The year of my paradigm shift

I have not been on this planet for long; however, I have experienced enough aspects of life that my life span is not indicative to my experience. To elaborate, I was born in a developing country to a middle-class family. In my early years, my family became upper middle class and the economy was good, we were labelled the bread-basket of southern Africa. Then things happened and we moved to lower middle-class; and as if on cue the economy started tanking. During this time, I made a transition from a school in a lower income area to a private school that I think is the best school in the country… I could bias. Being the best school in the country meant everyone wanted to send their children there; being a private school meant that it could set its own tuition rates. With the laws of supply and demand tuition at the school was expensive. With my parents being lower middle class, the tuition was tough for them to pay, but they believed that education was the key to this world so they made the sacrifice. As such I was living in a low-income area and going to school with the kids of some of the richest people in the country. As the economy continued to tank, we as a family were just lucky. Somehow, as unemployment increased my parents managed to keep gainful employment. This allowed us to transition to lower-upper middle class. Not because my parents made more money but rather owing to the fact inflation and unemployment had eroded the middle-class. We were able to move to a higher income neighborhood. When I was 16/17, we made our way to middle upper-class, mainly because of one of the things that happened in my famed year of metamorphosis. After high school, I started a career. The economy continued to tank but I lived with my parents so as an adult I was sheltered from the harsh reality of dire straits of our economy. The profession was a good one, there is demand for people with my particular skillset.  As a result, I got a job in America and migrated and this where I have been ever since; earning an upper-middle class income. My job took me across the country and made me interact with people from all walks of life in America. Thus, broadening my already vast experience even more.

As an adult, I like to, from time to time, look back on my life and reflect on the moments that stand out in my memory and how that has shaped the person I am today, whether that is a good place to be, and whether, based on my current experience, I can learn something more from these experiences or change the previous revelation… some people have yoga, I have this.

It was during one of these odysseys in my mental time machine that I realized my 16/17 year (2003) was pivotal, though at the time I had not realized it. At this point in my life, I guess even now to some extent, I operated on a minimum effort philosophy. The premise of this lifestyle is to put in the minimum amount of effort to make sure your life is comfortable. Anything over that is wasted effort. For example, you are taking an exam, the pass mark is 75% you get 95%, the excess 20% is wasted effort. The value of that 20% varies from individual to individual i.e. those who want to prove something academically vs. those that just want to get to the next stage. Before 2003 I was the type of person who just wanted to get to the next phase while living a peaceful life. What were the threats my peace, my mom (because she used to stress about my academic results) and school (because of all the damn rules, I hate being told what to do). The only thing that mattered to me was sports. I was not that good enough to make a career out of them but they were fun and I was good enough to make my school teams. Minimum effort with regards to sports was just showing up for practice because it was compulsory to participate in at least one sport each school term. Going the extra mile involved putting in effort on the field so that I made the team and that we did not lose…I hated losing. So that gives you an appreciation of my attitude during my 16/17 year.

My school was a Jesuit school. If you are familiar with the Jesuits, they emphasize service; one of our mottos was “men for and with others” – I use men because it was an all-boys school, not being exclusive. In order to come back for your senior years at this school you had to do what they called service projects. This is when, at the beginning of the school year, the new seniors would spend 3 weeks “volunteering” (really we were forced) at an institution that serves a disadvantaged group in society e.g. low-income households, the elderly, mentally handicapped individuals, etc. The school worked with several such organizations thus as candidates we had to choose which one we wanted to go to. I went to a school for the physically and mentally handicapped despite my best efforts to avoid such a place. The school had three grades so to speak, Grade 1 where they teach the students basic survival skills, bathing, using the toilet, cleaning up after themselves, and the such; Grade 2, which was basic math and language skills, this class was used to determine where the students ranged on the intelligence spectrum; Grade 3 where the students were split into 3 different classes – a class for those who are not so intelligent, they were taught practical skills so they make a living making things e.g. jewelry, baskets, art – a class for the more intelligent students where they developed on the math and language skills, these students were being prepared for life in the work force in the less challenging positions – and then a class for the students that were in between, these students were taught a mixture of practical skills as well as intermediate math and language.

As volunteers we (I went on this project with 2 other friends – the experienced made us closer as friends) were assigned to one of the advanced classes to be a teacher’s assistant. I was assigned the advanced class, nothing special about me it was just luck of the draw. Our first day was a Friday, we were given a tour of the place and then went to our respective classrooms. My teacher had me covering the students exercise books; not bad work: easy and mundane. The day ended easily and we broke for the weekend; 3 weeks of this did not seem so bad anymore. We came back from the weekend. The school starts each week with an assembly where the headmistress addressed both the student body and faculty. During this meeting I kept looking around and I could not see my teacher…it was obvious she was not there…shit! I approached one of the other teachers and asked him what will happen since my teacher was not there…good question right. He calmly said they would probably combine my class with his…good answer. The assembly ended and the students filed to their respective classrooms. Confidently I went to the Headmistress and told her of my predicament expecting to get the same answer. She deadass looked at me and said, well, I guess you will teach them! What?!? Do you not need special training for this? Oh boy, baptism by fire. It is ok, at this point I had been in school for the majority of my life. I think I have a good idea of how a classroom works…breathe…I got this. First rule: DO NOT LET THE STUDENTS SMELL YOUR FEAR!

