I thought it was a crazy idea since everyone around me was getting a Masters in their fields of specialization), I had a conversation with my neighbour about my far-fetched dream. He told me what he had done and walked me over to his place. From his drawer, he showed me his admission letter to Sloan Business School, MIT. My eyes “were neat” that night. The word became flesh right in front of me. I realised that my dream was not crazy at all. I recognised my “blood group” and we formed an alliance that encouraged, prodded and assisted me until I got into business school. Seeing that letter, in the hands of my neighbour made me realise that my dream was valid.
I have said enough. I have three more episodes on this. The next one will be “Possibility 2: The Curious Case of Bassey & Word Problems”. Promise me you will stay tuned. Promise me that you will take action with what I have said so far. I am watching you. My name is not Gabriel for nothing.
If you see any typo in this write-up or any tense gone awry, don’t blame me. It is the unfinished and uncompleted works of Henry Akpede. You can take it from where he stopped. Become a teacher to me. Let me learn from you and see your perspective. I no de shame to learn. Hasta la vista.
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