I confess that when I first thought of challenging perceptions, I aimed at challenging perceptions about visual impairment and disability. God knows there are so many challenges in disability, but an equal number of perceptions need to be dumped. If they had been, things would have been so different for many disabled people. But it’s not all about challenging perceptions. After a while, even such things become monotonous, boring and impersonal. Perceptions have to be linked to people.
Let’s try that. I have a friend. He’s been my friend since I was in primary school. He first appeared on television when I was 9 or 10. It was like a magic show. They’d give him two numbers, and he’d add them. It’d go something like this.
128 plus 332 (he’d answer) plus 419 (he’d answer) … and it would just go on. But long before his first television appearance, I used to play a secret game with myself. It all started when the class was asked to add up our scores. The teacher would list the scores each person had, and we’d add them up. As we did that, I noticed that Wale was quick as lightning, and I decided to try to beat him., I failed each time.
This is a true story, and if you lived in Lagos and watched children’s television in the mid70s, you might remember Adewale as one of the star attractions, when the Pacelli School for the blind was featured. His chance to shine ended when he left primary school. But the publicly displayed mumeracy skills was not the sum of Wale’s intelligence. If he’d had my opportunities, maybe he would also have had a doctorate.
I guess it’s not rocket science to suggest that if a person is not encouraged, or if he lacks opportunity, his talents will remain in his head. Similarly, but less obviously, the ordinary people you walk past everyday may have special gifts that are hidden behind the frustrations of lost opportunities. Or they may look so ordinary that you miss what they really have to offer. When I read through my blog, I realise how ordinary people have influenced me, because we connected. Lara threw me a surprise birthday party, Chriss died at such a young age and pulled a percentage of Lancastrians to his funeral, 91 year old Olive told me about pre-war and post-war life in the Northwest of England, Rob Davies and his wife Catherine had a vision and set up an e-community for blind Christians, David and Rachel Prince tell a remarkable story of God’s power to heal. These people are not famous, but they should be. Some of them have done little things, which have had a surprising effect on ordinary people like me.
I’ve met famous people too. In January 1977, Stevie Wonder was in Nigeria for the Festival of Black Arts and Culture, (FESTAC ’77. He came to visit Pacelli school for the Blind, and I read a prepared speech to him. He played for us on the piano, and just before he left, he took off his cap and gave it to me. I’m sorry, in the unlikely event that Stevie Wonder reads this, and in the even more unlikely event that he remembers me, I have lost that cap now. I was a lot older when I met Prince Charles and gave him a vote of thanks in March 1990. At least I still have the picture. But that doesn’t mean he remembers me.
I once read that most people won’t remember who won the Oscars two years ago, but will remember the teacher who encouraged them. That is true, but even if neither Stevie Wonder nor Prince Charles remembers me, they will remember those to whom they are just ordinary family members or friends. I believe that each person is both a superstar and an ordinary guy. The reason why you all don’t yet know me is that there are billions of people jostling for superstar status with me. So, if I treat everyone like the superstar they are, I might just discover the Olive Newby who has amazing stories to tell, or the David Prince who can make a grand piano sing in his lovely Yorkshire cottage. When Olive told me those stories, she could easily have been one of those radio 4 historians. And when I heard David play, I felt that a superstar was giving me a private concert. And they both sounded the part.
And if superstars treated ordinary people like superstars …! I’ve met a lot of other famous people too. I’ve been most impressed by those who took the time to treat me well. I’ll tell you just one more story. It was of meeting the ‘90s gospel singer Ron Kennoly. I met him once in Birmingham, and just before his concert, he took time to talk to me. The next year, I went to another of his shows in Manchester. As I approached him after the concert, he shouted across to me, “Hey, you do get around don’t you?”
It’s great to be able to say that I’ve stood next to both Stevie Wonder and David Prince, and they both played the piano beautifully for me. I don’t know Stevie Wonder that well, so I can’t speak for him. But the people who have most impressed me have been those who have been both famous and ordinary. In the mid to late 80s, I was madly in love with a young lady. She was so beautiful, she went for beauty contests in Nigeria and abroad. It was interesting seeing her again quite recently. She still had the poise, she still looked gorgeous, but she was just a regular mother. Most of the other mothers picking their children from the suburban school would not have known that 15 years ago, this lady was doing her thing on the world stage. Yet, she was perfectly comfortable with being a great mum.
I found out that my dad became the president of the Nigerian Society of Engineers from friends who read about it in the papers. Actuallly, I enjoyed his presidency. I was a student at the university of Lagos, and he had lots of reasons to be in Lagos. I became the most visited student, but I loved it. In 1991, I was a student at Lancaster university. My brother had come to spend the summer with me when we got a postcard from my dad, saying that he’d been elected as vice president of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations. We knew he was going for the meeting, but not that he was running for office. He might as well have been writing that he was on holiday and having a great time. We were both in shock, because we hadn’t seen it coming. My mum was worse; it was in her obituary that I learned that during all those trips to Harare and Washington, she’d been giving papers on women’s issues in Nigeria. All the time everyone was electing her to this or that position, we just thought she was a great mum.
There are lots more stories, but enough of the name dropping. It’s just wonderful to be able to celebrate greatness and ordinariness, because both are merely two sides of a coin. In fact, how do we measure greatness? Have we got the criteria wrong? I’m sure that William and Harry think of their dad in the same way as I think of my own dad. In 1977, Stevie Wonder told us about her daughter Aisha, and he sounded every bit the proud father … at least to my 9 year old ears. The point is that to us, they’re celebrities, while to their children, they’re great fathers. And if in some things, they can be such superstars, in others, they’re quite ordinary. And this also means that there are many people who are so ordinary, but who could be superstars.
The interesting thing is that we’re constantly judging people immediately we get in contact with them. If someone’s scruffy, they can’t be intelligent; if the’re blind, they can’t read a report, use the computer or travel from one country to another; if someone’s deaf, he can only compete in the paralympic games; (ask Terrence Parkin, South African silver medallist at the Sydney Olympic games … he’s deaf). I suppose the good thing is that we’re in good company; in the Bible, we read of Samuel, who could have anointed the wrong person as king, because he was looking at the outward appearance. If we could get past the preconceptions, we might see Wale as a superstar, recognize the wealth of knowledge that Olive had, and enjoy the great successes of the echurch or Newday-Prince websites. As they say, great oaks from little acorns grow, and both websites have grown astronomically from such small and insignificant beginnings.
Going back to Wale, he could be a superstar if he had the chance. He could be doing his act on television. Who knows, by now, he could have progressed to adding 6 figure sums and beating calculators. All the great actuarial firms and scientists would be calling on him when their powerlines were down and they needed quick sums worked out. If that ever happens, remember I told you, we were in school together, and I did try to outcalculate him. All right then, I confess that I failed on every occasion. Hey, but that’s why he’s a superstar in that area, and I’m not.