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John Amaechi OBE Shares His Story at the 2014 Chicago Benefit Dinner

John Amaechi OBE shares his story with students, teachers, and community members at the Facing History and Ourselves 2014 Chicago Benefit Dinner.
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At a Glance

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English — US

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  • Social Studies
  • Equity & Inclusion

All right. Let's get rid of that. One size does not fit all, clearly.

[LAUGHTER]

Clarinda was all, she was concerned about her performance today. But I think it's a testament to her and to this program that she can come up here and speak so eloquently in front of 700 people, I think it's remarkable.

[APPLAUSE]

I do this often before I speak, but I just want to, this is my real voice. This is what's going to be happening for the next 20 minutes. Sometimes it takes people some time to get used to that. It's one of those interesting identity things where we have certain expectations about massive people.

[LAUGHTER]

And this voice is not one of them. Nor is this pocket watch, I would add. But it's good sometimes to throw people's ideas out of the window. So I'm going to talk to you, I want to tell a few stories, I suppose, about something that Clarinda alluded to. Which is the fact that her and my stories are linked, in a sense. My mother too, though she was British, she'd been working in America and met my father in Nigeria, and ended up after several years coming back to England on her own and raising three children. In an environment that was hostile to difference, certainly at the very early days of their being mixed race people in Britain.

And she did such an amazing job of helping me understand myself and be more resilient despite what I experienced. And certainly what Clarinda said about her experiences in school really resonated. Because I went to a school in England that was very much like what I imagine all Americans to imagine all British schools to be like. Essentially Hogwarts.

[LAUGHTER]

And there are, I mean my school was that. It was Hogwarts but every professor was Professor Snape.

[LAUGHTER]

The teachers really did walk through the halls with black capes on. Corporal punishment was in effect. So they really did walk through the halls with canes. And I had a miserable experience there because people did not get me. They had certain expectations of me that I could not meet. When I was younger I was overweight, I was fat. And I love to read books and I love to eat pie. And that was what I was all about.

But people looked at me and they thought, I must be good for something else. I should play sport probably. And I wasn't interested in any of that. Certainly not rugby, outside in the cold. And I think sometimes we talk down the power of this bullying. The impact it can have on people. I really felt for such a large person small in school.

I remember wishing that I could become invisible so that I could avoid the interactions that I had on a daily basis with people. Even today, there are two main reactions to me when I come towards you. One, is abject terror. And I just don't think I've got the face for that.

[LAUGHTER]

But the other is a weird ridicule and laughter. So I often walk by people and then if I turn around after about three steps, I'll catch them pointing and laughing, like I'm an exhibit of something. And I'm used to it now, -ish. But when I was younger it was crushing to my soul.

So much so that we were assigned a book to read in class, and I opened this book up, I read the title which was provocative. And then I opened this book up and I started reading it, and I had to finish it in a month and then write a report. And by about lunchtime I was halfway done. By the time I'd finished my bus journey home I would finish this book. And I went up to my mother afterwards and I said to her, "I've just read this book and it's helped me understand me."

And I said, "this book, it was The Hunchback of Notre Dame," and I said, "mom, this is the first time that I have recognized the way people interact with me." This laughing and the fear mixed. And I looked at her and I said, "am I a monster?" And she said, "no." Which, of course, when your mother says it has no impact, because of course she's going to say no. But then she started working with me on understanding who I was.

And that's why I'm here today, because I think there is a real synergy not just between myself and Clarinda, but between myself and the work that's being done here. I'm a psychologist now. I see literally thousands of terrible interventions in schools. Interventions that lack any real rigor academically or otherwise. Interventions that have nary a hope of working. And yet, I have seen what is being done in schools here through Facing History. And this is how we change the future.

Not by using trite phrases about the children being our future. No. We do it by helping them to understand themselves and the value they can bring to the table. The power in their difference. Being more resilient to the bullying and the hate that many people still face. And yes, seeing the journeys of people similar to ourselves. And understanding that other people have endured and we can too.

