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Education can break the cycle of poverty. But I worry sometimes the debt of it could break me

This is a First Person column by Shaquille Morgan, who lives in Toronto. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, see the FAQ.

“Education is the way out of poverty,” was one of my grandma’s favourite lectures. During weekends at her home, she’d often tell stories of her life and financial struggles, but also how her nursing education helped her move from Jamaica to Canada. She’d pace around the kitchen, the aroma from her stew peas and beef permeating the air, while explaining how her education made her financially independent and eventually allowed her to move her children to Toronto as well.

Today, I reflect on the seeds she planted and recognize that they took root. I look at my bachelor’s and master’s degrees and appreciate her advice. 

But despite following her example, there were times when I struggled to reconcile how furthering my education would pull me or my family out of poverty if it meant going deeper into debt. One experience in particular has stuck with me.

I was in Grade 7. Every student was required to pay for the school agenda, and the first class to bring in all of their agenda money would be rewarded with a pizza party. The mere thought of this excited my class and ignited our competitive spirits.

The agendas at the time were only $10 — an amount I’m blessed to look at today as insignificant. But it wasn’t then.

When I went home I told my mom about the agenda. I thought sharing the information about the pizza party would convey the urgency. With a distressed look, my mom told me to remind her in a couple of days.

I knew it wasn’t going to be easy for her to put together the $10, because my mom was going to school while trying to maintain our household with what little money she had. To make ends meet, she worked part-time and took on debt. I admired that.

A teenager in a suit looks back at the camera while a group of elementary school students stand on stage.
Morgan at his Grade 8 graduation ceremony in 2008. (Submitted by Shaquille Morgan)

At school, students began turning in their agenda money. Those who hadn’t got reminders about the pizza party prize. But as the days turned to weeks, I realized I was the only one getting these reminders. I felt anxious and embarrassed, but I hid it the best I could.

More than three weeks later, my mom told me she had my agenda money and I was excited. But when she handed over a Ziploc bag filled with quarters, dimes, nickels and some pennies, the reality of our circumstances hit me like never before. The next day, I walked to my classroom, change clinking in my pocket and thoughts of winning the pizza party on my mind. But that day, the announcements were different. I sat there with my head on the desk, only loosely paying attention. “YEAH!” I heard in the distance along with thunderous cheers from another class down the hallway. “What happened?” I asked my friend. “They won the pizza party,” he said.

The guilt and embarrassment left a mark on me. And while I could never blame my mom, I vowed at that moment that I would never be in a situation where I would have to nickel and dime again.

Today, I find myself at a similar crossroad as my mom. I’ll find myself blankly staring at the wall contemplating returning to school to expand my career opportunities in writing, research and teaching. But it’s that experience from Grade 7 that stops me in my tracks. My mom eventually sacrificed her education to work full-time and pay the bills. I, too, dreaded the decision to pursue my master’s degree because it forced me to take on substantial debt. And still, I pursued it because of my grandma’s lessons, keeping a part-time job, finessing and penny-pinching to get by.

It was hard then, but I know it would be harder now and require me to sacrifice my current job and financial safety net. I would once again be a struggling student chasing a higher purpose — something I don’t even know will pay off particularly in this economy. 

For now I’ve decided against returning to school. I just hope I won’t regret it.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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