I was expecting "awesome" from simply everything I had read about this global teen conference, but I hadn't expected such levels of awesome and I hadn't even arrived in New York yet. For on Wednesday March 13, I sat in my mum's study (in our wee village just outside Glasgow, Scotland: population, 1,700 people) with all my family gathered around the computer staring (with our mouths hanging open, I might add) at my face on a massive -- and I mean a massive -- digital advertising board, right smack in the center of Times Square. Wow, this was seriously awesome. Also, the power of such technology was also incredible as my little brother Zac was totally bemused at how we could be watching a live rotating image in Times Square when we are in Scotland. Ahh, the magic of webcams! Thomson Reuters had donated all their space to TEDxTeen and there we shined -- all 13 speakers from around the world, alongside Chelsea Clinton who would be hosting the day! "What would she be like?" we all wondered.
So the next day I flew to NYC with my mum, and the excitement was at fever pitch. I had practiced my speech a million times but was still very nervous. My brother, Johnnie, who reminded me all week how "amazing the kids were last year" and "what if my speech was rubbish compared to them?" didn't help this. (He's 8 years-old). So during the seven hours or so on the plane, I continued to look at my slides, pondering if I should put in a few more jokes. "What if the Yanks don't get my Scottish sense of humor?" I wondered.
When we arrived in NYC, it was cold but not as cold as Scotland -- let's face it! Mum and I took a stroll up Fifth Avenue on our way to Central Park. We decided -- actually, she decided -- to pop into Bergdorf Goodman for a wee look. I asked the gentleman where the escalator was and he replied, "Oh, do you mean for the Manolo Blahnik event, Miss?"
"Result," I thought.
"Sure," I replied and off we went -- my mum almost overcome at the prospect of seeing the shoe legend himself. Not quite your average store event in Glasgow I can tell you...
I wasn't leaving until I had a pic with the king of shoes and my Henry Holland shades did the trick! "I do love your glasses," he said. "Would you like to swap?" No thanks, but a picture will do fine! Not a bad result for just under an hour in this amazing city!
An early night followed with a super early alarm call. My big sis Tessie had coordinated my look, of course. We had taken a few weeks to pull this one together after reading a great article in Company magazine about how to make "this season's must have -- a cape." So we bought our tartan material and set about it. Apart from my own heritage, tartan is everywhere right now, from the A/W 2014 catwalk like Chanel to Moschino and on the high street. We decided to create it with a storming twist -- a Mary Queen of Scots hook. (I do love those collars if you recall.) My friend Karla gave us a hand, as it required some precise hand stitching, which isn't really my forte. The dress was a wee Rihanna for River Island number, my customary Bonnie Blink knuckleduster (new colors) and a custom-made sporran bag by a young Perthshire-based Scottish accessory designer called Marcus Eagleton. He works from this little work shop in the highlands and quite frankly, has been make these custom-made sporran bags long before Karl Lagerfeld put them on the catwalk last season!
The hair, was big -- yes, following my motto "go big or go home" and we were all set.
The Scholastic auditorium was bursting at the seams with teens registering from all over the world and we were told that over 35 countries from around the globe had registered to watch the live stream -- yip, no pressure then -- thanks, Robert!
Waiting with muffin in hand, there he was, the man himself: Nile Rodgers. To you, he is the founder of the We are Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the vision of creating programs that inspire and educate the next generation about respect, understanding and cultural diversity. The foundation is responsible for this whole TEDxTeen event. To me, this was Mr. "We Are Family" -- think Sister Sledge! You see, when you were being sung "Baa Baa Black Sheep," or "Humpty Dumpty" to put you to sleep at night as a child, my folks would sing Chic and Sister Sledge. Another tick for my "hero to meet" list and again, never failed to disappoint. We even managed to do a wee deal (fingers crossed -- that I may sing with him at a jazz festival in London this summer -- how totally awesome would that be?).
The atmosphere inside the auditorium was electric, helped along by motivator Robert on stage, explaining the merits of the format. A conversation, informal exchange of ideas, visions that are worth sharing. First up was Caine Monroy, who was just 9 years-old when he created "Caine's Arcade" in L.A., all made out of cardboard. As I sat there it was almost incomprehensible what this boy had achieved from a simple thought, his imagination.
Then came Joseph Peter whose book, The Book of Happiness: Africa, inspired an idea that led the United Nations to adopt March 20 as the global Day of Happiness. I was hooked on this prospect for sure and would spread the word (get tweeting, people: #happyday #happyheros).
Kuha'o Case was my favorite of the day. A self-taught piano prodigy is one thing, being blind is another? As he stood on the stage, we felt humbled listening to his remarkable tale where he told us that being blind shouldn't be perceived as a hindrance -- it's a necessary part of him. He asked us to close our eyes and imagine endless possibilities. He had a cheeky sense of humor, but a self-belief and determination that was remarkable. This is a guy who even learned to drive -- albeit on a ranch in Hawaii -- not on a road! I had the chance to speak to him afterwards and haven't stopped listening to his CD on my laptop since. So clearly as this entire day is about exchanging ideas, I suggested we do a song together. "Great idea," he said -- watch this space!
