My Student who will never be successful in life.


There is a student in my school who will never amount to anything in life. I am no prophet. Yet I am so certain of this and I’m even prepared to make more dire predictions regarding his doomed future. His name is Chike, a bright student, one of our brightest prospects. The other day he was in my office, his impressive result sheet spread before me as I discussed with him. It was his turn for my usual tete-a-tete with final year students. Our discussion touched on education, career path, future and life trajectory in general. Chike is full of dreams. He told me he wants to be a medical doctor and own a very big hospital. As he was speaking, his fiery eyes bold and daring, I made an imaginative leap into his future. I wanted to picture a smart and an accomplished medic donning a stethoscope. Unfortunately, my imagination fell flat. I could only see a frustrated young man wearing a dishevelled hair look with a tangled beard, probably doing time in prison. I also saw a mortally wounded young fellow beaten to a pulp, I guess a victim of mob violence or revenge attack. This is the future I had often told Chike to prepare to face.

For long I had wished I could say to him: “it’s all a lie. It’s not gonna happen. You will surely have a bright future.” But Chike, like myself, knows it is useless to argue his fate. Yes, it is true his intelligence and powerful brain is ultimately signs of future promise, of great things to come. But nothing like that is ever going to happen. Chike, despite the higher claims of his intelligence, would become a colossal failure, a lost dream. Now see how all these will add up.

On a certain day in school, Chike was a rare sight for both the students and his teachers. A fellow student had, in what was actually a scene of mild conflict, struck Chike on the face and hell was let loose. Instantly, Chike became a mad wind, something of a gale fury that heralds a heavy downpour. He spurns violently like one stung by bees, his eyes, a flaming stream of wild emotion. He was visibly shaking with rage, howling like the foreboding sound of a fast speeding tropical air-current. He ran to a metal door and started hitting violently, delivering fitful blows with his knuckles. After a while he paused, still gripping the metal door while heaving and shaking amidst panted breath. And his knuckles could be spotted with fresh blisters. The offending student, sensing calmness, cut into the fray and approached Chike on that spot. This was in a bid to offer an apology. Unfortunately, that was a costly mistake from the poor boy. The moment he touched Chike, what happened next took the breath away from everybody around. Chike became a spectre of rage, a walking mayhem in human shape, delivering fatal blows that reduced the student to a mass of the unconscious body in a matter of minutes. People were shocked and terrified. I was not. Not in the least. This scale of the tragedy is the kind only Chike could muster the gut.

I have always known one thing about Chike. And I will go straight to say it. There is something painful and concerning about his life, something that has been dogging his heels and giving him faltering steps. For lack of precision, I will call it a personal demon. Although People who know him tend to call it anger. But I think the word anger comes down a bit pedestrian or less sophisticated to capture the depth of tragedy at work in the life of Chike. What kind of anger would turn an otherwise gentle boy into something of a devil? It will not allow him to smile or look cheerful. It will not allow him to have a normal life like socializing with friends and catching up on fun in the way teenagers do. Is this the human way with anger?

I beg to disagree with those who regard this as anger. Imagine. Chike has blisters claiming up his two knuckles, patches of disgusting wounds that hardly heal before fresh ones are inflicted. Seeing them one might think he is sick or something. For myself, it was sheer novelty finding out how the wounds always end up on Chike’s two knuckles. The true picture is that Chike has a thing for rage. It comes like a spell, hurtling him down the path of self-violence. So those blisters are actually self-inflicted wounds and they come every so often, with fresh ones appearing at regular intervals.

The next day Chike was crying in my office. The school management has sat over his matter and decided on expulsion. It was a hot debate before the management arrived at the decision to expel Chike from school. There were series of to and fro arguments among the teachers in the management. What stood out most in all the arguments was Chike’s high intelligence quotient. A teacher mentioned the fact that Chike has brought many academic trophies to our school through his exploits. Trophies that brought fame and renown to our school. Another argued that Chike would likely make 9A1 in his final exam and that till date he remains the school’s best bet at that. Chike was winning the argument until a female teacher asked a question that got everyone silent and thoughtful. It was the question that changed everything.

