Some lessons change a life. Some lessons change as many as they can. Jeff Bogle shares the moment that changed his . . .
My toy chest was perpetually overstuffed, the non-union hinges worked tirelessly in cramped, turn-of-the-last-century conditions to entrap the bounty of forest green plastic soldiers and fierce-faced He-Man figures it was tasked with containing, and my husky waistline yielded incrementing evidence to the jury that I rarely missed a meal.
I had more than enough of everything I could desire as a child.
My upper middle class parents spoiled me greatly and this was no truer than at Christmastime when the Kama Sutra-style gift giving would go on for days. Vacations were plentiful too, and occurred too frequent to bother wasting a dream on one—Bermuda, Florida, Canada, Chicago, Boston, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica. That last spot we visited for a week in the spring of 1985. I was in my final single digit year, the age my oldest daughter is now. We rented a plush house that sat up high on a hill with easy views of the sea. The sprawling one story residence came supplied with a full staff, pool boy, armed guards, and a jolly driver named Keith. While my parents could obviously afford this brand of one-off luxury in the Reaganomical mid-eighties, we were not those kind of people. Being served did not come easy to us. Yes, we had a lot but we didn’t expect a lot from those around us who had less. This meant that the first couple of days of our stay were the most awkward I’d seen my parents before or since. Eventually, my mom relented and let the cook cook, and my dad allowed the pool boy to do 100% of the skimming off leaves. We settled into a routine, permitted some pampering, and had a nice vacation.
On one drive, moving from our protected cottage to another undoubtedly lavish space for something or other, we passed hundreds of families living in tents and cardboard boxes along the muddy sides of the road. Like the prime cuts of steak I was eating all week, that tragic sight was instantly seared into my mind, and would later shape my worldview. Other than some iteration of boyhood sadness, I’m unable to pin down my exact feeling in the moment but in the decades that followed I came to realize and believe this: those for whom fortunate has shone down brightly—be it by hard work, inheritance or divine intervention—must help others whose weight on the scales tips in the opposite direction. I am guessing my Invest In Childhood/Don’t Save For College position was birthed in that white van too, for I knew of the concept of poverty from elementary school and from seeing homeless men on the streets of Philadelphia during nights out with my mom and dad, but I didn’t know it at all. I had never seen the face of abject poverty. I had never looked into those eyes. Not until that chauffeured drive in Jamaica. The dichotomy of the entire experience remains with me to this day. Those were lessons I could never have learned from a textbook or a professor.
I am thankful that I am in the position I am in today, at home with few financial worries, a strong family, and a nice simple place to call our own. We don’t have everything but we want for very little. I am thankful that toy companies send me their wares to try, to test, to tell you stories about, and that many times there are extras we save for this very time of year. And the ones we open and play with, we donate secondhand to Cradles to Crayons so that other children might enjoy them next. Passing down the line, not worried if you will have a plate or a handful at the end, only focused on others—this is how I was shaped, starting as an observant 9-year-old boy on a Jamaican road.
Through a partnership with local children’s charities here in the Philadelphia area we sponsor two kids each Christmastime. It is one of our most favorite family traditions. With this program we fill in the gaps for these kids so that they might experience a Christmas morning worth waking up to, with presents neatly wrapped and nestled under a tree. Glossy paper, sparkly bows—a bit of magic for but a morning. Maybe their special wish is a bike or a new Mickey Mouse toy, whatever it is, we grant it happily and tack on a pile of new toys, warm jackets, and some fuzzy mittens. This year we have the good fortune of shopping for a 1-year-old boy and a 4-year-old girl. My girls giddily participate too, happy to spoil children they will never have the privilege of meeting.
While my own daughters have yet to see the true faces of sadness, nothing at all like those families on the side of that Jamaican road, they have, thanks to our travels, witnessed a bit of the desperation felt by many with whom we share this world. Those experiences are helping shape them into empathetic and humble young women who want to make the world a better place and who believe very much that they can, and will, in time.
And in turn, I feel like I am doing something right as a parent in placing two generous, loving souls into this world just as my parents did with me. Thanks, Mom and Dad, for not putting money away for my college and for instead taking me to see pieces of the world I would only have read about otherwise, and for allowing those places to impact me and inform the person I was becoming. Thank you also to Keith, our driver for that week in Jamaica, for taking that road on that day in March of ’85, and for allowing me to see his country how it really was, not how it existed inside our grand rental home, and to be changed forever as a result.