Rising from the valleys of life

15-December-2010Published in: St. Louis American

Let me share with you a personal story of redemption and perseverance.

I was born and raised in Nigeria, and one of the lingering traditions is the annual end-of-year recognition award day at the high school. It was the end of the ninth grade, and all the parents were invited to celebrate.

The teacher entered, announced that she was going to recognize the students in numerical order from the top performers on down. The first place position went to a student named Toun.

Toun was a petite, extremely well-mannered, intellectually gifted girl who knew all the answers to all the questions and loved doing homework. She was also the first to complain when we didn't get any homework assignment! Yes, we hated her.

After Toun's name was announced and she walked to the front of the class to receive her first place certificate, she hugged her parents then exited the classroom with her mom and dad.

The countdown progressed quickly, and as the room emptied out, the applause that followed the reading of each name became thinner. By the time the teacher reached #20, the classroom was unbelievably quiet. When the teacher reached #30, the remaining students drew together in the middle of the classroom, supporting each other in our collective shame.

The teacher, however, continued her announcements - 31, 32, 33 - in the same enthusiastic tone as if the classroom were full. And then the moment arrived. She was going to announce the last two positions.

"The 34th position goes to Tunde Adeoye." My friend Tunde was so happy that he let out a loud yell and literally ran out of the classroom overjoyed. Only I remained standing.

Finally the teacher announced to an almost empty class: "The 35th position for this year goes to Benjamin Ola. Akande." I walked briskly to the front of the classroom to receive my certificate, then turned towards the doors to meet my dad.

We began the slow, awkward walk toward the parking lot.

After a long pause, my dad said, "Benjamin, we can only go up from here." He did not say "Benjamin, you can only go up from here." He said "we." This was the moment when everything changed for me.

Some years later, while visiting my parents in Nigeria, I decided to take a walk around the old neighborhood. I had just stepped out of our compound when I heard a familiar voice call out, "Hey, 35, is that you?"

At first I didn't answer. I just kept walking. I finally turned around to see a face from my past, #1, Toun.

I told her I lived in America and was a professor at a business school at Webster University in St. Louis. Toun told me she had risen to a leadership position and ownership at a major bank.

As I turned to walk away, Toun called out "#35 - you can't control where the winds of life will take you, but there is one thing you can control. You can control what you do with your life."

I returned to the states a few weeks later, and soon after received a call from home. My dad said Toun was sick and encouraged me to give her a call. I called her and Toun told me that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and that it had spread to other organs.

Despite the prognosis, she was upbeat, her voice radiating the strength and composure that made her so successful. I told Toun that I wanted to help by connecting her with my older sister Nickie, who is a cancer scientist.

But then, Toun turned it on me. "Look, 35, I'm going to beat this thing. Don't worry about me. I'm going to be okay."

Less than a week later, Dad called in the wee hours of the night to let me know that Toun had passed away. I sat in bed, crying. Not only had I lost a friend, I had lost a friend who taught me by example that indeed the valley is where real growth happens.

God doesn't promise us a life full of mountaintop experiences. We will all experience valleys in our lives. I'm talking about dark valleys, steep slippery valleys, and valleys of despair. There are no maps to detour the valleys of life. All we have is our faith and our willingness to persevere in those valley days.

You won't find growth on the mountain tops above the timberline. It is in the valley.

Yes, I'm still #35, striving every day to continue the climb. There are hundreds of #35's out there. Perhaps you know one. Perhaps you are one. What will you do about it?

This is the last of four stories told by Akande in his keynote speech at the St. Louis American Foundation's 2010 Salute to Excellence in Business. Akande is dean of the George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University.