I learned to dream on my mother’s knee, lurching in a crowded yellow and green taxicab on the dusty road to Lagos International Airport. I was five years old; my mother and I were escaping rising ethnic tensions and economic instability in Nigeria. Each minute and pothole bounced me further away from friends, family, and my little backyard swimming pool in Sokoto. Thousands of miles later, we descended the steel ramp of a Boeing 747 in New York City with a few dollars, a suitcase and our dreams.
Initially, my mother supported us by teaching mathematics at Alabama A&M University. Soon she decided to pursue another dream: we launched the “Math Lab” to tutor at-risk youths struggling with mathematics. Since many of our students could not pay, my mother and I both took on additional summer jobs. As we picked ripe fruits side-by-side under the Alabama sun, I watched as my mother’s passion for teaching drove her to serve those who could not repay her.
I learned to pursue my own passions and overcome obstacles through competitive swimming. Each new record or trophy invigorated my resolve to compete at the Olympics. At the age of sixteen, however, I fractured my lower spine in a catastrophic training accident, halting my competitive career abruptly.
Once again, it was my mother who taught me to dream. We shuttled back and forth between neurologists, physical trainers, massage therapists, psychiatrists, and coaches, determined to mend my shattered hopes. Our efforts paid off. I learned to swim again, then returned to Nigeria to compete for an Olympic berth in the 50 meter freestyle. The memory of that 23-second race will last as long as I live. In every stroke and kick, and especially in that final lunge for the timing pad, were contained all the sacrifices, dreams and hopes of glory I had cherished for fifteen years. Even as I looked up at the flashing score board, tears of satisfaction mingled with and tempered my tears of disappointment. I had missed qualifying by 0.1 of a second. I was not utterly downcast, but discovered a quiet pride in the fact that I was even there.
I have experienced the transforming power of hope not only as an athlete, but as student of American constitutional history. The arduous process of forging a “more perfect union” holds a special resonance for me as a new American. In a sense, the Founding Fathers were the “newest” Americans. Though reluctant to sublimate their hard-won independence and thirteen distinct cultures into one national character, the colonists realized that a more perfect Union was indispensable to their continued survival. The brilliant compromise struck by the Constitution between these competing principles of diversity and unity has stood the test of time. The example of the Philadelphia Convention reinforces the lesson I first learned on my mother’s knee: to be an American is to be a dreamer. Thus I celebrate my multicultural heritage, while embracing the Constitution which binds me to every other American.
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