My mother was a huge fan of introspection, helping people look inside. And that's how she helped make me more resilient for not just what I endured in school, but what she foresaw me having to endure in the future. I didn't start playing basketball till I was 17 years old. Six years later, I was starting for the Cleveland Cavaliers. They were very bad that year.

[LAUGHTER]

Nonetheless, I considered it an achievement. But when I first decided I was going to play basketball, I had literally been playing for six weeks. And I remember walking into my mother's bedroom one night and sitting on the edge of her bed, it was dark and she was listening to a radio play, it's what British people of a certain age do. And I sat on the edge of her bed and I said, "mom, I don't know where I want to go to University." And she said, "well, there's lots of choices. There's Manchester and Sheffield and Leeds." Those were all close to where I lived.

If you really want to get crazy, you can go to London, 260 miles away from where I live. And then I said to her, "well, I'm not sure what country I want to go to University in." Then I felt the bed shift a little bit and click, she turned the radio off. I was like I've got her attention now.

[LAUGHTER]

And then I said to her, "mom, I'm going to play in the NBA." And she just, very quiet for a moment, and then she said, "that seems challenging."

[LAUGHTER]

Bear in mind I was still fully fledged in the whole eating pies and reading books stage. Not really huge on the whole working out and running thing. But I'd discovered basketball and I thought it was for me. And so she then said something that I found perplexing. I thought she was going to start with some wisdom about how we go, because it's all about goal setting it's short, medium, long term, boom done.

And instead there was silence. And then she looked at me and she said, "would you recognize your soul in the dark." And I said what any 17-year-old would say which is, "what the hell does that mean?"

[LAUGHTER]

I've just told you something important here. And now you're talking about souls in the dark. I don't know. And she said, "most people spend their lives worrying about what they're going to do and spend no time worrying about who they're going to become. Most people spend their lives projecting themselves into the future to some goal and never worry about where they're starting from."

She said, "nothing remarkable can be achieved without knowing who you are." And I didn't get it. But then she started to explain. So soul in the dark, she said, "most people you meet will never be able to describe themselves in any real detail that distinguishes them from the person next to them once you strip away their labels."

Take away brother, sister, mother, son. Take away your job title and description. Take away your physical description of your size and your weight and your accent. Strip away that stuff and you're left with this core of who you are that most people can't describe in enough detail to distinguish them from the person next to them. It's a technique I still use today in my work because I think it's that important.

Perhaps not one for tonight. But try. Remove the labels from yourselves. Sit with a friend and see if when you come down to your core, you really know who you are. And that's why I love what Facing History is doing. They are helping young people to recognize their soul in the dark. And when you do that, amazing things can happen. Because even when you recognize the bad stuff, and I certainly did that, in the process of this conversation my mother we suddenly realized oh, I'm fat and lazy.

[LAUGHTER]

Do fat and lazy people play in the NBA? Apparently, they do.

[LAUGHTER]

But I'll tell you what, fat and lazy people who don't know who they are don't. I got to this country and then suddenly I started arranging my life around what I knew about myself. And sometimes they're big identity buttons that we talk about often. And sometimes they're little things like I'm lazy.

So the first time I lived in America when I was a professional I rented a place that was 60 meters, a short distance away from where I was training. So short, in fact, that my trainer could stand in the window of the gym and stared into my bedroom window. And so I had no choice. But that decision wouldn't be made if I didn't know who I was. And that's why the work that's being done here is remarkable.

And the thing is that we have to do this work with young people because there are still many obstacles for them to deal with. There are still people out there who would crush our youngsters flat. I got to Penn State after a slightly tortuous journey and I really took pride in getting to Penn State and being a part of everything. Dabbling in student government, seeing what was happening with fraternities, didn't really understand that but thought I should at least know.

Getting involved in everything. I was involved in Big Brothers Big Sisters and all programs that I could find to really make sure that I was this rounded person. And then on campus people started to recognize that. And so I would find myself walking through campus and people would start yelling out my name, well, not my name because Maech is what they call me because John is too difficult.

