That memory is fresh in my mind, fresh like it was just yesterday; one of my brothers telling my mum how he denied I was his sibling because my ugly face embarrassed him so. He said: “mum, some of my school friends asked me why Adwinpa is so ugly and I said she’s not my sister, she’s our maid. We call her The Ugly Duckling”. Mum laughed. Heartily. She thought it was funny.
I wept. Bitterly. I didn’t think it was funny. It hurt, and somewhere inside, my self-esteem took one of the many deadly blows that will send her into a deep, deep coma so many years to come.
I waited patiently for Daddy to come home. I wanted to complain to him, let him know it hurt. As evening dawned I begun to dread Daddy’s return and my resolve began to shake. What if he also thinks it’s funny? That will give my brother all the ammunition he needs to taunt and bully me. Maybe I should let it go. Maybe I really am that ugly. If only my cheeks weren’t so big and only if my lips were smaller and eyes slightly bigger, no one would call me ugly. Maybe it’s all God’s fault. Maybe He was tired when I was due for creation, so He delegated to very inexperienced cherubs who did the best they could. A best that has turned out to be my worst nightmare.
Ugly duckling, ugly duckling, ugly duckling. Big lips, ugly. Kinky hair, ugly. Fat cheeks, ugly. Sunken eyes, ugly. Small ears ugly. My ugly self sat outside in a cold December evening, waiting for Daddy to return and lend a listening ear. Before long he appears in the driveway and I am bathed in the harsh glow of headlights. I cover my face, the lights hurt my eyes and bring unwanted attention to the ugliness.
Soon as he’s out of his car, I ran to him and with tears streaming down my face, I tell him my new name, Ugly Duckling. He smiled and said: “don’t cry. Why are you crying? Do you know the story of The Ugly Duckling?” I respond in the affirmative. Of course I know the story. But Daddy disagrees, he says: “if you knew the story, you wouldn’t be bothered by your brother calling you Ugly Duckling”. Let me finish eating and tell you the story of the Ugly Duckling”.
This wasn’t the response I was hoping for. I expected my brother to get a good talking to and a stern warning, maybe even a few slaps here and there. But I am intrigued, is there a different Ugly Duckling story I don’t know? Well hurry up and eat Daddy, you are going to tell me today!
He takes his sweet time to savor the meal of groundnut soup and rice balls. I linger in the dining area waiting for him to not only finish and tell me his version of the story but also hoping to be the one to clear his plates, Daddy’s leftovers are very popular. As he washes his hands I quickly dash for his plate, I am not disappointed, he left a piece of fish in there. I stuff the fish in my mouth before any of my siblings get close, then I clear the table and carry the plates to Mama in the kitchen.
Daddy is seated in the family area watching TV when I return from the kitchen. He has a chewing stick in his mouth. He asks me to recount the Ugly Duckling story I know.
“Once upon a time, a mother duck sat its eggs awaiting their hatching. Alas all but one hatched and out came beautiful yellow ducklings. Mother duck was tired but she sat on the one unhatched egg still. The egg was much bigger, harder and looked different. Mother duck’s friends advised her to abandon the egg, they said it might be a turkey and turkeys don’t swim! But she persisted until the egg hatched.
To her dismay this duck was big and ugly, looking nothing at all like its sibling or mother. She began to believe it was turkey’s stray egg that had rolled into her nest. Mother duck was disappointed but she loved her duckling just the same. Nonetheless, she couldn’t help but wonder; why is this duckling so different, so ugly, so big, so tall?
To her relief, when he took her brood to the water, her ugly duckling swam happily alongside her siblings. Yes. Relief. A small piece of victory. It is not a turkey after all, just a very ugly duckling.
Before long everybody saw this very different looking duckling and they couldn’t help but notice how ugly and awkward he was. They didn’t hide their opinions, they let the duckling know he was weird and ugly.
The poor duckling suffered cruelty and abuse from all corners; the farmer’s wife refused to feed him, the farm hands threw stones at him, neighboring ducks were mean to him, dogs barked at him, his sibling made fun of him, Mama ignored him and the turkeys called him every horrid, insulting name they could think of.
