I read Bertrand Cooper’s interesting essay today in The Times: “I Escaped Poverty, but Hunger Still Haunts Me.”
As I’ve written before, for a period in my childhood, I went hungry. And, I’ve never forgotten that gnawing feeling. When you’re eight years old, you don’t know what “normal” is, as you have no perspective.
You think it is normal to be in temporary housing, having bounced from East Flatbush, Brooklyn, to Jakarta and then back to the US to temp housing and then to another neighborhood for a total of four moves in six months.
You think it is normal to find an empty fridge and a pantry containing just one can of Del Monte green peas that previous tenants left behind. I remember skipping lunch again that day.
You think it is normal to go to school without breakfast, that there is nothing wrong when you tell your teacher you feel like throwing up, and she sends you to the kind school nurse who asks you if you’ve had breakfast. When you tell her “no,” she gives you some graham crackers with cinnamon sugar, asks you to lie down and rest, and predicts that you’ll feel better after 15 minutes. You marvel when all that comes to past. You see the school nurse quite a few times because the adults in your life are pre-occupied.
You think it is normal that dinner is usually junk food or frozen food, haphazardly pulled together. It seems normal when you cook an entire Thanksgiving dinner by yourself at age nine because you know that if you don’t do it, no one will.
The human brain is extremely powerful. It remembers moments and tries to guide you to avoid repeat occurrences. And, it motivates you. I worked hard to a fault as a young father because I never wanted my own children to know hunger. I’m a sucker for charities that focus on vulnerable children. And my heart breaks when a HBS student of mine tell me that they send a check home every month to a loved one to help that family member avoid hunger.
I’ve said it before: each of us is comprised of two stories. We want to show the world our First Stories on our CVs and LinkedIn profiles. We want to hide our Second Stories, the ones filled with shame. But our Second Stories created the First Stories. They are two sides of the same coin, and we cannot have one without the other.
Read Cooper’s essay. It’s very moving. I hope he will continue to embrace his Second Story.