[LAUGHTER]

So I'd walk around campus between classes and all of a sudden, you'd hear a group of people, "Maech!" I'd be like, "yeah. That's right."

[LAUGHTER]

Everywhere I went. I mean I just took every chance I could to walk through campus. No headphones on, none of that. Just because I just wanted to be able to respond to the next "Maech!" "Maech? Oh yeah. Absolutely."

[LAUGHTER]

And I loved it not just because of the adulation, I loved it because I finally thought that people saw me as this rounded person. The inner expression of who I knew I was starting to be recognized on the outside. And I did love that. And then one day, I walked off campus, I'm walking down the street a car screeches by, window and they're trying to wind it down furiously. That's in the day for the young people in the room before windows just went down.

Trying to wind it down, all you can see is some lips pressed to the gap, "Maech!" I was like, "yep. Gotcha." Then another car whizzes by and slams on its brakes. And I'm already halfway there, I know what's coming. This is a Maech moment. So I'm already in this position, half ready, and the window winds down.

And then this guy, I remember his face so clearly, at least his head. He had, I never remember what the name of that haircut is. Business at the front, party at the back. Mullet, there you go. Thank you. That business. Leans out the window, and then he screams the n-word louder than I've ever heard it screamed before. And I'm here and then I'm and I'm just stopped. I'm walking somewhere I know that. But I'm just stopped.

And the car screeches off and I hear a little bit of cackling laughter and they're gone. And I stopped. 6' 9" I'm involved in, I'm an academic All-American, I'm an All-American, I'm this, I'm involved. And in one word I am squashed flat. My performance in school went down. I found it hard to get up in the morning. And that had never been a problem. I'd always been committed to the academics, the athletics, the whole bit. And I just found it hard to function.

And, of course, on an intellectual level I knew that people saw me like this. I knew that people held prejudice. But it was like a blow to the stomach. And that's why this work is so important. Because I survived that. I rolled through that. I managed beyond that. But only because I'd been prepared beforehand for what was to come.

The other thing I want to add about what Facing History is doing and what I think is a synergy with me is that, sometimes people like --where are you, Ms. Einhorn?-- sometimes you don't realize the impact you have on individuals. And then you spend a lot of time talking about how it's Clarinda who's amazing and she is amazing. But everybody needs a catalyst from time to time.

And that's what Facing History provides. That space that is open and free. That individual who looks at you and finds you to be of value. Who sees something in you beyond what you've ever thought. I started playing basketball when I was 17 because I was walking down the main street of Manchester. And I was in my school uniform. Black with gold braid, it was designed to get me beaten up. And I had a pie in my hand.

[LAUGHTER]

I really did. And then books here, pie. And this man came up to me and I just had got used to the idea that the world looked at me like I was a monster and so I was like OK, it's going to be the usual, size of my feet, aren't you tall, what's the weather like, great, bye. But instead he stopped me. And he didn't say you should play basketball because that's all I'm good for, but he looked at me and he said, "you could be great at basketball."

And it was the first time in my life that somebody had seen me and instead reflected back when I looked into their eyes I saw my own potential. Surely, there can be no bigger joy for an educator, there can be no bigger responsibility for schools and programs like this than to provide that for the young people. I've only got a limited amount of time, not that anybody here is big enough to drag me off.

[LAUGHTER]

But I just want to add something because I know there's some student leaders in the room and I spoke to them earlier and I found them to be inspirational. They were remarkable. And I think sometimes both the educators in here and the students who have gone through this program and you who I will never forget, sometimes you don't realize the power of every single interaction. Sometimes you who are going to be asked to open your wallets shortly, and I hope that you do open them wide, don't realize that every interaction we have has the potential to make someone's universe split.

To make what was inconceivable a moment before become reality before their eyes. And so because I like to have the opportunity to talk about my children everywhere I go, I'm going to do that to end this. To illustrate this point. When I got to the Orlando Magic, it was my heyday, if you can have a heyday as an average NBA player. But when I first got there, they weren't sure they were going to keep me.

I remember going into Doc Rivers office and looking at the board and the whiteboard the depth chart had my name last in the five position. My name last in the four position. And next to it, my name, there was dash English question mark.

