On a sweltering harmattan afternoon when I was nine, my father lied to me for the first time.
“You’re special,” he said.
I had just emerged from an entrance exam into a prestigious Government Navy Secondary School in Maiduguri. We sat under the shade of a neem tree at the edge of the school’s football field and he threw the questions from the test back at me.
I’d done them once before, so, you know, walkover.
With every answer, there was a high-five, and the size of the promised zobo drink reward grew. I’m terrible at performing calculations in my head, so I solved the Maths questions in the dust, writing with a stick. I chanted the English sentence completions, explained my rationale for the General Studies answers. He clapped me on the back afterwards and took me to a nearby kiosk. I got my chilled zobo and a long stretch of baba dudu to go with it.
Six weeks later, the results were released. I failed.
I know what you’re thinking. No, he wasn’t dumb. He knew the answers alright. He knew they were wrong. In fact, when the results came in, he didn’t tell me. He simply went on about how well I’d done in the other exam I passed–the one to the school I eventually attended. These days, when I ask him why he did that, he shrugs.
“I wanted you to be happy,” he says.
And, boy, was I happy.
I lived in this bubble for eight more years. When I built model houses out of cardboard, he told me I would become the best engineer. When I wore his lab coat, he said, Doctor looks terrific on you. When I received the award for Best French Student In Three Years, he said, Paris calls.
Reality began to settle in flakes when I scored a D in Further Maths during my graduating exams.
“I‘m terrible at it,” I told him. “I never know what to do.”
“Your teachers are terrible,” he said, massaging my shoulder. “Plus, no one trusts WAEC results these days, anyway.”
University came next, and the sciences swallowed me faster than quicksand. I floated in a kaleidoscope of Physics–Chem–Bio–Math–Aargh! Everyone I knew in class told jokes, made friends, joined clubs. I fought sleep, struggled through exams, struggled to be special.
The final straw came when I signed up for a prestigious scholarship assessment. I was gonna get it and transfer my studies to the United States.
“Don’t blast it too much,” my father said with a wink when I left the house on test day.
You can guess what happened there.
Three months. That’s the time it took me to drag myself out of a hole after the scholarship list was posted online, and I scanned the computer screen over and over, telling myself I’d missed my name somehow. Three months for me to wake up from blind belief and say, Yeah, okay, I’m done. Three months for me to stand up to my father and tell him: I know you want me to be happy, but sometimes, your happy hurts.
I read something somewhere, once: If you’re lucky, you will fail many times in your life.
Don’t get me wrong; I love my dad, okay? But he’s to blame that it took me so long to learn that fail and special are not mutually exclusive terms. That it’s okay to fail, even a lot, as long as it doesn’t define you. That failing is a step, not a destination.
A lot of worldwide babble goes into positive reinforcement in training, and so little goes into reality studies. And that’s terribly odd, considering that the moment you leave whatever protective net you’re sheltered in, it smacks you upside the head that you’re only part of a large, quite homogenous, drifting horde. What I failed to understand early on (thanks, Dad) is that this, too, is okay.
It’s okay, really.
I have learned in time that special, different or unique are not pre-packaged gifts, neither are they bestowed upon one by years of shielding from the truth. They are learned behaviours that hinge on early recognition and acceptance, followed by a will to rise above the horde. A chance to lose in order to understand winning. From there comes the fuel with which the jet is lit, and the mission set for Special-Land.
Every other month after those three, I have faced major challenges and come out unable to surmount them first time around. Moments when I only understand portions of things, when I’m not fully confident that I can do the job, when I know I’d have to try a few times before something works. I dropped out of classical piano lessons, sucked at some job tests, received rejections from publishers. I got depressed, I threw things, I took long walks to avoid strangling people.
But I was lucky to have these moments, because with each of them came a chance to push myself outside the normal, into the unknown, to change perspective. A chance to switch classical sheet music for rock piano ballads and find out I’m better at playing those. A chance to realise I’ve been applying to the wrong jobs and go for the right ones. A chance to return to my writing desk and, armed with fresh knowledge, fill blank pages again.
With every challenge, I learn, I leap, I fly. I’m better the next time. And the next. And the next.
And soon enough, I’m special.
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