By MIKE WHALEY JUNE 21, 2015
pencer Nowland’s journey is by no means over. A recent Coe-Brown Northwood Academy graduate, he has experienced a lot in his young life. Much more than most.
At Coe-Brown, he competed with the soccer, basketball and track and field teams. His passion for music will send him to the University of Hartford this fall where he plans to major in audio engineering.
Getting to this point in life has been a long and sometimes painful journey from poverty in Ethiopia to a new life of hope in the United States. His brother and he welcomed this glorious new life, but it did not come without a cost: They’ve had to deal with the death of their adoptive mother, as well as the ugliness of racism.
Spencer and Isaac were born in the African nation of Ethiopia. Their lives crossed paths when they were 3 and 4 at an orphanage outside the city of Awasa. Spencer’s father died in the Ethiopian-Somalian conflict, and his mother could not take care of all of her three children. Spencer was sent to live with his grandparents, but they could not handle the responsibility, so he ended up at an orphanage. There he met and became fast friends with Isaac.
Although most of the children had a room to sleep in, Spencer and Isaac did not. Spencer remembers sleeping on a bed in the hallway. Sleeping was a challenge because the lights were always on and it was smokey because coffee was constantly being made over a fire.
“It was hard to sleep, but I got used to it,” Spencer said.
Enter the American couple, Marty Nowland and Joy Bicknell. As early as 1994, they had been interested in adopting. The landscape changed over the nearly 10 years it took them to make the leap. At the turn of the century, they had to go through private adoption, which meant they were doing all the legwork and paperwork.
“Ethiopia, it’s so corrupt,” recalled Marty. “Everyone is on the take. You can’t get something done without a bribe.”
Marty said Americans are viewed as wealthy, so the government official they were dealing with tried to get a bribe from the couple.
“He then told us we couldn’t go through a private orphanage, we had to go through a state orphanage,” Marty said. “He was trying to get us to pay him.”
Marty had already been there for two weeks, but he had to get back home to the U.S. and get back to work. Joy stayed and fought the good fight.
“Joy sat outside his office for two weeks,” Marty said. “She disrupted things for him. She let others coming to the office know what he was doing. It was the only way to get things done. We weren’t going to pay the bribe. It was ugly, but we did it.”
Marty said they had to guess the boys’ ages based on teeth. They were very unhealthy and severely malnourished.
“Everything was new to them,” Marty said. “They’d never been on a plane or ridden on a highway. It was a new culture, a new language, a major challenge. They did great.”
Spencer was the talkative one, while Isaac was quite shy.
“Spencer had a million questions and Isaac was soaking it up,” Marty said.
An early memory for Spencer was learning to ride bikes in the driveway at their new home in Nottingham.
“We tried them for the first time and my dad pushed me and Isaac on bikes,” Spencer said. “They had a car at the end of the driveway so we wouldn’t go too far because we hadn’t figured out the brakes yet.”
Marty and Joy taught the boys English, about the culture and plenty of other things.
Spencer and Isaac attended first grade in Nottingham and followed through to high school where they enrolled at Coe-Brown. They adapted well, played sports and made friends. Soccer was their main sport, something they had played going back to their formative years in Ethiopia when they “kicked a ball around.” They played that as they grew up with their school teams and also at the club level.
Spencer remembers his sophomore year playing JV basketball and his senior varsity soccer season as the most memorable. That basketball season helped Spencer to make his first real high school friends who would be his friends for the remainder of high school. The team also did well, winning a JV championship.
A four-year member of the Coe-Brown boys varsity soccer team, as a senior Spencer was a captain and an all-state player. The Bears won their first 15 games and eventually earned the No. 2 seed in the Division II tournament. An upset in the second round ended their season prematurely.
“He was one of the most dynamic players in the state,” said Coe-Brown soccer coach Christian Gompert. “Really talented and creative with the ball. He’s also one of the most likeable kids, fun to be around. He brings a positive energy. He’s not naive, but very genuine and a good sport. He led by example with his play on the field.”
