If a picture paints a thousand stories, then the one mum sent to me a few years ago certainly does. Funny enough I remember taking this black and white shot as if it was yesterday. Looking at the two horizontal rows of pupils in my year four class standing in the middle of our school playground, I spot myself where, as usual, I was relegated to the back row with most of the boys. I can still hear in my head that phrase I got used to hearing whenever I was in group photos, “tall ones at the back”. It almost seemed like it was a punishment to be tall! As I stare at this photo remembering my days in Grange Primary School, the emotions it arouses are mixed. The joy and delight of just being a child, coupled with the pride of being the best sports girl in the school. Like a solar eclipse, these delightful feelings are doused by memories of the despondence and downheartedness I felt at often being brushed aside. I admired the ‘bright kids’ who got all the attention. Pupils and teachers alike seemed to have no time for those of us who fell in the average bracket. There were also the “pretty girls” who everyone wanted to be friends with. In my case, the only time I had a queue of befrienders was when we played team sports. Of course, they knew that having me on their team meant they were on the winning team.
This basic, average girl then went to secondary school and unlike in my primary school days, I did get a lot of attention but not in the way any teenager would want. Being almost six foot tall by the time I was in the third year of secondary school, I became the object of ridicule. My height earned me the nickname LLT (Long Legged Teenager) in conjunction with a number of less savoury and sometimes insulting names. The more obscure I tried to make myself, the more I seemed to stand out. I became so conscious of this lanky body I carried around awkwardly, which I had come to loathe. I was angry with my parents for not investigating the possibility of getting the anti-growths that some of my aunties had recommended a few years earlier when they could see that I was becoming a bean stalk. I remember getting so fed up with verbal abuse I constantly got from one of my classmates that in my pain and frustration I spoke to one of my teachers. His response was to call me aside and say, “Don’t worry, you know men really like tall women”. I was so disappointed at this offhand statement from someone I expected so much more from and this further cemented the fact that no one took me seriously. In fact, I questioned why I even bothered to speak to him when I didn’t see much in myself or expect much for or from myself. Ironically, the constant barrage of name-calling aroused in me a determination to study hard for my GCSE exams, and this paid off because after almost four years of getting average grades, the homestretch saw me graduating from secondary school with top grades in seven out of nine subjects.
A shy, uncertain girl found herself in university doing a Drama degree only because I did not like math, and this was a required pre-requisite for most of the subjects that I liked. I didn’t want to study History, English, Philosophy or Religion; I needed something with a bit more kick so I thought Drama would do the trick. I went back to being a “Steady Eddy”, achieving average grades, and getting roles in the ‘crowd scenes’ for most of our theatre productions. On one occasion, I was given a lead role and when it was announced to an entire room full of people, everyone in the room exclaimed in horror as I sat there! This cruel reaction almost broke through my thick skin but I made a conscious effort to shrug it off. My low esteem had followed me to university, so there was nothing to be disappointed or upset about. I had already made up my mind that I would coast along, specialise in an area of Drama that made me inconspicuous and when I graduate, I would do “something” with my life, whatever that was.
My second year changed it all. When I first bumped into Chuck Mike, my first thoughts were, “Wow, it is unusual for me to have to look up to anyone. Boy, you are tall!” Little did I know that this lecturer who probably went through the same hardship I did as a teenager, would see in me potential that had the power to change the value I placed on myself. During this semester, we had to do four taster courses, (Acting, Directing, Film Production and Theatre management) in order to make a choice of our area of specialisation in our final year. Our acceptance was determined by our exam results and those who had an interest in Acting and Directing also had to do an audition. Historically, all the “cool” people got into Acting or Directing while the “Steady Eddies” sauntered into Film Production or Theatre Management. Even before I enrolled for any of the taster courses, I had made up my mind that I was going to specialise in Theatre Management in my final year. I wasn’t one of the cool ones so there was absolutely zero chance of getting into Acting or Directing. Theatre Management would keep me out of the limelight so why choose anything different?
Once I had completed the four courses and passed all the exams, I put in my application for Theatre Management before the deadline for applications closed, and I was successful. A few days later, when Chuck Mike called me into his office and said to me that my results in the Directing course, which he had run, showed that I have a flair for directing and that he would like me to audition, I was so shocked that I almost looked behind me to see if he was talking to someone else. I mumbled some sort of response and then left the room with no intention of applying as I was convinced that he had made a mistake. I spared no thought for the fact that not only had I thoroughly enjoyed the Directing course, but that I got top marks in the exam. Two subsequent meetings with Chuck Mike on this same issue yielded the same results.
Chuck Mike’s final attempt to get me to audition, even after the deadline had passed, came through another student he asked to speak to me. At that point my hard exterior cracked and the sun rays of hope started to break through the dark clouds that surrounded my heart. It suddenly occurred to me that he must have seen something in me to go to these lengths, so despite my nervousness and turmoil about whether I would be good enough, I did a late audition a couple of weeks later, where I directed an excerpt of Wole Soyinka’s play- “The Trials of Brother Jero”. Co-incidentally, it was run on a day when we had some high profile visitors to the Drama department, and it was used to showcase the work of the department. The audience reaction during the performance coupled with the applause and look of sheer pleasure on their faces at the end were testament to how much they enjoyed it, and without any ado, I was accepted on the Directing course. I felt like a million dollars!
I so loved being a Directing student and not only did my confidence levels shoot through the roof, but all my grades improved phenomenally. Being a Director taught me skills I have used in my everyday life, some being, responsibility, humility, people management, patience, perseverance and how to have fun. I took in in my strides to be responsible for an entire production crew and the outcome of a number of theatre performances, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. These skills prepared me for the real world and the confident, positive, matured woman that I presented to the world was a far cry from the unsure, indeterminate person who tentatively walked into University with little or no ambition.
One man’s actions changed the course of my life forever. It meant the world to me that a person saw potential in me and cared enough to pursue me until I finally accepted that I did have something special to offer. It wasn’t just about studying Directing; it was more about someone helping me to find myself, knowing that I was good at something and refusing to give up. In my final year, Chuck Mike, my Mentor/ Lecturer also became like Father figure to me. He would call me his ‘Pikin’ (child) and I would call him ‘Oga’ (“Senior Boss”). Under his mentorship, he uncovered the fact that my basic writing skills were not fantastic. Once again, Oga just would not let it go. I remember the sheer frustration and stress of having to re-write the proposal for my graduation year project four times before Chuck Mike would finally approve it. He kept letting me know that there was more in me than I was giving. Many years later, I partly attribute Chuck Mike’s actions to the fact that I stand here, a delightfully proud, published author of my debut, five star rated book: IMPACT: My Story, My Ebenezer, My Victory which is one of the most enjoyable pieces of work I have done.
So, my question to you, my dear reader is, “Who is in your sphere of influence that you have the power to positively shape?” Identify those people and don’t hold back. You have the potential to change the course of their life for ever.