Kelvin Doe from Sierra Leone built a radio station for his community from recycled materials and became the youngest ever "visiting practitioner" with MIT! Wow, can you believe that? But to me, this guy or should I say "DJ Focus," needs a job in TV. He had the audience in hysterics with his charismatic personality, unique charm and humor! (I tweeted him to ask him to be the official DJ at a future party of mine -- he agreed).
Tania Luna dedicated her speech to her area of expertise, which is understanding, and teaching the science of surprise! She certainly gave the audience a surprise indeed, when dancing chickens came on stage. Before you knew it, she had us all up, joining in the most annoying of dances, yip, the chicken dance. But alas, it worked: We laughed, danced and applauded. I thought back to our own family joke, which made me laugh. My mum would always insist in doing the "surprise face" on camera for years. So yes, we have many photos of us at all ages doing the "surprise face," which always on reflection brings great hilarity when you look back at family snaps. She was clearly on to something, eh?
After hearing Maria Toorpakai Wazir I actually wanted to go home. I still wasn't on yet and here was this incredible young woman who had masqueraded as a boy to be able to enjoy any kind of freedom growing up in Pakistan. She competed with boys, whipped them in various activities before taking up squash to become Pakistan's No. 1 player and eventually world ranked No. 3! She told us that after her growing popularity she received a threat from the Taliban and withdrew from public to train in secret. Desperate in her hope to continue she wrote to thousands of people for help. She never gave up hope, she persevered and eventually it came: an email from Jonathan Power and the rest is history.
Currently she lives in Canada where she trains at Jonathan's squash center. How the heck would I follow that? Thankfully, there was one more speaker before I came on. Oh heck, only Nelson Mandela's grandson. He was cool too, though. I did think to myself how impressive it was that people like Nbada, with such a really famous family name could opt out of good will -- let's face it many fortunate kids do. But not him. Co-founder of the Africa Rising Foundation, he works hard to promote a positive image of Africa around the world and was also part of the team who were instrumental in International Day of Happiness at the United Nations.
I was up next -- am not gonna lie, my entire body was shaking I was so nervous, but I had told myself if I got passed my third slide I would be fine -- and I was -- thank goodness.
My hands ached I tweeted so much -- everyone did. The social buzz was electric and there was something amazing about just being part of the digital conversation, recalling quotes, sharing the messages of positivity, belief and encouragement to go on no matter what.
By the time I got back on stage to sing, I really felt like I wanted to continue the party and what a powerful party it was, but one that everyone -- no matter where you were in the world -- was invited to.
So many amazing speakers, too many to recount in specific details but those clever kids at TEDxTeen are putting on the speeches online, so you too can watch them soon when they are posted.
By the time the day finished there was slight snow on the ground in Manhattan, which seemed to add to the magic of it all -- complemented by my new discovery: my new favorite sweeties. (Sorry, just not used to that whole "candy" thing. We call them "sweeties" in Scotland.) Kris Bronner explained to us how he co-founded a company to "un-junk" sweeties. In fact, his range has 40 percent less sugars than its competitors and contains zero junk. Feeling obliged to do the taste test (yip, I have a terrible sweet tooth) I fully obliged and can confirm they are awesome!
I met so many inspiring people, I was so fired with energy and excitement I wanted to explode. We swapped contacts, tweeted and have emailed already with many. And just when I thought the day couldn't get any better Andrew Jenks of MTV's World of Jenks, who had been doing all the live stream interviews all day, invited me and my mum to his party and asked if I would like to perform. "Are you kidding?" I thought. "Sure," I replied without hesitation. Another lesson of the day: Act on instinct, even in the face of surprise and what a wonderful surprise it was. A few short hours later, there I was singing live at his birthday party on stage and chatting to his lovely folks.
As I lay on my pillow that night, I looked out at the New York skyline and felt truly lucky and blessed to be part of this movement and yes, it is a movement. I also felt that I was really going to push it back home. I am not sure whether it's a British or even Scottish thing, but I certainly don't feel like we have such a positive culture. There seems to be so much judgment around, even at school or in the playground -- in our local communities. Imagine if we took all that negative energy and channeled it into positive energy. Imagine if instead of being skeptical like we Scots are, we just went with it, trusted our judgment, believed in the "why not?" and followed our instinct no matter what storms it may bring.
The theme of my speech was #discoverthestorminside, but I hadn't anticipated re-educating myself again -- for as much I believe in having your "thing" whatever that may be, and believing that dream, I now realize that I have to apply it to every part of my life and not just my singing. So that's what TEDxTeen did for me. They came, they tantalized, with tangible and tactical ideas, they were the uber-talented TEDxTeens and what a day it was. Thanks, Nile -- what a journey!
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