When I was 17, my brother Ed and I played on the same high school basketball team. Returning from an away game one night on the team bus, we all talked excitedly, reliving the highlights of the game we had just won. Along the way, the bus stopped at a restaurant so the team could unload and eat dinner. Everyone filed out – except for Ed and me.
My brother and I couldn’t afford to buy meals on school trips. Instead, our mom would send us off with her legendary burritos so we could still participate in sports with the other kids. Eating on the bus was routine. We were long past any embarrassment we might have felt.
Minutes after the team had gone, we were about to dig into our dinner. Unexpectedly, Mr. Teague, the father of a teammate, reboarded the bus. He didn’t say much at first – just teased me a bit because my younger brother had outscored me in the game. But I’ll always remember what he said next, “Bobby,” he said, “it would make me very happy if you would allow me to buy you boys dinner so you can join the rest of the team. No one else has to know. To thank me, you just have to do the same thing in the future for another great kid like yourself.”
That small gesture had a profound impact on me. As a family of migrant workers, I had felt from a very young age that we were socially invisible. I lived in a country that relied on my family’s work for readily available food, but no one acknowledged what we did. Our family traveled six months of the year to work in the fields, and I inevitably returned home to find that my friends’ lives had moved on, leaving me anxious to reconnect and catch up on the fun-filled summer I had missed.
As a high school junior, I couldn’t imagine that I would live a life different from the one I had, but I was dead set on not getting stuck where I was. As a resilient kid with the desire to take control of my own story, I realized I had to get my life together – and fast. When my dad would tease that he would “break my plate” when I graduated, it wasn’t really a joke. I would soon be on my own.
That day on the bus I was seen in a new and important way. I knew my parents loved me. I had teachers and coaches who had taken the time to encourage and cultivate me. But Mr. Teague was different. He was a successful businessman in our town. In my eyes, he was someone who had made it big – definitely not the type of person I expected to pay attention to me. And yet he not only acknowledged me but also offered kindness and gave me a purpose. In a simple statement, Mr. Teague said that I could one day help somebody else who really needed it like I had.
I’ll never forget the gratitude I felt as Ed and I joined the team for dinner that night. It changed the way I looked at my life and what I wanted to achieve.