Finally, the Ugly Duckling ran away, in hopes of finding acceptance elsewhere. But every farm he settled in, the story was no different. He was scorned, disrespected and abused.
With time, the lonely, tired and depressed duckling begun to accept the belief that he was worthless and deserved all the abuse and wickedness meted out to him. He just wanted to die. He kept to himself and shunned all company for a long while. Time worked its wonders, the Duckling grew stronger and his wings became more powerful by the day. He could now fly higher and for longer. He spent a lot of time flying, up in the air, no one bothered him.
One lovely summer day, as the Duckling flew over a garden he saw a pair of magnificent birds swimming in a pool. They were long necked and had the most beautiful snow-white plumes the Duckling ever saw, they swam so gracefully, they held their heads high on those long graceful necks. To the Duckling, these were regal birds; the most beautiful he ever saw. They were swans. The sight of such beautiful birds further saddened the Duckling, he thought to herself: “if only I were this graceful, this beautiful, the world would be kinder”.
Defeated and dejected, the Duckling decided to fly to the majestic birds and plead for them to kill him. So fly to the water he did. As he swam towards the swans, they outstretched their wings in welcome, but the Duckling, so accustomed to abuse assumed they were readying to attack him, so he bent his head and cried out, “kill me, because I am ugly; better be killed by swans than pecked by the ducks, beaten by the hens, pushed about by the maiden who feeds the poultry, or starved with hunger in the winter”.
But in that moment he caught a reflection of himself in the clear water and no longer was he a grey, dark bird, offensive to look at, but a graceful, regal swan. So he joined his new friends and enjoyed acceptance and love for the first time in his life. And when children came to play by the pool they exclaimed, “look another swan has joined the two, and he is the most beautiful of them all.” They threw bread and cake to him in the water and the two older swans bowed their heads to him.”
Daddy: “so what did you learn from the story?”
Me: “he was not a duck; he was a swan all along. When he grew, he became beautiful and the people who threw stones at him then, threw bread and cake at him.”
Daddy: “what else did you learn?”
Me: “he was no longer lonely or sad. He didn’t want to die anymore. He had friends who loved him.”
Daddy: “and what again?”
Me: “well that’s all. Nothing else happened. The ugly duckling is a happy swan now. Period.”
Daddy: “No that is not all. There is more. Everything you have said is true but you missed the most important lessons.
First lesson: being born in a duck’s nest on a small farmyard is of no consequence to a bird, if that bird is hatched from a swan’s egg. Being born in a duck’s nest does not make a cygnet a duckling. And if the ducks couldn’t or didn’t accept the cygnet, that’s ok because, acceptance would have crippled the cygnet and kept it from soaring. If the ducks had accepted it, the Swan would have remained in the small farmland, comfortable, never to realize its great potential, never to venture out and see the world. The swan would have remained a “duck”.
Second lesson: People are ignorant and yet opinionated. Do not let random opinions define you. Because the ducks and everyone else had no idea the Duckling was actually a cygnet, they called it ugly and abused it. Had they known, their attitudes would have been different, they would have been nice to it so they could later boast to friends and say “look, I am friends with one of the most beautiful birds on earth.” So define who you are for yourself, knowing you will grow into a beautiful, graceful woman.”
Well I wish my young mind could have wrapped itself around such profound wisdom and insight but nope, I walked away disappointed. I was looking for revenge not advice. Just slap the stupid boy already. He insulted me for God’s sake and there you are, speaking in parables and what nots. I wish I could run away too, just like the Ugly Duckling; but I can’t; I have school tomorrow.
And that is how I allowed my self-esteem, self-worth and self-respect take blow after blow, abuse after abuse till like the Ugly Duckling, I began to believe the random opinions of others as my reality, and began to behave as such. If only I had understood Daddy’s lessons, I could have avoided tons and tons of heartache.
But I get it now. It took me two decades and some to get there, but I am there. Like the Ugly Duckling, I feel glad at having suffered sorrow and trouble, because it enables me to enjoy so much better all the pleasures and happiness around me.
Like the Ugly Duckling, I can finally say, “I never dreamed of such happiness as this, while I was an ugly duckling.”
Thank you Daddy.
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