A Son Reckons With His Father’s Hunger To Escape Poverty

Feb 15, 2017

A recent graduate from New England Public Radio’s Media Lab program wrote this piece about his father, who no longer lives at home with him.

My name is Gary, first born of Sophia, and Gary senior. As a young boy, I had more stuff than the average kid. So did my brothers, Tyriek and Ke’naz. I never wondered why we got all these things. I just figured they were cool! My home was comfortable, clean, like the smell of OxiClean and Fabuloso. But at times there was also a different aroma. That other smell I’d been smelling all my life was weed. And the person smoking it was my dad.

My father, who was born in Saint Ann, Jamaica, was a weed dealer. He was also a block-party DJ. He’d play stuff he loved: hip-hop from Nas, Jay Z and Biggie, then reggae by Buju Banton, Garnett Silk and Bob Marley.

When I was around seven, everything changed. My father began talking to himself, seeing things that weren’t there. It turned out he’d developed schizophrenia. My mom says it was activated by a hard drug given to him by one of my family members. Sometimes, even though you think they are, family isn’t family.

After that, Dad moved to Chicago to live with my grandmother. Nobody told me why at the time. Or why we suddenly didn’t have Columbia coats, Timberlands and Polos to wear.

Life became difficult. Catastrophic is probably more like it. I didn’t know what welfare was until welfare hit us. My mom had four more kids with two other fathers. Sometimes they were not around either. I had to grow up — fast. I couldn’t afford to be reckless like other kids. I was too worried about how my family was going to make it.

My dream has always been to stay in school and write music. But in eighth grade I was invited to join a gang. The plan was to rob a Chinese-food delivery person. The money would help my mom.

My dream has always been to stay in school and write music. But in eighth grade I was invited to join a gang. The plan was to rob a Chinese-food delivery person. The money would help my mom. But I couldn’t stoop that low.

I wanted to be true to myself and live according to the law. And I have.

Sometimes I get to see dad in the summer. But even when I can’t, I talk to him on the phone and tell him I love him. I can’t see his face, but I know he’s smiling as he says, "I love you too, son."

There are times I look in the mirror and see in me my father’s eyes and his hunger to escape poverty. It’s frightening. But I take that hunger and I flip it to fuel my dreams.

Gary Campbell is a senior at Springfield High School of Science and Technology.