The Boy on Fire: Message from the Morning Man
by Kojo Yankson
23rd March 2016
I know a story about a little boy who lived in a small town at the beginning of the 20th century. He was eight years old, and he loved school. Every morning, he would be the first kid through the gates, arriving almost a whole half hour before the rest of his school mates. The teachers gave him the responsibility of lighting the old pot-belly stove, so the school would be warm by the time everyone else arrived. The young boy did this every morning without fail.
One morning, the other kids arrived to see plumes of smoke billowing out of the school windows. The stove was on fire. By the time they pulled the little boy out of the burning building, he was not breathing. His airways were almost swollen shut from the burning heat of the smoke he had inhaled. On the outside, things looked even worse. Every visible inch of flesh was burnt. His rescuers struggled to find uninjured parts of his body to hold on to as they hauled him into an ambulance.
As they placed him on a hospital bed, the little boy regained consciousness, but he was in so much pain, he dared not move, so nobody really noticed. He lay there quietly with his eyes closed, as the nurses bandaged his wounds. He could hear the doctor speaking in a quiet voice to his mother, “The burns are so severe. Your boy cannot survive. It’s only a matter of time now.”
Underneath the bandages, the little boy was very disturbed. He certainly didn’t want to die. In fact, he decided he was completely against the idea of dying. So he decided to survive. Despite the pain, despite the discomfort, despite the strain on his organs, despite the overwhelming, soul-snuffing tiredness that made him want to just close his eyes and never open them again, this little eight-year-old simply kept plugging on, taking one breath after another, inching farther away from death with every passing moment.
A few days later, the danger was over, and it was obvious that the boy would live, but the Doctor was still hovering around, whispering to the little boy’s mother, “Look at his legs. They’re so badly burnt. He’s going to spend a lifetime as a cripple. It would almost have been better if he had died”.
The little boy gave this some thought. After all the effort he had gone through to stay alive, did he want to go through the rest of his life wishing he had died? In that moment, he made another decision: he would not be a cripple.
He was taken home in a wheelchair after a few weeks, and the realities of life set in. He could feel nothing in his legs. No matter how forcefully, he willed signals from his brain down into his legs, nothing happened. He couldn’t even wiggle his toes. Everything below the waist was dead. His life suddenly became depressingly simple. He was either lying in bed, or sitting in his wheelchair, under the tree in the garden. But he never forgot the decision he had made in hospital not to be a cripple.
One afternoon, while everyone else was indoors, the little boy threw himself out of his wheelchair and into the grass. He dragged his lifeless legs behind him, inch by inch, from his spot under the tree, all the way to the white picket fence that surrounded the garden. With all the strength he could muster, he reached up and pulled himself to his feet. Then he started to move himself along the fence. Inch by inch, panel by panel, mumbling to himself, under his breath, “I am not a cripple. I am not a cripple”. He did this every single day, covering more ground each day. Each day, his legs gained more strength. Soon, he could walk without holding on to the rails.
Before long, the little boy was walking to school again. And then he was running to school. So grateful for the use of his legs, so grateful that he was not a cripple, the little boy, who doctors had declared dead only months ago, would start running and just not stop, all the way to school and back, just happy to make the maximum use of those legs he had almost lost.
Now, it would have been fine to just end our story here, because there are so many lessons we could take from this triumphant story of perseverance, but the truth is, it doesn’t end there. There’s more.
After retiring from athletics, he and his wife ran the Glenn Cunningham Youth Ranch for Troubled kids in Kansas, USA. An estimated 9000 children benefitted from the life-changing assistance and mentorship given by Glenn Cunningham.
My friends, what do you want? And why don’t you have it? I’ll bet you can write me a whole essay on why you are not yet where you want to be in life, and point to a million factors that have stood in the way of your success, but I can assure you that if you stop and think about it, you will realise that the only reason you are not living your dream – whatever it may be – is that you haven’t yet decided that you want it.
Experts said that Glenn Cunningham would die. He decided that he wanted to live. They said that Glenn would be a cripple. He decided that he wanted to walk. They said it would have been better if he had died. He decided that the world would be better because he lived. So, my friends, the only thing standing between you and your destiny is one decision. Make it today.
My name is Kojo Yankson, and as long as I have breath, I’m not done.
GOOD MORNING, GHANAFO!