A New Bike
Updated: Nov 26, 2018
A lesson in poverty, from father to son.
Throughout my childhood, my father would share snap shots of his own childhood, growing up poor in Detroit. It was difficult for me to comprehend being one of ten children and receiving government assistance. It was difficult for me to understand wearing cardboard soled shoes that you had to put under arm when it rained. It was difficult for me to imagine the sacrifices made, so that he could attend college. No matter how many times my father shared his stories, I could only play a grainy reenactment in my mind but I was never able to make an emotional connection.
I was sixteen when my father brought home an A&W Root Beer ten-speed bicycle for me. He had entered my name in a grocery store raffle on a whim, and I had won. I already had a mountain bike, which was what most kids were riding, and I couldn't imagine being seen on a grocery store hunk of steel. Trying not to seem ungrateful, I cheerfully offered the bike to my father, explaining that I already had one and he didn't. And then, without warning, my father began to cry— almost uncontrollably. Through his tears he lamented that he had never had a new bike and it was his youngest child who gave it to him. At the time, I was a little bewildered by his response but slowly began to understand the pain of poverty. Despite having earned a Ph.D. and becoming a full professor with tenure, my father had never thrown off the burden that poverty had placed upon his shoulders. Accomplishments and accolades did not erase old wounds.
My father passed away two years later, and when I think of him, I recall that story often. It was a simple, powerful, and lasting lesson. I still may never be able to understand poverty, but in that moment, at least I was able to understand my father.