I spent the first two years of high school at Oraukwu High School, Oraukwu in southeastern Nigeria. When I was in class two, as a punishment for coming late to class, one of my teachers ordered two other students and I to fetch three buckets of water each for him from the stream some ten kilometers down the hilly countryside.
I dreaded going to fetch water from that stream. At fourteen, going down and climbing up a dry, scorched, and dusty slope of ten kilometers in the hot afternoon with a twenty-liter metallic bucket on my head and a four-liter plastic can in hand three good times wasn’t my idea of fun.
I couldn’t remember now whether the two other students fetched the water for the man but I stoutly refused to carry out the punishment. I was a little bit strong-willed in those days!
When it was the period for mathematics the teacher would walk into the classroom and point at me. “You,” he’d say, “leave the class.” If there was animosity or vengeance in his expression or voice I didn’t really take notice. I actually liked him in a funny way: He looked to me kind of clownish, or perhaps doll-like, with his skintight haircut, chubby face and plump physique. I only noticed a strong determination in him; a determination to conquer my mind and break my will. But I didn’t really care. I cocked my head arrogantly (yes, you heard me right!), picked up my things and swaggered defiantly out of the class. In each of the three terminal examinations I failed mathematics.
I left the school that year, too. I started class three (the last year of what is now junior high) at another school, Merchants of Light School, Oba, also in southeastern Nigeria. I was just an average student, and the poor foundation I laid at my former school didn’t make it easier. At the end of the session in 1979 the school results came out. I scored marks of over 80 percent each in History, Literature in English, English Language, and Christian Religious Knowledge; in comparison, my scores in the sciences were poor. In Mathematics I scored 12 percent! The seed I sowed in class two mathematics class at Oraukwu High School was bearing fruit.
It wasn’t funny, I tell you. I didn’t like the way I was progressing. I looked back at my primary (grade) school days when I was scoring between 98 and 100 percent in all my subjects, taking the first position almost all the time. Surely, people expected better than this from me. I said to myself, Amechi, if you continue this way, even if you choose to offer Arts-only subjects in the senior years, you’d still have problems with mathematics which is a compulsory subject in the West African School Certificate Examinations.
So I decided there and then that I must stop the drift and reverse the trend. I identified my problem and decided to solve it. I set a goal for myself: By the end of the long vacation I must master mathematics and the sciences. That was the goal – my goal. How did I approach it?
In those days during the holidays I spent a lot of my day time visiting friends and peers, or searching out social joints to drink and smoke, or reading books and magazines of all persuasions – James Hadley Chase, Nick Carter, Agatha Christie, Alistair Maclane, T. Lobsang Rampa, My Guy, Oh Boy! At night I sneaked out to attend all-night adult parties and crept back into the house through the window in the wee hours of the morning. This time I decided to engage myself reading my school books. I certainly didn’t start from what we did in class three because I didn’t know much about it; I went back to my class-one work.
As I developed mastery in the basics, my self-confidence and enthusiasm increased. The enthusiasm was of two kinds: becoming more enthusiastic about who and what I was and increasing my desire to study more. Soon I progressed to our class-two work and then class three. And for the first time I started understanding what we did in class-three mathematics and the sciences!
Understanding gives assurance. When you internalize something and make it your own, you understand. When you understand you’re thinking from not of the concept. Understanding gives you this quiet assurance, this subtle, matured sort of unshatterable feeling that you could do more. And that’s what I did: I went beyond what did in class three and into what we’d be doing in class four (first year of senior high)!
Soon it was time to go back to school. I was so emboldened by my personal study during the holidays that I decided to offer the sciences and not the arts. When I walked into the Additional Mathematics class, those students who knew how poor I was in the sciences and mathematics laughed at me till tears started streaming down their character lines and onto their shirts. Their laughter came off their faces when we took the first mathematics test: I scored 98 percent. Actually I didn’t fail anything; nonetheless the teacher decided to hold onto those two marks. Even the teacher couldn’t believe it. He had taught the class two years ago when I was in my former school and he knew all the “hot” boys. So who was this upstart to come and score 100 percent?
He called me to the staff room and looked me over. “You sure you wrote this?” he asked.
“Yes, sir” I answered.
