Back in Class Six, speaking vernacular in school was a pretty big deal. “The Names of Vernacular Speakers” list was probably the most dreaded catalogue of academic rogues ever. In order to avoid six lashes (or sometimes any number above this, such as the whims of the teacher dispensing the punishment dictated), and preserving the smooth innocence of one’s buttocks and back, one just spoke English. It did not matter whether the English was broken by mechanical inaccuracies and grammatical heresies. It just had to employ any number of the English alphabets to engineer communication.
Teachers were less concerned about explaining to 11 and 12-year olds that “Somebody has ‘foshed” was an abominable construction. It would take years for many of these youngins to come across the word “fart”, by which time their English had already stunk and stung the more grammatically proficient into horror. In such an environment, actually knowing the right words to say, however “big” they may seem to others, makes you a legitimately ripe target for scorn and abuse. In Class Six, if you spoke good English, you were “too-known”; you were a know-it-all, a show-off! And teachers in such a milieu hated show-offs.
It was way past break-over but the bell had not rung because the bell-boy had been sent on an errand. Cosmos and I were sitting in class as usual, (I wish it was because we were overly studious; we were probably just playing a game because we had spent our lunch money before break). With a quick glance at his watch, Mr. Benson (the only Maths teacher to have succeeded in being my favorite teacher) asked Mr. Koomson whether break should not have been over already. The latter affirmed his suspicion so Mr. Benson said “Ring the bell for break-over”, looking in the general direction of Cosmos and I but speaking to no one in particular. As we both scrambled to go ring the bell, (ringing the bell was such a joyful privilege!), I tripped and while falling said “Don’t tintinnabulate the bell! Let me do it”.
The words had barely fallen off my lips when Mr. Koomson sprang to his feet with a suddenness and agility that was frankly more alarming than curious. A frown that could have frozen the sun had seized his countenance as he barked at me “Herh! Karikari come here!” I began walking toward him. My thoughts were so loud that they literally muffled the sound of the bell being finally rang with a vocal accompaniment most probably along the lines of “Break over please”. My confusion and trepidation grew more profound with each step. After making me kneel for about thirty or so minutes, Mr. Koomson eventually dispatched twelve unforgettable lashes on my shy buttocks. I couldn’t even cry. I was numb from shock, traumatized even. Apparently I was a stupid boy who liked using big words unnecessarily, as he explained to Mr. Benson later on. Mr. Benson betrayed ever so subtly a thin emotion of disapproval upon hearing this. But the headline of the day was that I had been whipped twelve times for saying “tintinnabulate”.
The mind is a beautifully dangerous place. All kinds of seeds grow there. All kinds of treasures are buried there. When you tell a 7-year old that they are not worth much, you plough their virgin minds with cruel blades of discouragement. When you continue to tell a 9-year old that they will never amount to much you fertilize their bruised mind with the manure of intimidation. The day you shut an 11-year old down, who is beginning to slowly pull out newfound confidence from his back pocket, you plant a seed. You plant a seed of timidity; you douse a flicker before it can blossom into magnificent fireworks. For a young boy who has been written off all the length of his short life, flogging him twelve times in front of his classmates because he used a word his teacher was unfamiliar with, was like healing a cripple and telling him to run, only to clip his heel at his first stride.
But cripples can dream, and dreamers can run.
The story is told of a boy crippled by accident. In a devastating fire that killed his older brother, this young boy lost all the flesh on his knees and shins and all the toes on his left foot. His transverse arch was practically destroyed. Medically, the prognosis was certain: he could never walk again. When doctors advised that his legs be amputated he protested vehemently. Legs with the life snuffed out of them were left to dangle hopelessly. He was already crippled physically, he wasn’t about to break the legs of his imagination and his hopes by giving in to so-called expert advice.
With fire in his eyes and determination in his veins he threw himself from his wheelchair one day and dragged himself across the floor and outside. Painfully but eventually he made his way gradually up and over the picket fence. He did this every day. He fought through the scorn and the pain. He wore the trauma as a shield to repel discouragement. Before long he was up and walking. The boy who could not walk began running. He ran free of the experts and their recommendations. He ran free of the cage of limitations. He ran a mile.