Before I handed over the expulsion letter to Chike, I did find myself brooding over the question again. The teacher had asked: “how could someone of such obvious intelligence do something so irrational, so downright dumb?” At that moment in my office, I told Chike: “The school is not expelling you for poor academic performance. Everyone knows you are the best in your class. But your teachers have been asking these questions: “how can you be so violent? How could you do that thing to that student? How could you act so mean toward others? This is why we are withdrawing you from the school and ending your academic program with us.” Chike was melancholic as those words sank deeper and deeper into his mind. He sat through it all, his eyes gelid with feeling, taking every judgment against his person with untold pain. His sorrow was so meaningful, a poignant realization of what I had always wanted him to know, that there is more to human success than academic intelligence, that being kind, loving and caring can take you farther in life than any first-class result, that he needs to develop emotional intelligence.

Daniel Coleman has built an impressive scholarship in the realm of human emotion. He has argued that our humanity is most evident in our feelings. And that a view of human nature that ignores the power of emotion is sadly shortsighted. Those teachers who defended Chike for his intelligence had ignored this fact, the fact that emotion is central to human success and survival. “Sociobiologists point to the preeminence of heart overhead at such crucial moments when they conjecture about why evolution has given emotion such a central role in the human psyche. According to them, our emotions guide us in facing predicaments and tasks too important to leave to the intellect alone…danger, painful loss, persisting towards a goal despite frustrations, bonding with a mate, and building a family.” This is the understanding that informs my pessimism over the future survival of Chike. Someone who is as emotionally volatile as Chike, despite possessing superior intelligence, should never hope for a great future full of promises and success stories. Coleman admits that “the brightest among us can flounder on the shoals of unbridled passions and unruly impulses; people with high IQs can be stunningly poor pilots of their private lives.” This is unfortunate for any man.

Mortified by this blight of fate trailing a smart young boy, I went into action to save Chike from himself, from the tyranny of his errant emotion. So one day inside my office, in one of my unsuccessful counselling sessions with him, I had suggested that he develops emotional intelligence, that wash of feeling that gives life its flavour and its urgencies. I remember that Chike recoiled back, telling me he didn’t want to develop emotion because he didn’t want to fall in love with a woman yet. I laughed at his naivety. He was just sixteen and couldn’t know any better. But I went on to tell him that developing emotional intelligence is much more than falling in love with a woman. I told him that even his violence towards others, his constant outburst of anger, his feeling of joy, his perseverance in the face of difficult tasks are all covered under human emotion. As our discussion progressed, I read out to him, a portion from Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Coleman. It says: “Much evidence testifies that people who are emotionally adept, who know and manage their own feelings well, and who read and deal effectively with other people’s feelings, are at advantage in any domain of life, whether romance and intimate relationships or picking up the unspoken rules that govern success in organizational politics. People with well-developed emotional skills are also more likely to be content and effective in their lives, mastering the habits of mind that foster their own productivity; people who cannot marshal some control over their emotional life fight inner battles that sabotage their ability for focused work and clear thought.” Before closing the book, I couldn’t resist emphasizing the last sentence. I wanted Chike to know he was already fighting inner battles that would sabotage all his dreams of ever becoming successful unless he would develop emotional intelligence. Later, in my attempt to help further, I lent him a book by Joyce Meyer, Managing your Emotions, a beautiful book. Chike never returned that book. And I doubt he ever read it.