The look in his eyes said he didn’t believe me. He didn’t want to take his eyes off me; perhaps he feared I would disappear if he did ! I imagined what he was thinking: Hm! This guy is a joker. One of these clever types. He must have copied all the answers from the textbook!
“Sit down,” I heard him say. He motioned to a chair. “I’ll give you another test.”
I didn’t protest or argue. This wasn’t a punishment to fetch three buckets of water from a stream some ten kilometers away. I sat down and took another test – an even tougher one, in my estimation, than the one given to the class. When I handed over the test script to him, his eyes widened in surprise: I got everything right.
Many years later I graduated from the university with an honors degree in mechanical engineering. That was a long step from a score of 12 percent in class-three mathematics!
And you ask: What lessons did I learn from this incident? Here are some.
- The first was the relationship between cause and effect. Rebazar Tarzs, an ancient Tibetan, says, “Effect follows cause as surely as the wheel of the cart follows the hooves of the ox.” I saw how my poor showing in mathematics and the sciences was the result of my poor choices in the past. I realized that if I desired an improvement in the future, all I had to do was to set in motion the circumstances that could bring it about by a new set of activities. In life you’re either a cause or an effect. Which do you prefer? Are you pushing your ideas or that of another? You’re either creating circumstances or circumstances are molding and selecting your experiences. Even if you’re going to be an effect, choose it consciously!
- The second lesson is this: No matter how low you’ve fallen, you can always pick up the pieces and start all over again.
- Another central lesson was this: if you want to master any subject, spend good time on having a thorough grounding in the basics or fundamentals.
- There is also the need to prioritize. There are hundreds of activities begging for our attention; our success in life will be in direct proportion to our ability to make up a scale of preference that will guide us in choosing the most important activities to focus on at any point in time.
- In order to gain something you have to be willing to sacrifice some present pleasures. If I’d chosen to continue loafing about, drinking, smoking, and sneaking out to all-night adult parties, I wouldn’t have had the time I needed to catch up on my studies.
- The place of desire should be emphasized here. I was passionate about the whole affair. If you can find a big enough why, the how will take care of itself.
- More fundamental than even desire are self-acceptance and self-responsibility. I accepted myself wholeheartedly with all my faults and weaknesses (“poor results”). I accepted myself as I was. I was the only thing I had. My going anywhere, I felt, must be anchored strongly on a loving relationship with myself. The starting point of lasting happiness and true freedom is self-acceptance. Self-acceptance made it easy for me to accept responsibility for the situation. I didn’t like my poor results. But who produced the not-so-good results? I. My desire was to improve on my studies and reverse the trend. Who was going to bring this about? I, too. Without accepting responsibility for the results we’re already producing, we’d be deluding ourselves if we believe we’re going to change it. We must accept responsibility for our present circumstance. If we don’t, we have little hope for changing it.
- There is also the need to strategize and think ahead. My pre-studying what we would be doing in the next class gave me an edge over other students when we resumed. In a fast-changing world, your ability to plan and think ahead or anticipate the future and act based on your conclusions or interpretation of trends is a good tool to stay competitive.
- My last and most important lesson from that incident was on goal setting. I’ve always set goals since then. Right now I have goals on health and fitness, emotional mastery, memory improvement, developing new intellectual skills, on deepening my creativity and intuitiveness, and on scaling new spiritual heights. I have goals on career development, finances, social and travel, home and family. I have one-day goals, one-week goals, one-month goals, etc on my dreams.
At the time the above incident took place I didn’t have the understanding to recognize how significant it was in my life. It took very many years for me to realize it was one of the major turning points in my life. A turning point or wake-up call is an opportunity life is offering you to look inwards, enlarge your creative powers and refocus on your dreams. A turning point directly leads to a change in the course of your life, and sometimes nudges you toward or away from certain experiences, people, and things.
Look back at your life. You might have had one or more experiences that had a lasting effect on you. Such an experience might have brought about a turning point for you. You might have liked or resented it at the time. Presently, go back and re-experience it all over again. Relive and revive it. What did you say and how did you say it? What did you hear? What was said? By whom? What did you see? What was the environment like? Did you smell anything? What feelings and impressions were strongest? What important lessons did you learn from that experience? Dig a little bit deeper and look for less obvious, behind-the-surface lessons. How have you applied these lessons in your life up to now?
I’d be glad to hear from you if you have some thoughts and experiences to share.
Keep your dream alive!