iBelieve in Me – What life in the USA has taught me

On a day marked by celebrations regarding the independence of the United States, I wanted to take a moment to tell you about the beauty of this great country. The opportunities presented to me here are endlessly and I have grown to love and respect the people of a land that means so much to our world today.

Growing up I never believed in my potential. Although I had parents that believed in me, I was raised in an educational environment that taught me to see the world as black or white. It was an environment that said you either win or lose. If you were not the best, you were no one. Throughout preparatory school I found that I became insecure. Almost every grade level I entered began by teachers separating the class into two groups: the smart students and the dunce students. There was no middle ground. I wasn’t good enough to be labeled smart and for 3 grade levels I was labeled a dunce. What purpose did I have raising my hand to answer a question? It was pointless, my designation meant that the probability was greater that I would be wrong anyway.

In grade 4 I remember having to read aloud in class as the instructor assigned me a paragraph from one of our text books. I hesitated. My heart raced as I thought about the embarrassment that was about to enfold. Having been designated a dunce, I figured it was better to remain silent. The longer I took to start reading meant the longer everyone’s attention would be focused on me. I had to end this, so I started reluctantly. As I read, I stuttered. Things were going smoothly until I came across a word I was unfamiliar with. As I struggled to pronounce it, no one offered to help. The teacher stood silent as if waiting for me to mess up. Eventually I was cut off. I was told to be quiet as I was too stupid to continue. In fact I was instructed to stand in the center of the room and labelled the dumb monkey. The room erupted in laughter, and what was left of my dignity went out the window. Unfortunately the incident lived with me for the remainder of my preparatory experience.

In high school I struggled to find my place. While the designation into groups no longer existed, there was still no emphasis placed on students who struggled academically. There were no support courses. My parents saw that I needed help and enrolled me in private lessons every weekend, and at times paid for a private tutor to assist me at home during the week. In addition, my dad became my favorite teacher. Every night he sat with me as I completed my assignments, and unlike my professors, provided feedback and assisted me in areas I found difficult.

My high school experience was tainted, and after 5 years I failed to meet the criteria for graduation. I felt dejected. My hopes and dreams seemed out of reach. What could someone who failed to ascertain a high school degree hope to achieve in such a competitive world? Although I gave up on myself, my parents were adamant that I continued my studies. They eventually enrolled me in a private school to retake high school courses. It was their hope that I would maintain passes in coursework needed to complete the Caribbean Examination Council exams (the Caribbean’s form of standardized testing). The cost of tuition was high, and my parents had to make tuition payments in U.S. dollars, which at the time was significantly higher in value than the Jamaican currency (it still is today). I spent two years at the private educational facility and was able to receive passes in 5 subject areas. In 1999 my parents paid for me to sit the SAT exams with hopes that I could earn a spot to study abroad in the United States. With less than stellar results, I decided to apply for enrollment at Miami-Dade Community College (MDCC), and in August of 2000 I left Jamaica to begin my studies in the U.S.

Coming to the U.S. opened doors for me that I never thought possible. At Miami-Dade I received instruction from professors who were invested in my success as a student. I was taught that nothing was impossible. In just under two years, I went from being a failure in high school to one of the top students at MDCC. My professors nurtured me, they believed in me even when I failed to believe in myself. I remember vividly the day I enrolled in my first statistics class. I enrolled with horror as I knew math was one of, if not my weakest subject area. After two class sessions I dropped out of the class, only having to enroll again within a semester, due to the fact that I needed the course to graduate. I had nightmares and thoughts of prep and high school came rolling back. Would I fail again, would I have to once again stand in the middle of the room as the stupid monkey? Fortunately not, because my professor Dr. Ian Cobham would not allow me to. Every class Dr. Cobham told me to try my best and never quit. He assigned me tons of homework and made the journey difficult. Sometimes I felt like calling it quits, but I couldn’t because I did not want to disappoint Dr. Cobham, the person who had invested so much in making me realize that anything was possible.

