July 29, 2016

Grandpa Chi

“Grandpa Chi.” This is the nickname that friends have affectionately called me since high school, due in part to the distinctive limp that developed after I tore my ACL in 8th grade playing football.

“Grandpa Chi.”

This is the nickname that friends have affectionately called me since high school, due in part to the distinctive limp that developed after I tore my ACL in 8th grade playing football. But also because of my mature demeanor and the support I extend to those around me, characteristics that find their root in my upbringing.

I was 4 years old when my family migrated to the United States from our homeland of Nigeria. My father, who worked as a government official, had decided that he could no longer stand by and watch a corrupt regime steal from its own people. His occupation had allowed us to live a comfortable upper middle class life, but my parents wanted more for our family than just material wealth. My mom made the difficult decision to leave Nigeria to begin a nursing program in New York, setting into motion the seemingly impossible plan to move a family of 8 halfway across the world. Her husband and children followed two years later.

Our new home was a two-bedroom apartment in the South Bronx, the neighborhood that held the unfortunate distinction of being New York City’s murder rate capital when we arrived in 1992. My mother was the household’s sole earner, while my father settled into the role of drill sergeant, keeping track of the complicated comings and goings of an immigrant family with six children. We lived as minimal a life as possible in order to make ends meet.

This new lifestyle changed me. I was accustomed to a life of privilege in Nigeria and that vanished in the blink of an eye.  All I had was family. My parents made sure that I spent every moment outside of school interacting with my four older sisters and younger brother within a highly-structured schedule. Rather than playing with toys and watching TV, I wrote poetry and read my sisters’ books, getting lost in the world of Kristy and the rest of The Baby-Sitters’ Club.

My parents were taken by surprise when I came home with a flyer for a local Little League team. We didn’t know a lick about baseball, but my parents saw the excitement in my eyes when I spoke about playing the sport with some boys from my 3rd grade class.  Thanks to a trusted neighbor’s involvement with the league, I was eventually allowed to play. That neighbor was Coach Ralph. Coach Ralph was the first of many mentors who helped to broaden my perspective on life. He saw something special in me and invested time to nurture my growth as an athlete but also as a child. My relationship with Coach Ralph and my commitment to baseball not only kept me away from the world of drug trafficking and violence that was always in my peripheral vision but it also taught me the importance of teamwork and sacrifice.

Experiencing the uplifting nature of teamwork on the baseball field made me want to play a bigger role in my family’s success story.

At age ten, I took a job as a paperboy with wages solely based on tips. I would wake up at 6 am every morning – rain, sleet or snow – and felt proud of my work and earnings. I used my earnings to buy junk food and sneakers but never before first giving my parents money to show that I wanted to help with the household expenses.

Two years later, I resigned from my job as a paperboy and put my days of playing competitive baseball on hold in order to focus on the 14-month preparatory component of Prep for Prep as a seventh grader. My parents always stressed the importance of education, and Prep for Prep presented me with the opportunity of a lifetime to attend a top New England boarding school.

I still remember my first moments on the campus of Choate Rosemary Hall. My mother and father drove me to campus in the same green 1996 Ford minivan that they would eventually use to take 6 of their 7 children to college; the other students were driven to campus in luxury cars. There was a matriculation ceremony a few hours after we arrived and all the freshmen boys were walking over to it in navy blue blazers and khakis. I didn’t have a blazer. I didn’t have a suit. So my dad did what he had to do: he took the checkered blazer he had on his back, and he gave it to me to wear. Then, my parents said goodbye and left me to do what I had learned to do: adapt and thrive.

To say I worked my tail off in high school is probably an understatement. I played football, basketball and baseball while often taking the maximum amount of classes. I would wake up every morning to hand-iron my cloths and spent an hour studying before going to breakfast. Unlike the other students, I did not have my own personal computer, so most of my free time was spent in the library using the public computers. I was accustomed to being resourceful and I knew how to tune out the noise around me in order to focus on the task at hand.

When I tore my ACL in the 8th grade, my parents made the tough decision to bypass surgery. We simply could not afford it. So I toughed it out through grueling physical therapy sessions and the teasing that comes from having to use a walking cane. It was in that moment that the nickname Grandpa Chi was born. I heard the teasing and rather than letting it tear me down, I embraced it. I perfected the old man dance (gotta have a go-to dance move), developed an appreciation for knit sweaters, and even threw baby powder in my hair from time to time just to get a good laugh out of my friends. During my junior year in high school, another injury would force me to give up competitive baseball for good. Unable to completely walk away from the game, I signed up to be the manager for the softball team and found a niche as the unofficial “life-coach” for the girls on the team. My positive and welcoming personality allowed the girls to confide in me and seek advice as they navigated their various realities. I was a confidant and a supporter. I was Grandpa Chi.

The role came naturally to me and so during my senior year in high school, I decided to volunteer within the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America program as a mentor. My mentee, an avid baseball fan, and I both grew in confidence during that year, and I gained the desire to impact the lives of more youth, particularly through sports.  Since then I’ve served in various capacities as a full-time mentor and life-coach for as many people as I can help, and I am committed to creating more avenues for mentorship opportunities.

My experiences at Brown University and afterwards will be the inspiration for most of my writing within this space. I share these experiences not because they are singularly unique to my life, nor because they have more significance than your experiences, but rather because I want to make one message clear: We live in a world where no two people are the same and yet we are undeniably one. We were created and shaped in love and we spread that sustaining energy of love by showing empathy rather than apathy.

I care about being a resource and investing time to uplift others. I care about being part of success stories. That’s the story of Grandpa Chi.

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