In February of 1934, Glenn Cunningham, a boy written off as a cripple, run the fastest mile the world had ever seen at the time. Many had tried and failed, but it took a supposed cripple to run a mile in 4 minutes 6 seconds, a record which stood for three years before the floodgates were opened for others to follow suit. It took a boy who was written off.Anybody can call themselves a leader because someone follows or some people follow them. The real benchmark of leadership lies in self-leadership. You cannot truly be a leader of many or any, until you are first a leader of self. To do this requires the ability to drown out the cacophony of negativity and discouragement which is so often clad in the guise of expert advice. Let the experts talk. It is their prerogative. Your job is to decide to persevere. Good leadership is learning to operate outside the box but great leadership is deciding that there is no box in the first place.
In the movie “The Shawshank Redemption”, the old man Brooks, commits suicide after being released from Shawshank prison, where he’s spent fifty years of his life. In explaining what must have drove the old man to suicide, the character Red tells his fellow prison inmates : “…just institutionalized. The man’s been here 50years, 50years! This is all he knows…I’m telling you these walls are funny. First you hate ’em then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes you get solely dependent on ’em. That’s institutionalized”.
The world is full of more institutionalized souls than free birds; people who have believed society’s definition of them and either by design or accident, have ended up playing to the gallery and living to satisfy the expectations and “expert” opinions of everyone else but themselves. There is a 44-year old bicycle repairer whose silky jazz voice may never be heard because he has been told too many times that he can’t make it as a musician. There is a 19-year old contemplating suicide because daddy says he is useless to him as a son if he cannot get into medical school. There’s a 36-year old marriage counsellor who is going through her seventh divorce because she believes the objectified image men paint her to be. How can a man give that which he himself does not have? How can the blind lead the blind?
Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf says, that “Africa isn’t poor. It is poorly managed”. If a continent is poorly managed it is because its constituent nations are poorly led. If nations are poorly led, it means men and women who claim to lead have not been able to lead themselves. It begins with self. This is the first thing Glenn Cunningham’s story teaches – the perseverance to lead self.
It is so often the case that we only see the bigger picture in retrospect. Great leaders however have the ability to see the bigger picture. They invest hope in the prospective. Cunningham knew he was crippled. He saw how lifeless his legs were. But he saw something else. He saw a mile being run in four minutes. So he ran.
Kwame Nkrumah, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Harriet Tubman, Muhammad Ali. What do these leaders have in common? They were all jokers. A joker makes people laugh because their dreams terrify the world. Jokers are dreamers. The greatest leaders are those who dream. They have the foresight to see beyond their present limitations and the discouragements all around them. The apostle Paul in Romans 8:18 declared “For I reckon that the present sufferings are not worth the glory that is going to be revealed ahead”. In other words I know my now is rotten and nothing to write home about, nevertheless I foresee a resplendent tomorrow. To lead self, one must first dream that winning is possible. It is when you can see a beautiful picture ahead for yourself that you can sell the vision of milk and honey to others. This is leadership. Like so many leaders, Glenn Cunningham was a man who had foresight and saw great things in his future. He therefore refused to be discouraged.
On that fateful day when that young boy sat quietly and allowed the tears to well up and break the dam of his soul, a leader was born. With twelve lashes he was silenced, but with twelve lashes he learned to persevere and to dream. He learnt that not everybody will be excited about his need to express himself. It taught him to forgive but to learn. Learn from the pain and wear the trauma as a shield. No, it did not happen overnight. Yes, he developed an inferiority complex along the way. But he eventually rejected the experts’ advice – those who said he would never amount to much, those who admonished him to quit using “big words”. Like the cripple who ran a mile, this young man who was silenced would go on to win multiple national oratory and debate laurels. Who knew that the boy who was given twelve lashes for saying “tintinnabulate” would one day speak in front of presidents, ministers and fellow starry-eyed dreamers in school uniform and get a standing ovation?
At age 28, Emile Sande is a global music icon who has two PhDs. In the song “Read All About It III” she says;
“You’ve got the words to change a nation
But you’re biting your tongue
You’ve spent a life time stuck in silence
Afraid you’ll say something wrong
If no one ever hears it how we gonna learn your song?
So come on, come on
Come on, come on
You’ve got a heart as loud as lions
So why let your voice be tamed?
Maybe we’re a little different
There’s no need to be ashamed
You’ve got the light to fight the shadows
So stop hiding it away
Come on, come on
I wanna sing, I wanna shout
I wanna scream ’til the words dry out
So put it in all of the papers,
I’m not afraid
They can read all about it”
And that’s exactly what I’ve done! I have screamed my heart out in words and song. Maybe tomorrow they will read all about it that I won a writing competition but if not I will still dream, I will still persevere. This is what leaders do.
Thank you Mr. Koomson for those twelve lashes.
Author: Nana Prempeh, 360 Writer’s Challenge, 1st Place Winner