Beyond The Street: The Innovative Leadership Influence of African Night

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Other than an annual trip to the beaches of Rhode Island, I rarely traveled out of my Massachusetts neighborhood as a kid. We didn’t have a family car, so I only ventured as far as the city buses could take me. Then one day my world got a whole lot bigger.

I was in the sixth grade when a tall, beautiful woman was suddenly standing in front of our class, a crude chalk rendering of the continent of Africa drawn on the blackboard behind her. Quickly, we learned that she was our new student teacher who, much to my excitement, was from that very same far off continent.

Now, in the age of democratized air travel, the internet, and the Travel Channel, that may not seem all that exciting but in the early 1970s it was cause for me to run home at breakneck speed and crack open the encyclopedia to learn all about my new teacher’s home. I scanned it furiously, zooming from images of the Congo to pictures of exotic animals and vast expanses of land that looked nothing like my now mundane neighborhood. It all seemed so mysterious and when my student teacher took her turns in front of the class, I was enthralled by her unfamiliar accent and riveted to her every word.

Then one day came the big announcement. She was going to start a club after school and we were all invited to join. I couldn’t sign up fast enough for my new obsession: The African Club. Once a week, a group of five boys and girls from my class went to my teacher’s apartment and heard stories of Africa; the people, the traditions, the costumes, the food.

Soon we were bugging her for more and she gladly gave it to us. We began making the food that she had told us about, sitting in a circle, crossed legged on the floor, listening to African music and scooping our delicacies with our fingers formed into a U shape just the way they did in her homeland. I can still taste the zing that we were able to put into our crumbled hamburger with dashes of spices we had never before tasted.

By the end of the semester, we were all beginning to feel a bit exotic ourselves. So we decided to strut our stuff in the form of “African Night at Woodland Street School.” The whole school was invited to our extravaganza which featured mural renderings of Africa, tables of the food we were now experts at making, and the piece de resistance, a fashion show.

I spent weeks preparing for that display of African fashion, getting bottles of Rit Dye from Woolworth’s, sewing a simple dress and then twisting it with rubber bands and dropping it into a vat of boiling dyed water to make an authentic African costume. When the big night came, I proudly took the stage to model my brown tie dyed dress and head band, offset by my very Western cat eye glasses.

It was a great night, a great semester, and a great club. It opened my mind. It broadened my perspective.

The club didn’t last past the one semester my student teacher was with us but the experience of that group broadened my world and my way of thinking. As an influence, that striking woman from Africa was unparalleled. She did what all good leaders do.

She took us beyond ourselves. She got us excited about the unknown. She not only told us about the unfamiliar, she immersed us in it. She had us touch it, smell it, taste it. She influenced us to crave more, to throw ourselves into it. She moved us from “what is” to “what could be.”

What can you do today to influence people to reach beyond the familiar and into craving the unknown?

Sandi Coryell
Keynote Speaker and Leadership Consultant Sandi Coryell works with leaders who want to bring out the best in their teams and themselves so that they can improve their creativity, teamwork, and bottom line. For Speaking or Consulting inquiries, please contact Sandi at 818-288-3483 or email at sandicoryell@thecoryellgroup.com

10 Responses

  1. It broke my heart a little to read that the club did not last, yet at the same time it makes it seem fleeting and magical. Children are such wonderful examples of what people are capable of feeling and experiencing, especially when it comes to the unknown. I absolutely love this quote, ‘She moved us from “what is” to “what could be.”

    Fantastic post, Sandi.

    • Sandi Coryell says:

      Thanks, Shirley! I think you’re absolutely right about her affect on us. Because she wasn’t part of our everyday world, she seemed to appear from nowhere with all of these possibilities and then she was gone but she left with us that ability to dream beyond what was right in front of us. It’s amazing to me how vivid her impact was on me even though she was only in my life for a few short months.

  2. Karen Clark says:

    Wow! Lots of lessons but what struck me is how impactful one teacher’s gesture can be. Let’s hear it for innovative teachers!

    • Sandi Coryell says:

      Thanks, Karen. It was so interesting how she invited us into her home and took us out of our normal learning element. Just that change alone shifted how we thought about learning.

  3. Dave Cooke says:

    “She took us beyond ourselves. She got us excited about the unknown.”

    Great story. One of the lessons I took from this story is your willingness to explore in the first place. All the inspiration in the world would not have made a difference had you and your classmates been open to the exploration. The lesson in leadership is also being open, receptive, and engaged the unknown. Sometimes it is more than influencing others — it is influencing ones self, too.

  4. Brilliant Sandi!
    You are quite the storyteller- I felt I was right there with you in your early adventure.
    It was thought provoking: You, like the student teacher took us beyond ourselves. You got us excited about the unknown. You not only told us about the unfamiliar, you immersed us in it. You had us touch it, smell it, taste it. You influenced us to crave more, to throw ourselves into it. You moved us from “what is” to “what could be.”
    You left us thinking and gave us a clarion call to action: ”
    What can you do today to influence people to reach beyond the familiar and into craving the unknown?”
    Thanks you!!!

  5. Beautiful story! It never ceases to amaze me how much our lives are influenced by people in the most simple ways.

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