Have you ever been stunned by accomplishing something that you thought was totally out of your reach? Have you ever imagined anything so large that it terrified you to death merely thinking about it? Life has presented us with more than enough apparent unsolvable objectives as legacies. This is my story.
I’m 13 years old. I am a scrawny, free-spirited Liberian youngster who has no cares in the world because my mother is always there when I look over my shoulder and see and know that she was all that I needed. I was born on Christmas day, but it appears that my personality reflects the season: I’m a joyous, happy-go-lucky spirit that loves to spread laughter and cheer in everything that I do!
Even though my family is not rich, we were always happy. My mother gave me the best kind of life she can muster up, given the circumstances. I had everything I could ever want or need, and nothing to complain about.
For years, it appeared as if my life had been planned out for me; I am entering the second year of St. Patrick’s High School and look forward to it with anticipation. St Patrick’s was an elite all-boys Catholic school in Liberia that educated a large number of students from families in the mostly higher economic strata. You may infer that my mother, St. Patrick’s, and my own self-esteem, confidence, and image were all connected to one another.
All I wanted more than anything was to graduate from St. Patrick’s. I didn’t.
My world came crashing down at the start of the school year when my mother was forced to flee Liberia due to “tribal-political” conflict and seek refuge in the United States but couldn’t take me with her. The plan was for us to be reunited after six to nine months.
Up to this point, I don’t remember how stuttering fit into my life, but in my new life without my mother, I became self-conscious, I am a stutterer after all. I struggled severely to cope with living without my mom around. She was the glue that held everything together. Apparently, the glue even held my speech together because I forgot that I had a stutter.
My mother left, and the bucket may have had holes in it when she did, but the bottom came off at the conclusion of the school year. For repeated tardiness, I was expelled from St. Patrick’s High School. That year, I went to school late 15 times. It should come as no surprise; it seems like my mother was also my alarm clock. This seems like hitting rock bottom.
It appears that, in addition to her departure, my mother also took with her my self-confidence and self-esteem, as well. My stutter got debilitatingly severe, I got more and more introverted, and I lost my will to do anything. I stopped caring about everything–I had one goal: to protect myself from the world I felt defined me by my stutter.
A year later, I hit what would seem like another of many rock bottoms: I am announced as class valedictorian of my middle school (Jr. High as it is called in Liberia) graduating class. My feeling of accomplishment and pride never felt so strong. I was not just a valedictorian, I had something to truly smile about in nearly two years. That feeling didn’t last long. I learned that as valedictorian, I would have to give a speech. I skipped the graduation ceremony.
4 years later (there was one year of interruption of schooling due to the Liberia civil war), history repeats itself: I am, again, announced as valedictorian of my high school graduating class. So what do you think I did this time?
Almost 25 years to the day after my high school graduation, I walk onto a stage in Nashville, Tennessee, USA in April 2018 at the PMI Symposium officially as a professional speaker, paid to give a keynote.
3 years earlier, I am announced as a district finalist at the Toastmasters International Contest. I am one contest win away from qualifying for the World Championship of Public Speaking having defeated a 3-time qualifier in the process. I am in the top 20% of Toastmasters contestants worldwide! I stunned myself!
What could have been a story of devastation, loss and a life filled with self-pity has turned into a story of grit, unwavering resilience, and mastering courage as my primary source of psychological fuel.
My mother? Well, we reunited in the United States 13 years later not the 6 to 9 months she had hoped.
And the high school graduation speech?
I threatened to skip the graduation also but got persuaded by our school principal, Dr. Louise C. York to give the speech. If you were there as an audience, you would have thought that it was a painful and embarrassing experience to watch how my stutter took over my speech, but it was liberating within. I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I was in my element! My voice was my gift, and I was not going to let a little thing like a speech impediment stop me from using it.
Once I stepped onto that pulpit of that AME Church to give my speech, something inside of me clicked – this was what I needed all along – to be recognized, to be known for something more than my stutter.
I don’t recall what the speech was about, how I concluded it, or what the reaction was after I left the stage (I am sure there were laughs and claps) but I do remember how I felt. That moment of courage was my deposit or down payment for my lifelong journey of self-discovery, courage, and self-mastery.
It was as if Dr. York handed me a microphone and asked, “What are you going to say? The world is waiting to see your voice.”
Today, I am on a mission to finish those two speeches: one that I skipped in middle school and the other I started in high school and the message is the same and simple: Raise your hand, Speak up, and Be Unmesswithable.
As odd as it may sound, I still live with fears and doubts that keep me from living the life that I want or achieving my full potential but what makes it worth fighting is knowing that there is someone at the other end of hurdle relay waiting on me to hand them the baton. They are my motivation to raise my hand, speak up, and be unmesswithable.
To your unmesswithable Courage!