While soccer provided some of the brightest moments for Spencer and Isaac, it also unleashed some of the darkest.
“There are people who are going to look at my brother and I and call us the N-word here and there,” Spencer said. “It’s just the way it’s going to be. You can’t make everybody think the right way or think the way they should be thinking. People are going to say what they are going to say; more often in a place like this because there are less of us.”
He pauses. “Racism is everywhere,” he said. “I don’t think it’s being racist. I think it’s one thing leads to another, and a friend is trying to be cool for another friend and trying to impress them. So they say the N-word as a black kid walks by. I just ignore it. I don’t think it’s worth wasting time over. But it does get to you.”
There were several instances of racism on the soccer pitch, the most prominent being an incident that occurred against Trinity High during a home match last fall.
“They made several racist comments that day, which players did get suspended for, which was good,” Spencer said. “One player told me to ‘go back to the jungle.’ I was walking away, so I didn’t hear him say it. My brother heard him say it.”
Coach Gompert was shocked. He didn’t realize what was happening during the game, but was quickly apprised when some of the racist rhetoric escalated and carried over into the parking lot after the game. Late in the contest, Spencer asked to be taken out.
“A kid had said things to him and hit him,” Gompert said. “He was trying to get under his skin. Spencer was fuming. Instead of retaliating, he went to the sidelines and sat down. We played a man down until we could sub. I just think that Spencer demonstrated a tremendous amount of class in that game. It took more courage to do what he did. It was a very mature response; a response that will help him to be successful down the road.”
After the game, there was more of the same in the parking lot.
“We came together as a team,” Gompert said. “We didn’t stand behind (Spencer and Isaac). We stood next to them. We made sure there was culpability and ownership. The bigger lesson is people chirp on the field, but when it gets to this degree, that kid opened a lot of eyes. It stressed the importance of standing beside each other.”
It still, of course, rankles Spencer.
“That’s the kind of thing that really gets to me,” he said. “I don’t understand why people have to have this kind of disrespect. I do see that a lot here. I just get used to it. There’s always my brother or a friend to calm me down. It’s good to have help, too.”
Another challenge both boys had to endure was the death of Joy, their adoptive mother. As the boys became teenagers, a change came over Joy. Her personality was different.
“We didn’t know what was wrong,” Marty said. “But it wasn’t her. It was hard on all of us. It was a lot more difficult than one year. I told them not to fight or engage her. If you get mad, go somewhere to take care of it.”
The brain cancer, which explained Joy’s earlier erratic behavior, was diagnosed in August of 2013. Joy died in May of last year.
“It took us a while to really understand how much she did for us and appreciate that,” Spencer said. “The toughest part is that we didn’t have the best relationship over the years. She was my mom and I respected that. But we argued a lot about stupid stuff. And now you think it’s a waste of time, petty stuff that doesn’t matter. I just wish I had done a better job showing that I loved her.”
Marty feels the boys are still at a disadvantage having not received the benefit of Joy at her best because she wasn’t herself the last five or six years of her life.
“It won’t be easy for them,” he said. “They lost their first parents and then they lost their mom a second time, and they’re not even 18. I can’t imagine it; a lot of loss.”
Marty also said, had they stayed in the orphanage and not been adopted, by the time they turned 18, they would be put out on the street. With no life skills, they typically last only three months and die.
“Basically we were saving their lives,” he said. “That’s how big a deal it is.”
College will be the next challenge for the two brothers, who will be apart for the first time since they met at the orphanage all those years ago.
Isaac will attend Plymouth State and, for now, is undeclared.
Spencer is excited about Hartford, being in the city, and focusing on music as his future.
“I love the culture of music,” Spencer said. “That hip-hop, I feel I have a lot of connections to that with a lot of the stories that they tell. For me, it’s got to have it all come together. It can’t just be the beat or about the lyrics. It has to be a song that has true meaning to something I can connect to through my life like an artist like Tupac (Shakur).”
Marty feels good seeing the passion in Spencer.
“Pursue what you like,” Marty said. “Just do it.”