The two adults who had the greatest impact on me growing up, and who shaped how I relate with young people to this day, did something anyone could have done, but almost no one other than my parents did.
They took me seriously—but didn’t take themselves too seriously.
In order of appearance in my life, they were Uncle T, my father’s younger brother, and Mr N, a home tutor—or “lesson teacher” as we called them back then.
Uncle T was the first adult I knew who did not treat me as if I was just a kid. He stayed with us off and on, while we were growing up, sometimes for months at a time. He gave us time and attention and treated my brothers and I like we were a big deal to him. Like how he acted whenever he was back from uni. Where other adults in my life then would exclaim, “Look how much you’ve grown!” I still remember how he’d look at us and say softly, “Man, I missed you guys.” I still remember how that always made me feel warm inside.
He’d make time to kick back with us and just banter. He played cards and chess with us, and when he won, he laughed at us just as hard as he laughed with us when we beat him. When we got older, he’d join us out in our little, narrow compound to play three-a-side football. (He reminded me when I showed him this draft that it was we who introduced him to chess and PlayStation.)
And Uncle T told stories. He shared his life. (I would later realise he age-adjusted what he let us in on.) He’d drop gems of advice as he told his stories—just throw them out there like he fully expected us to get it. I often did, but it would often take years for the full weight to land. Like the Yoruba proverb, “Twenty children can’t play together for twenty years”, which I first heard from him. That took on new weight for me on leaving secondary school, then uni—and then Nigeria.
I didn’t have that kind of relationship with any adults in my life back then. Poke fun at an adult? At age 7? How? I don’t know about you, but the adults in my life didn’t roll like that.
Every single one of the four times I’ve seen Spider-Man Into the Spiderverse and its depiction of Miles’ relationship with his Uncle Aaron, I think of Uncle T. Let’s not even count the number of times I’ve watched the scene where Uncle Aaron is first introduced to that banging intro beat from Notorious BIG’s hit, Hypnotise.
The song brings back memories from my time between secondary school and uni, hearing Uncle T’s car thumping subwoofers heralding the arrival of his car up our street. In my memories of him, when it’s not that Hypnotise, it’s DMX’s Ruff Ryders’ Anthem.
My Uncle T was far from perfect, of course. Even as a kid I knew that. Unlike Miles’ uncle, he didn’t happen to moonlight as a teched-out hitman for a kingpin, but he certainly made his share of regrettable choices. The reason I knew he wasn’t perfect was because he made sure we knew—he shared those stories, too. I still remember him telling me, before I finally went off to uni: “Take school seriously, Ayomide. Don’t be like me.” I always respected that even though his lifestyle wasn’t entirely mum-approved (how they reconciled that was a story he shared, too), he tried to respect her values, even if that meant being stern with us. It never felt like our liking him took priority over our turning out okay.
When years later, I would go on into youth work after medical school, I went in armed with the lessons from Uncle T. I would relearn over and over what he’d first modelled: that young people don’t find adults boring—it’s often the other way around. When an adult is really interested, really keen to hear what they have to say, it’s surprising how often young people will put other things aside. Young people simply want to be taken seriously.
Which of us doesn’t?
It helps when the person taking them seriously doesn’t take themselves too seriously, because when you’re young, it feels like adults all take themselves too seriously. If you don’t believe me just watch any kid pretending to be an adult: the first thing they do is put on a serious air that’s funny because it’s true.
Life is already too serious to take it too seriously. When the journey toward being a responsible adult leads us to forget that, kids help remind us to chill out. You simply can’t take too seriously when a baby pees in your face, or when your teenager tells you what they think of your dress sense. Sure, if you’re their parent, you still have more responsibility for them than anyone else. If you’re not even a kid’s parent, though, why so serious? Even parents are only parents to one set of kids, and they find it easier to do their job when the rest of us help absorb their kids’ excess energy.
When you do take kids seriously, they return the favour. I learned that much from Mr N, home tutor extraordinaire, and the other adult to shape my young mind.
Mr N was a short, wide man who peered through Coke-bottle-thick glasses and wore his large trousers pulled up to nearly below his ribcage. He was also the smartest adult I knew.
He had a background in the sciences, and my parents hired him to tutor my brother and me in maths, physics and chemistry. He’d rattle off entire lines from Macbeth or stories from Nigerian and global history just as easily. He knew all kinds of random things, and took pride in the knowledge. When we turned up a fact he didn’t know, his face would light up like that of a child who just saw a magic trick.
With him I never had to pretend I wasn’t geeky. You couldn’t be too geeky for dear old Mr N. I could talk with him about calculus and partial fractions with as much glee as Nigerians talk about football.
I don’t know how many kids genuinely look forward to times with a tutor like we did with him. His presence was a gift that made up for his regular interruption of our video games and football. That had never happened with any other tutor before. Not that we ever acted like it then. We groaned when we saw him at the gate. “Would it kill you to just miss one lesson session for once?” He would bellow, “Go and get your books, you lazy boys!” We’d all laugh and get to the day’s work.
Even then though, I felt like I needed Mr N less for my academics than for my life. There was a side to me that didn’t find expression with anyone else I knew then, at home or at school—it was Mr N who recognised that side and spoke to it. Towards the end of our time together, he would often call me his best student—I often wondered if he ever realised that was because he was my best teacher.
The Chinese proverb reputedly goes, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I think it works the other way around too.
When I think of our times together, though, what I remember most is the laughter. There was so much laughter. We would make fun of his thick glasses and atrocious fashion sense, he would mock our pretend laziness and our ignorance of things he knew when he was our age, we’d boast back about what we knew that he didn’t. The way we related to him, you’d be forgiven for wondering if my brother and I had any respect for the poor man. And you’d be forgiven for failing to realise there were very few adults—and no teachers—we had greater respect for.
He still somehow managed to fit in more unforgettable teaching in every single hour with us than any other teacher I ever had. He would get stern when he thought we really weren’t being serious, the smile gone from his face. The laughter was a lubricant, not a distraction.
It was from Mr N that I learned that what makes a good teacher is not just knowing the subject, it’s loving it. And what makes the great teachers is loving the students every bit as much.
When you love the subject you genuinely feel sorry for those without a knowledge of it, and when you talk about it, that passion comes through. Teachers who love their subject communicate the subject but also their passion for it. When you also love the students, you are driven to help them overcome whatever difficulties they may have receiving what you’re trying to communicate. That love is what students respond to even when they can’t put words to it.
To take anyone seriously is one of the best gifts we can give. And kids are just as human as anyone. They want no more than we all do: to be taken seriously—seriously paid attention to, seriously believed in, seriously loved.
My thanks to Cam Houser, Thomas Najar, Erik Newhard and Joseph Wells for looking over early drafts, and to Humphrey Muleba (via Unsplash) for the photo.