A teacher came in as Chike was leaving my office. She saw the concern on my face. Without waiting for her to ask I told her that Chike would be a failure in life. I was brunt and she knew I meant it. The teacher knows Chike very well. So she asked me immediately: “But he is our best student. How come? Did he fail his subjects?” Her question was more of a defence, an attempt to disagree with me. Sensing her confusion I reminded her of the visit our school made to Onitsha Federal Prison some time ago. It was there that we met a young man called Smart. Smart is a youth on trial for murdering a man over a minor misunderstanding. When Smart delivered his valedictory speech as the best graduating student in his class, he, like Chike, had hopes of owning a very big hospital and being a very successful medical doctor. If somebody had told him then that in less than two years he would end up a prisoner, he would never have believed a word of it. But to this day Smart has lots of time to regret some few minutes of rage unleashed. He had hit the head of the man with stethoscope in one outburst of spontaneous emotion. The young man slumped immediately and the rest became history. The man’s offence was for scratching the rear bumper of his car. If convicted, Smart would be serving a life jail or facing a death sentence. This is the picture that keeps coming to my mind each time anybody wants to defend Chike and the promises of his intelligence without taking into consideration the pitfalls posed by his errant emotion. So I asked the teacher. What if someone murders Chike shortly for his violence? What if Chike ends up a prisoner for murder case? If he ends up a prisoner serving a life jail term, will his intelligence still make him successful? The teacher swallowed these points with a nod and left my office. She was now convinced but she hated her conviction. I saw it on her face.

The school where I work, St. Anthony of Padua High School Nkpor has been around for more than two decades. As the school manager, I have had occasions to interact with a lot of old boys and girls. Their annual alumni visit to school has always been an avenue to find out where and what they have been in life since graduation. As their answers come you begin to notice a quality that’s so vital to human survival. You will notice how “Intelligence Quotient offers little to explain the different destinies of people with roughly equal promises, schooling and opportunity.” Take, for instance, one student who has been travelling around the world told me his company CEO appointed him manager for his proven maturity and good human relationship. Another, a young university lecturer, is working as an assistant lecturer in his department. He told me his departmental lecturers voted against the automatic choice of the best graduating student from their department for his arrogance, pride and lack of respect. He was rather selected not just for his intelligence but also for his additional grace like friendliness, gentle manner and respect. It is this additional grace that always makes the difference. It has “trumped the idea of intelligence as the sole acceptable measure of human aptitude.”

Each time I remember that an intellectually qualified student, the best graduating from his department was denied a job opportunity that was almost his birthright I become alert to the different emotional intelligence could make in the life of anyone. Coleman regards emotional intelligence rather than Intelligence Quotient or technical skills as the discriminating competency that best predicts who among a group of very smart people will lead most ably. He argues that “one of psychology’s open secrets is the relative inability of grades, IQ, or SAT scores, despite their popular mystique, to predict unerringly who will succeed in life.”

I had often asked this question: why is it that there are many intelligent people, I mean very remarkably smart people that are not so remarkably successful? Each time I ask this question, I think of that medical doctor Smart, the valedictorian of his class who would spend the rest of his years in prison. Why should it be so? I think I now know the answer. For Coleman, “to know that a person is a valedictorian is to know only that he or she is exceedingly good at achievement as measured by grades. It tells you nothing about how they react to the vicissitudes of life.” There is a saying that company CEOs are hired for their intellect and business expertise and fired for a lack of emotional intelligence. Of fact is this: intelligence will open doors of opportunities for any man while personal demons like errant emotions will slam those very doors against him. In our school, Chike was offered admission for his brilliance and got expelled for being an emotional wreck. What a fate! Emotion is destiny. It is my dear. Manage your own wisely.

Finally, here is a letter that was written by Haim Ginott, a Jewish child psychologist. He was struck to write it by the horrific stories told by Holocaust survivors. It is a powerful message to every teacher on how best to train a man.

“Dear Teacher,

I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness:
Gas chambers built by learned engineers.
Children poisoned by educated physicians.
Infants killed by trained nurses.
Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates.
So, I am suspicious of Education. My request is: Help your students become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more humane.”
Haim Ginott (‘Teacher and Child’ 1972)

To avoid creating future tragedies like Chike and Smart, schools and teachers must, therefore, resolve to not only pass on knowledge and skills to students but also try to develop well-formed consciences and instil values such as justice, mercy and compassion.

Fr. Tochukwu Onyeagolu is a priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Onitsha and manager St Anthony of Padua High School Nkpor.


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