Who doesn’t love the underdog? Who doesn’t become excited at the thought of the person/group/team that no one had any expectations of, suddenly becoming contenders to win?
We were talking this week at my workplace about how we first learnt to read. Most people couldn’t remember – they were all good readers and just learnt to read naturally.
But I remembered. Possibly because my start in school was quite traumatic. I first went to school when I was 4 years old, fluent in Bengali, but not understanding a word of English. This made me an encumbrance to my teachers straight away. I distinctly remember one day being taken to an unfamiliar building, full of children and grown ups who I’d never seen before and being left there by my mum and dad – I cannot describe the bewilderment that I felt at the time. I’d never been to nursery before, I could remember only one time prior to this that I’d left my mother’s side, and that was when she had to go to hospital to give birth to my sister. Now I was being abandoned and left with these strangers – who were speaking to me in a language that I didn’t understand; and who couldn’t understand me.
The first month of school was horrendous. I remember that my teacher was trying to tell me that my drawer had a flower picture on it. But I didn’t know what a drawer was, or even what a flower was in English. All I remember was that my teacher was constantly impatient and exasperated with me.
I remember playing a lot in Reception. Once we were told to play with stickle-bricks. For those of you who don’t know, they were brightly coloured, plastic building bricks with blunt spikes on each face, you would build by attaching the spikes together, I loved it. A little girl next to me had the bricks that I wanted. I don’t know what possessed me, I didn’t know how to tell her that I needed those bricks, even if I tried to speak to her i know that she wouldn’t have given them to me anyway – so I did what I thought would work at the time, I bit her arm and took the bricks. Unbeknownst to me, she went and told the teacher, who promptly came, took me away, shouted at me and smacked me.
Of course I cried. There was no one to talk to. No one understood me. No one seemed to care for me. And I spent most of the day in this weird place that I simply didn’t understand.
A month of this went on, my mum told me years later that she noticed that the other children were coming home with reading books, but I had nothing. Apparently, she asked me but I had no idea what was going on. She spoke to my teacher and I had some cards in a brown envelope in my school bag that I needed to learn. If I didn’t learn those words, then I wasn’t able to get a reading book.
Mum took me home, sat with me for a couple of nights and I learnt those words really quickly. It wasn’t hard. I remember one of the words was ‘Kathy’ – I’d heard some children in my class say ‘Kaffee’, mispronouncing the ‘th’, but mum sternly corrected me – Kathy, say Kathy. Which I obediently did.
She took me back to school, showing the teacher that I could read those words, then asked for more. Luckily, I could remember the shape of words and retain them in my head, so quite quickly I read more and more words, then eventually I got onto the reading books. My mum will still tell me how within a month my teacher told her that I was the top reader in the class….
Years later, English was my strongest subject at school. Reading was my solace through all types of difficulty. And now I write for pleasure.
The girl who did not know what a flower was; what a drawer was; how to ask for a stickle-brick; exasperated her teacher with her lack of understanding in everything…this girl was the underdog.
When I say ‘underdog’ – I mean that people had no expectations of me, not that I didn’t have the ability. At first it was because I couldn’t speak English – what a pain. After that, i found that in society the expectations of me were also low because I was female. And you don’t have to be a genius to also work out that because I was an Asian female who was quiet – once again, no expectations.
I was lucky though – because the one person in my life who did have expectations; who believed in me and abilities; who believed that I should always strive for more – was my mother. Had she not fought for me at that early age; constantly told me to be ambitious, strive for more, going to university wasn’t a choice, it was a certainty. Had she not instilled those ideas and fight in me when I was little – who knows where I would be now.
In some area, at some point of our lives, we all feel like underdogs. My Mum’s friend, whom she regards as a brother, said in one of the speeches at my wedding, that people would think that they knew me, and then I would go and do something that would totally take them by surprise. No one really knew or knows what I am going to do next.
You see that’s the freedom of being the underdog. I don’t think of being the ‘underdog’ as a negative. In fact it gives you a huge amount of freedom. No one expects anything from you. No one knows that you have what it takes. There is no external pressure. You simply drive forward and smash those walls in front of you.
One day, like Rocky, I will run up the steps in front of the Phildelphia Museum of Art, I will be wearing headphones, listening to “Gonna fly now” by Bill Conti and I will raise my arms (If I’m able to stand after all that running).
And I leave you with what I truly believe.
Be the underdog. Defy expectations. Do what no one believes you can.