Defying the Odds - Reflections of a Young Man™

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Defying the Odds

My life has been melodramatic so far for I have ended up defying odds stack against me. I have magically managed to endure biting criticism and prove my critics wrong in their prediction.

It all began in my primary school years when I was derided as dull and dumb for performing averagely in my continuous assessment tests (CATs). Like when I was in Standard Six, one of my brothers remarked to another, "I wonder how Thuita will pass his KCPE exams."

The remark seemed for quite some time to be prophetically true because I never scored past the 396 mark in my Standard Eight CATs. My scores mostly ranged in the 370s which were not that mediocre but again, they weren't good enough to get into such prestigious high schools as Starehe Boys' Centre where I applied for admission.

But alas! I made a quantum leap in my KCPE exams by scoring a surprising 421 mark which made me narrowly get into Starehe. It was indeed a narrow escape. If you know of any primary school kids in Standard Eight, let them read this story so that they can have some contents to write about in a composition on narrow escape.

Jokes aside, when I enrolled at Starehe - I ended up being among the last in my class at the end of our first term in Form 1 which shouldn't have been shocking because I was competing with the brightest boys in the country. But back then, I felt embarrassed to be position 32 out of 35 in the then mercurial stream of 1F Class of '02. I had never sank that low in academic rankings since I began schooling in kindergarten.

To surmount the setback, I read like a demon after we broke for holidays in that first term in Form 1; like by memorizing the first twenty elements in Chemistry beginning with hydrogen. But my efforts seemed not to bear any sweet fruits because I only managed to improve marginally in subsequent terms in our First-form year.

News must have spread through the grapevine in Starehe that I wasn't fairing well in class because a house-mate named James remarked to me towards the end of the year, "I hear you are always among the last in 1F with the likes of John Njiruh."

But again alas! I bubbled up the academics water of my class as our high school years rolled on; so much that I managed to score an A in the mighty KCSE exams. And I had the distinguished honour of getting listed in the newspapers as among the top 50 students in Nairobi Province - a remarkable achievement considering that the province had the best high schools in Kenya with the possible exception of Central Province in that era of provincial administration.

As a side observation, I noted that James (the one who had uttered a discouraging remark about me appearing among the last in my class in Form 1) did not manage to score an A in KCSE. And John Njiruh, with whom I was labelled as academic dwarfs, is now a top-notch writer who was once employed by a leading daily as a business journalist.

And how did I manage to overcome those odds stack against me? By believing in myself and in my capacity to perform great deeds. Like I sat for both KCPE and KCSE exams with the aim of topping the country. So I encourage you to also have faith in yourself. It is one of the most important virtues you need to succeed in this increasingly competitive world.


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Dealing with Disagreements

When I mentioned the other day of the great father-to-son pieces of advice that I love, I forgot to include the 1560 instructions written by H. Jackson Brown Jr. who later converted them into a book titled Life's Little Instructions Book. Jackson originally wrote the instructions for his college-bound son. I think he decided to convert them into a book after figuring out he could make money by sharing them with the world. Or maybe he just strived to make an impact in the world by guiding young men on the way to honourable lives.

If Jackson Brown's motive for publishing the instructions in a book was to guide young men, then he succeeded with me because I was personally inspired by most of his life instructions when I read his book in late 2015. So much was I inspired by them that I penned the instructions that touched me in my quotations book and typed them into my Facebook wall in a series of ten posts. But I later deleted them from the wall because I didn't want to get into trouble for reproducing almost a whole book without permission from the publisher.

However, I don't regret the effort I put in typing the instructions because it helped me drill them into every fibre of my being. And I am proud to report that I have managed to heed most of those precious pieces of advice on leading a distinguished life. But there are several of those instructions that I have had trouble following due to forgetfulness or lack of will. Let me dwell on one of them today on disagreements with loved ones.

A loved one enraged me the other week for a reason I don't want to mention here. In my temper, I yelled at him and went ahead to fume over some of his past shortcomings. After I had cooled down and apologized for my burst of anger, I remembered an instruction in H. Jackson Brown's book about disagreements but I couldn't recall what it exactly advised. So I went back to my notes and after a short time of perusing, I found the instruction which states: "In disagreements with loved ones, deal with the current situation. Don't bring up the past."

Oh, how poor my memory had been at remembering that instruction! And how foolish I had become for bringing up the past in a minor dispute! But I am now sure I will never again forget the instruction. So I have vowed not to bring up the past if I ever get to disagree with a loved one. I will deal only with the problem engendering our disagreement. So help me God.


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Remembering Dr. Griffin

This is the late Dr. Geoffrey Griffin with the 1989 Starehe Boys' prefectorial force. Photo courtesy of Jay Bwika, an old boy of the school.

That evening in January 2002 during assembly after I first reported to Starehe Boys' as a student, I was honoured to be part of the brilliant student body that was addressed by Dr. Geoffrey Griffin - the school's founding director. He was the first white man to hear speak to a live audience. And he spoke with such intensity and confidence that I found his voice so mesmerizing that I prayed several weeks later that he would live to see me complete my studies in the school.

I enrolled at Starehe at a time when Dr. Griffin had grown a bit senile due to age and perhaps for some other reasons. So he never got to know my name even though I strived to stand out by giving speeches during assembly and accompanying the whole school on the piano. The only students Dr. Griffin knew by name during my days at Starehe were Amos Odero and Jesse Nyoro (let me not tell you who they were). But at least, I found him encouraging and understanding in the few instances I got to capture his attention.

Like he gently requested a teacher to help me out on the piano after I became horribly nervous while attempting to accompany a hymn when I was still a First-former. About two years later when I had developed the chutzpah to play the piano in front of the whole school, Dr. Griffin congratulated me on one or two times on his way out of the assembly hall. I am not sure if he got to recall how nervous I had been in Form 1 but it was heartening to hear his "well done" compliment.

And when it came to giving speeches of which I sometimes volunteered, he encouraged me to keep doing it. Like on one assembly in 2003 when I was in Form 2, he found me seated on the dais and inquired, "Are you the one giving us a talk today?" On answering 'yes', I could tell from his reaction that he was pleased. He must have understood that it was proper for a boy to hone his public-speaking skills while still in school.

As I have pointed out, I prayed on my first weeks at Starehe that Dr. Griffin would live to see me complete my studies in the school. It was a prayer God never answered because He called him home on my final year in high school in 2005. And his last words to me were "good luck in your exams" after we meet on a highway as I carried my desk to the assembly hall in readiness for a major exam, a few months before he passed on.

I was fortunate to play the piano during his funeral service that was graced by such distinguished dignitaries as President Mwai Kibaki and Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai who I noted didn't share the same dais with President Kibaki. She chose to sit on a space reserved for not so ordinary folks but again not for high-ranking guests. From where she was, I could see her glancing at me on the piano dais which I shared with Matthew Brooks, a musically talented young man from England who was then volunteering as a Music teacher at Starehe Boys' Centre and with whom I played the piano during the funeral service. And from the way Wangari Maathai kept glancing at me, I could tell she was like, "That black boy must be very talented to share a dais with a mzungu[1]."

As Dr. Griffin's coffin was getting lowered into his grave inside the school chapel, I had the honour of playing on the organ the sweetly-flowing theme of Mozart's Sonata in A. To this day, I still find myself wallowing in nostalgia whenever I play that sonata on the piano like I did yesterday evening after my leisurely walk around my neighbourhood. And Dr. Griffin still remains my hero who I am endeavouring to make proud of me as he reposes in heaven. So help me God.

[1] Mzungu is a Swahili term for a white man.


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