[LAUGHTER]

And it's like, I'm really going to get cut because I'm English.

[LAUGHTER]

What the hell is that? But to get into our facility you had to have a hand scan, high technology back in the 90s. So if I wanted to go in, I just had to wait for my teammates to arrive and then drive in on their bumper. But I knew I needed to practice more if I wanted to make it. So I would come to the other side of this gym, which is the public side to practice during the day. And there, I went in one day and there were some kids, 10, 9, playing on the other end. And I was like, these kids are in my space. Don't they know who I am? They didn't know who I was, clearly. I hadn't really probably made the team at that point.

But they were in my space and I just didn't want to have anything to do with that. And I went about my business and I practiced. And I looked over and they gave me that look, the look that every business leader, every manager, every educator, should know. That look when every parent, when a kid looks at you and it's like, "I'm not going to come over and talk to you. But if you want to come over and talk to me that'd be cool."

[LAUGHTER]

That look. And I wrestled with it because I was like this is not my responsibility. And I went over and I said hello. And they introduced themselves. Chris, Eric, I was like "hi, I'm John. I play for the Magic." And I said, "you should be in school." They were like, "yeah, no. We're good." I was like, you know what, not my responsibility. I walked off, I did my practice. I came back the next day, I'm doing my sprints, I'm doing my shooting. There they are again.

So I walk over. "Hey, Chris. Hey Eric, how're you doing?" They're like, "yeah, we're good." "Shouldn't you be in school?" "No, we've got a special thing." Anyway, I got to know these young people and their difficult circumstances. I even brought them home over to England to come to my basketball camp in the summer. Where Chris promptly broke his ankle. And I went with him in the ambulance. He's on gas and air, he's laughing and screaming. It's a very disconcerting combination.

[LAUGHTER]

And in the journey to the hospital, he takes the mask off his face and he says, "will you take care of us?" And I was really angry. I was like, "you're 5,000 miles away from home and you've got a broken ankle and I feel like you're really just manipulating me right now." I didn't say that to them but it was probably written all over here. But I said, yes. And I ended up adopting them. And best thing I've ever done by far.

The reason I say this to you in the context of your individual interactions every day being important, everything you do, and that tying in with the lessons, the consistency in what I'm seeing from the young people coming through this program. Is because they asked me, they told me, sorry, we had Thanksgiving probably six or seven years ago. And Chris said to me, "do you know why we chose you?"

[LAUGHTER]

I was like, "of course, I know why you chose me. I was an NBA player. How cool is that. NBA dad. Instant." Chris looked at me absolutely dead eyed just said, "you weren't that good."

[LAUGHTER]

Which is both true and hard to hear from your family. And I said, "all right then if it wasn't the cool factor, the obviously cool dad, why did you choose me?" He said, "you remember the first time we met?" I said, "of course, I do. You should have been in school." He said, "yeah." He said, "do you remember the second time we met." I was like, "yeah, yeah."

He said, "we chose you because the second time we met, you remembered our names." That was it. One interaction. Their universe splits, my universe splits. Nothing is the same. Everything is better. That's the power of what's being done here with Facing History. They are helping young people to not only build their own resilience and become remarkable like Clarinda, they're helping young people to be that person that has that impact, that transformational power over their peers and the people around them.

It's helping educators to have the ability to create more and more and more of these types of individuals. And that, that is worth supporting. I told you I'd be odd. But I hope you understand the depth of my conviction to this. I'm not traveling thousands of miles to butter up something I don't believe in. This organization is doing the right things.

The young people I'm seeing, not just Clarinda, but throughout the room and I hope you take a chance to meet some of them, they are remarkable examples. The educators clearly have changed people's world. Support this. Support this, it's worth it. Thank you.

[APPLAUSE]

How to Cite This Video

Facing History and Ourselves, “John Amaechi OBE Shares His Story at the 2014 Chicago Benefit Dinner,” video, last updated April 12, 2022.

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Using the strategies from Facing History is almost like an awakening.
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