On the day of the final exam I dreaded not being able to pass the course. I sat nervously going through each question and left unanswered those that I did not know. I was sure I failed. I saw fellow classmates turning in their exam papers after only 30 minutes of what was a 2 hour exam. Some just wrote their names and left. After about an hour I gave up, and decided I would turn my exam in with almost 60 percent of the questions left unanswered. I gathered my belongings and approached Dr. Cobham with my failing paper in hand. Dr. Cobham glanced at it, tossed it back and told me to sit and finish the exam by answering every question. I was shocked. Why me? “Everyone else left with unanswered questions, please allow me to fail with some dignity,” I thought to myself. Dr. Cobham looked at me with a stare I remember to this day, and said “Dimitri I want you to believe enough in yourself to try.” I told him that I had given up, that math was my hardest subject and I just did not know the answers. Dr. Cobham, without sympathy, recited the words of Henry Longfellow – “The heights of great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upwards in the night.”

My heart sank as I realized in that very moment how much I had let myself down. I realized how many times I had given up on something without first believing in myself and making a commitment to do what it takes to succeed. Dr. Cobham proceeded to his desk with the final words “you will answer every question on that exam and I will sit here until you finish Dimitri. I will stay until tonight if I have to.” In that moment I realized the power of encouragement. I realized the value of having someone believe in me more than I believed in myself. After years of being told I was not good enough and being told that I was stupid, I finally had someone that saw me not for who I was, but for what I could become. Dr. Cobham saw the giant within me, when all I saw was a timid, stupid, shameful and insignificant being.

After what seemed like an eternity I finally finished the exam with every question answered. I looked around and realized I was the only remaining student in the room, and it appeared that it had been that way for at least the past hour and a half. Dr. Cobham accepted my paper. He also wished me the best going forward; he asked me never to forget that in everything I do, I should give it my all.

My experience at MDCC was just one of many that I would encounter as I pursued my tertiary goals. In addition I made friendships with people who underscored the importance of not giving up and believing in my own value. Back home I was the last selected for sporting games. My lack of talent was ridiculed. The friendships I made in college taught me the value of support. I was always told that as long as a I tried, I was good enough. I learned the value of team work. In any game or activity I had people pushing me, committed never to leave me because I was a part of the team.

America taught me that despite my past, life still had hope. In this great country people can become whatever they hope to become with hard work. The dissenting voices were minimal. I had support every step of the way. For all its wrongs as a country, the United States remains one of the greatest countries in the world. Dreams are realized daily, there is a government invested in its people, and an educational system committed to student development and success.

Pursing my collegiate education the U.S. allowed me to meet and connect with people across the globe. In the classroom we exchanged ideas, disagreed, and found solace in what made us similar. I know things aren’t perfect, but at least I live in a country that allows me the opportunity to express my opinions freely. I live in a country that has opened doors of opportunities that not only changed individual lives, but sent ripple effects through nations around the globe. America remains a beacon of hope in a world that at times seems so broken. Equality is the hallmark, and every effort is made to find ways that as humans, we can learn to coexist together, independent of our racial or ethnic identity. May God continue to bless this land of opportunity for generations to come.

© Dimitri Lyon and dimitrilyon.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Dimitri Lyon and dimitrilyon.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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2 thoughts on “iBelieve in Me – What life in the USA has taught me

  1. So many of us have embarked on a similar journey Dimitri with similar results. So many of us share your journey where in our homeland of Jamaica we were labeled as you put it “as either smart or a dunce”. I can recall not passing the dreaded common entrance exam to get a place in high school and from there your school, community and family see you as not being smart enough. Some of us were discouraged, some of us never gave up hope. Our experiences here are so similar as I started to shine in school as an adult in college. I know however, that part of my will to succeed was born out of that intense desire to prove to others I could do it which developed back home due to the pressure I faced . While younger college students were satisfied with getting a C and just passing a class, I was obsessed with performing well and getting As. My professors were always so encouraging and I was so proud that many of my stories about experiences back home became a part of my college papers and were so fascinating to my professors they would either read them aloud in class or shared them with other professors. I couldn’t understand why so many of our wonderful teachers back home lacked that basic knowledge of not knowing that discouraging, humiliating, and being insensitive to the needs of their students was not the way to teach. Most of them de-motivated or broke us down instead of encouraging and uplifting us. Sadly, so many of us have many of these horror stories probably because those same teachers may have experienced it as students as well.
    Dimitri, thank you for highlighting this journey as you have spoken or represented a similar story for so many of us. I would love if we could get an opportunity to really travel the island to show kids that not being tops in school does not determine their final outcome in life and that no matter what anyone says, they are the author of their own stories. Keep on sharing, motivating and inspiring. God bless!

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