Learning It The Hard Way - Reflections of a Young Man™

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Learning It The Hard Way

In the photo above, I am the lad in a white cap with my tongue impishly sticking out. I was getting ready to row on Lake Victoria with my team-mates in the legendary 2003 Starehe Boys' volleyball team.


When we as a team qualified for the 2003 secondary schools volleyball national championships after winning a nerve-wracking game against another high school in Nairobi, we began to tussle on who would travel to Kisumu in the Great Lakes Region where the championships were to be held. The sports governing body had slots for only 12 players and some senior members of our team wanted Kenneth Karani, an old boy of Starehe who had left the school the previous year, to be part of the team travelling to Kisumu.

Including Kenneth Karani in the team meant that some of us junior members had to be left out. Luckily for me, one senior member named Isaac Ruto insisted repeatedly that I had to attend the championships. Eventually, we managed to break the rules by having 14 of us travel to Kisumu, including Kenneth Karani. So nobody was left out.

Although Kenneth Karani high-balled to Kisumu illegally because he was then not a bona fide current student of Starehe, he turned out to be a great asset. He added humour to the team because he was fun and friendly, even to me despite the fact that he was six years my senior when I joined Starehe as a first-former in 2002. He liked calling me "DJ Thuita", and he encouraged me to unleash some good vibes on the girls from Nairobi who had also qualified for the national championships. I think the girls were from Pangani Girls' High School.

But what I remember most about Kenneth Karani was one phrase he liked using - I will teach you the hard way! - which I think was his way of silencing anyone who happened to offend him. I liked that phrase because it resonated with how life has taught me the hard way over the years.

Like I remember during my first days at Starehe, I was so proud of being part of the school and overly confident that I would perform consistently well in academics. I even told one of my newly acquainted friends in Form 1 back then that I would be number one in academics right from term 1 in Form 1 until the final mighty high school KCSE exams.

Imagine in those first days at Starehe, I was so eager to start my studies and top my class that I complained to my senior brother Patrick Gatonga who was in the school that we were being held in the school assembly hall for too long. You see, in those days, newly admitted Form 1 students used to report to Starehe on different days, so the school administration held us in the assembly hall as it waited for every new student to arrive before we could be split into different streams and begin our studies.

Guess what? After we were eventually split into different streams and our high school studies commenced, I ended being position 32 out of 35 in the mercurial stream of 1F. And I have always reckoned I could easily have been the last had I not scored an impressive 96% in Social Ethics and Education which we were taught by an amusing priest-to-be teacher named Br. Kiarie. Mark you, I was the same guy who had proudly proclaimed that I would be number one in my class right from term 1 in Form 1.

When we broke for holidays after that disappointing term for me, I read like a demon with a goal of making a quantum leap in academic rankings, from position 32 to 1, the following term. I remember fantasizing getting honoured by Dr. Geoffrey Griffin, the then respected director of the school, as the most improved boy during the final second-term school assembly.

How severely disillusioned I was! I only managed to improve by five positions the following term.

And even though I did gradually improve academically as my high school years rolled on to the point of scoring an A in the mighty KCSE exams, I never managed to rank among the top five in my stream of 4F. I can actually remember the five classmates I never managed to trounce: Brian Nalyanya, Lawrence Sikuku, Mwiti Makathimo, Douglas Ochieng' and George Yuka.

Later on in 2011 when I matriculated at the University of Nairobi to pursue a B.A. degree in Political Science, History, Economics & Public Administration, I happened to meet with George Yuka regularly at the university. He was then studying for a B.Sc. degree in Actuarial Science, the most prestigious course in Kenya. At one time, I bought him a sweet bun which he feasted with gusto as I asked him, "What did you guys used to eat at Starehe that made you so bright?" He laughed my question off.

To cut the long story short, my confidence as a bright student was tested at Starehe Boys' where I learnt that things are not always as easy as some people put it. Or as my friend Kenneth Karani would put it, Starehe taught me the hard way.

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How a Friend Helped Me

The handsome young black man in the middle of this photo is Peter Kariuki during his days at Deerfield Academy. I have extracted the photo with permission from the website of Deerfield Academy. Copyright © all rights reserved worldwide.


Peter Kariuki (yes, the young man I have mentioned in the photo above) was a schoolmate of mine at Starehe Boys' Centre but he never got to know me during our time in the school because he was three years my senior and we didn't board in the same house. He was promoted to be the school captain of Starehe Boys' sometime in 2003 when he was in the institute division of the school.