I found the class timetable in the teacher’s desk and proceeded to follow the structure, so far so good. Then one of the students started whistling. The class got excited, apparently, he had never whistled before so this was progress. I could tell that he was happy. Some other teachers even came into the classroom for the show and to congratulated him on his achievement. Yeah, my teaching skills are that awesome! Unfortunately, the student thought that this was such a good thing that he would not stop whistling. All the teachers had left and the excitement had died down…but the whistling continued and it was now a disruption to the class. My authority was being challenged. What did my teachers do when I got rowdy? Detention, corporal punishment, punishment essays…. hmm, that won’t work here. Bribery! I promised him extra time outside if he would stop whistling…this worked for about 5 minutes. This was to become the soundtrack of our class…sigh. During the morning, a student walks up to me and gives me his medication with the instruction that at noon he needs to take two pills… cool, at noon do not forget his medication: easy. Minus the whistling, so far so good. Before noon, one of the students just got up and walked out of class. I started following her and the students were like do not worry about her she does this all the time. Oh, so this is standard operating procedures, ok, business as usual then. I carried on with class. From the corner of my eyes I could see the adults walking around frantically past the windows, my heart started beating fast. Then one of them walked into the class and asked me where the student that had walked out went (my suspicions were confirmed, the commotion was because I let this girl go). I told her what transpired (yes, I snitched on the kids) and she scolded my class, there was nothing standard about this at all. The adults were panicking and were worrying that she walked off the school premises and she could have been hit by a car. WHAT?!! In the panic, noon struck and passed, I totally forgot about the medication…the student faints! Not a gentle TV faint too, he literally face-planted into floor. I laugh about it not because it is funny but to stop myself from crying, my failures were astronomical and this was only day one. The school nurse was called. Sure enough she asked me what had happened. I already had 2 strikes, should I tell the truth? It would be his word against mine… I fessed up. The nurse reassured me that it was not my fault. The students know that they are supposed to come to her with all medication needs…phew…well not phew “phew” because it was not my fault, I should have given him his medication, but phew in the sense that I am glad I told the truth, honesty is the best policy. The student came too and took his medication, the runaway was found, and the whistling was now entertaining (or maybe I had just accepted defeat). I survived day 1… barely. That night I told myself that things will have to change, and for the remainder of the week I applied myself to being the best teacher I could be.

How did this change my life? Remember my philosophy of minimum effort. My mom was convinced that I was just being lazy and that if I applied myself more, I could achieve more academically. For three weeks I watched these kids put in so much effort and passion into their school work and for what? At this point, the economy was in a freefall and the government seemed to have accepted this fact and had gone into full out looting mode. No one was fixing the economy and unemployment was growing. Who would hire these kids or buy their baskets? Yet day in day out they applied themselves, the teachers applied themselves, and the parents ensured that their kids would go to school. Here I am at the best school in the country, with all the educational resources I could desire at my disposal, yet I was happy with mediocrity. They were applying themselves with all hope for the future but little in terms of prospects; meanwhile I had the world at my feet but I did not appreciate it.  

As mentioned earlier, in 2003 we moved from lower-upper class to a comfortable middle-upper class. This was because my mom got a kick-ass job at a place where she had worked before and was let go. The now CEO came to our house after work and talked to my mom for hours. The basic gist of the conversion was him basically asking my mom what it will take for her to accept a managerial position at this company. My mom was able to negotiate a remuneration package that provided us with the enough additional income that allowed us to change income levels.

Both these experiences made me look at my life. There were people with less prospects than me putting in more effort than me. My mom grew up in the rural areas in Africa and because of the effort she put in towards her education here was a CEO at our house begging my mom to come work for him. What am I doing? What am I working towards? I started applying myself at school, the results were swift. In the second term of 2003 I came first in my grade for mathematics. This made me realize what I am capable of and proved the results of hard work. I continued to apply myself and as a result I passed my finals really well, got my job in an economy with approximately 90% unemployment, getting my bachelor’s degree, post grad, and professional qualification all while working a fulltime job, moving to the US with the same company, and getting my Certified Public Accountant qualification in the US.

Now that I am an adult I can sit down and have a candid discussion with my mother about life. Something I really look forward to and enjoy. We have talked about some of the problems she faced in the corporate world. As a kid, I just thought things were smooth sailing for her. Talking to her helped me appreciate the effort she (and my dad) put in to provide me and my siblings with the best opportunities in life given our circumstances.

Everything in life takes effort. For the things that you are passionate about, minimum effort can only take you so far. If you want to achieve greatness (greatness being self-defined) minimum effort is just not going to cut it. As humans we have finite time and thus finite effort we can apply. One needs to assess for themselves what things are important to them and apply as much effort to that as possible. At the same time there are other things other than our passion that will require our attention as well. Minimum effort for these things is allowed. Take time to know yourself so you can know where to apply your time and effort. Self is constantly evolving, making it important to occasionally reevaluate yourself, where you want to go, and how to apply your efforts.

Life is a beautiful thing, not fair, but beautiful. In the direst of situations, you can find a reason to smile and carry on. I often think about those kids in my class. Where are they now, what are they doing, are they happy? I try not to dwell too much on this because no matter how I slice the cake the outcome is grim; I hope I am wrong. Those kids taught me to always hope, so I hope that one day I can change the world and I apply my efforts accordingly. Whether I succeed or fail is nether here nor there. To sound cliché, it is about the journey and not the destination.

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