I covered a story recently where 35 D.C. students – in 4th through 9th grade – received awards for writing an essay about what courage means to them. Several of them gave their speeches to an audience of teachers, friends and family.
Bubbly, talkative and stunning 9th grader Ay Okuluye talked about something that most teenage girls (and adult ones too) can relate to – her hair. "I hated my hair because it was different," she shared with the audience. She told the story of how it took her mom 40 painful minutes every morning to braid her kinky African-American hair before school. Ay went to a predominantly white school and she says she wanted hair like everyone else. When she asked her mom why hers was different, her mom told her different is beautiful. Ay was let down. "I didn't feel beautiful, just different."
One day when Ay was in 6th grade, her mom was unable to braid her hair and she had to go to school with it in its natural state. Ay says she wore a hoodie to cover it. Eventually, someone yanked the hoodie down. Ay broke into tears, "I was so ashamed of my hair that the mere action of displaying it made me sob."
But, it wasn't until 8th grade, when Ay's mom made her chop off her hair to a length of just 3 inches long, that Ay found out what courage really was. She had been trying to hide her hair for years. Now, she had to go to school with her natural hair in it's short state. She remembered back to the hoodie incident, and called up courage within herself. She says personal courage "starts with the realization that I could try and run from the things that make me who I am, but I can never hide it forever. I can either accept it now or continue this self-hatred. And then I realized what had to be done. if I accepted myself, maybe others could accept me too."
How often do we not like something about ourself? Maybe it's our hair, our weight, our nose, our eyes, or our age. And we are ashamed of it and try to hide it from others. Ay learned at a young age a lesson that every person alive needs to learn. Some of us are 4 times Ay's age and still haven't learned it.
The lesson: Love yourself. Fully. Others will too.
If you want to listen to Ay's speech and others, click here: DC students wins prizes for essays on courage
(It's the 2nd video on the page. (jump to 16:03 for Ay's speech)
The yearly essay contest is sponsored by Global Harmony Through Personal Excellence. It's called "Celebration of Youth," and is open to all DCPS and DCPCS students.