After completing his one year term as school captain, he was awarded a scholarship to pursue a post high school diploma at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, United States, from where he was accepted in 2005 at the renowned Stanford University where Bill Clinton's daughter had received her Bachelor's degree a few years earlier. A lucky young man he was.

For some reasons unbeknown to me, some fellow students at Starehe hated Peter Kariuki with a passion. "Those guys are evil!" one housemate of mine told me while pointing to a team of the three most senior captains in Starehe that included Peter Kariuki.

Then when Peter Kariuki flew to Deerfield Academy, one of my classmates ruefully remarked, "Let him fly to America; he will still come back to Kenya." And he uttered that remark in a tone that suggested how intensely he loathed Peter Kariuki.

Me, I have never been one to hate a person just because others are doing so. I therefore befriended Peter Kariuki via email when I was first applying to top American Colleges that included Stanford in 2006 while I was in Starehe Institute. I however cannot remember the advice he offered me at that time. As it happened, I was rejected by all the colleges I applied for admission.

When I re-applied to the top colleges for the second time while I was a freshman at JKUAT where I was pursuing a B.Sc. degree in Electronics & Computer Engineering, I contacted Peter Kariuki again. This time round, I remember him advising me to be grateful that I was in JKUAT. But guess what? I never felt proud to be in JKUAT because I really wanted to study in a First-World environment where I could interact with people of other races. As it happened, I was again rejected by all the colleges I applied for admission.

And when I re-applied to top American for the third time in 2009, I decided to maximize all the help I could get from Peter Kariuki. I requested him to review my application essays. He obliged and offered me his honest assessment as well as suggestions to improve the essays.

Like in one short essay in which I wrote of how I evangelized the gospel to distressed people (that was a big lie! I have never preached the gospel to anyone), Peter Kariuki suggested that I explain how evangelism enabled me to know what drives people and how people make life choices and choose ideologies to believe and live by. That subordinate clause I have displayed in green are the exact words he used. I so loved them that I copy-pasted them into the short essay.

Apart from reviewing my essays, Peter Kariuki advised me to also apply to less competitive colleges because Stanford's standards are high. Guess what again? The other colleges I applied for admission were Yale and Harvard which are as highly selective as Stanford, if not more. They all rejected me.

Grateful for the advice he had offered me freely when I applied to top American colleges in a span of four years, I continued to keep in touch with Peter Kariuki via Facebook. Like I asked him sometime in early 2011 which of the schools he had attended (Starehe Boys', Deerfield Academy & Stanford University) that he had found the best. He replied that it was Starehe Boys'.

And guess what again? Some time in March 2011, I extracted from Peter Kariuki's Facebook album two photos of him taken while he was asleep in bed and posted them on my wall in which I poked fun at him as an over-sleeper. He felt offended, unfriended me and later blocked me on Facebook. Since then, I have never heard from him again. I would like to let him know, if he's reading this story of mine, that I have matured up. As in, I no longer use people's images without their permission.

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Identifying Our Virtues

This is the renowned Stanford University, birthplace of gene-splicing and global positioning systems, where I applied for undergraduate admission thrice but was rejected. More on that in the story of mine below.


When I was applying to Stanford University for the second time ten years ago, the university asked me to list five adjectives that best described me. I came up with these ones:
  • Able
  • Polite
  • Simple
  • Social
  • Honest
Then Chris Walters, a helpful gentleman from England who was volunteering as a Music teacher at Starehe Boys' Centre, advised me to remove the adjective "simple" from the list. That was a wise advice because the Bible insinuates that simple people are easy to deceive and manipulate.

Today, I have decided to again come up with a list of adjectives that describe me which I will be reviewing often. Okay, let me begin.

First, the following are the adjectives that describe my physical appearance:
  • Handsome
  • Youthful
  • Smart
Then the following adjectives describe my character and personality:
  • Polite
  • Intelligent
  • Social
  • Punctual
  • Organized
  • Honest
  • Tactful
  • Insightful
  • Understanding
  • Prayerful
  • God-fearing
  • Friendly
  • Bright
  • Wise
  • Creative
  • Ambitious
  • Daring
  • Resilient

And then the following are the adjectives that I am striving to internalize into my day-to-day living:
  • Diligent
  • Assertive
  • Courageous
  • Grateful
  • Optimistic
  • Enthusiastic
  • Discerning
  • Charming
  • Forgiving
  • Funny
  • Early-riser
  • Avid-reader
  • Team-player
  • Quick-witted
  • Clear-thinker
  • Jogging-enthusiast
  • Self-reliant

There you have them: that is, the adjectives that describe me as well as those I am striving to possess. I recommend that you also give that kind of exercise a try. Over to you!

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