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Mind the Gap: Fathers Who Show Up

An inner-city schoolteacher celebrates Mr. Burgos. “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” It may be...


An inner-city schoolteacher celebrates Mr. Burgos.

“Eighty percent of success is showing up.” It may be ironic to begin a post about Father’s Day with a quote from Woody Allen, but as I thought about the role fathers play in my students’ lives, I kept coming back to it.

Applied to fatherhood, Allen’s standard sets a low bar, yet the majority of my students’ fathers cannot measure up. As Americans gather this Sunday to honor their dads, celebrations will be muted in many families where too many men are missing or absent.

Among this dearth of dads, however, are a handful of honorable fathers who play active roles in their children’s lives—men like Rafael Burgos, who has spent the past few decades juggling his work responsibilities with those of being a supportive parent to his three children. In this barren landscape of fathers, he is an oak tree. This Father’s Day is for him.

Mr. Burgos’s youngest daughter, Jada, is set to graduate from our high school in a week’s time. Her graduation will not only cap her rise from a deferential girl into a mature young woman who can assert now herself. It also represents a triumph for her mother and father.

After all, it's for Jada that Mr. Burgos rises at 5:00 a.m. each morning to begin his duties as a building superintendent. Eleven hours later, Mr. Burgos’s shift ends and he puts on his metaphorical Dad hat, checking in on his daughter’s homework assignments and social life, putting a smile on her face, and reminding her about what is necessary to reach her goals and aspirations.

While this balancing act is standard for many of my students’ mothers or grandmothers, I have not come across a more active, responsible father in my two years of teaching. At every parent-teacher conference, there is the gregarious Mr. Burgos with his bold handshake and broad-faced smile. Recently, at 4:15 in the morning on the day that Jada and others began our school's trip to New Orleans, there was Mr. Burgos driving her over and helping her with her luggage. At senior prom, there was Mr. Burgos again, snapping photos of Jada and her date outside the dance hall.

“My dad is always there for me when I need him,” Jada wrote in an email, “And that makes me feel happy since I have a person who will pick me up when I fall.”

While such paternal support is typical in some communities, only about a quarter of my students live with their biological fathers; the percentage who receive “wisdom” from their dad, as Jada says she does, is even lower. My students have talked with me about being raped by their father, of having their father stand by while a relative abused them, of waiting for hours as the time for their father to pick them up came and went.

Two weeks ago, I was talking with a student when I asked her what she was doing after school. She said she was going into Manhattan. I asked her why. She said it was to visit her father, who is in jail.

Through diligence and dedication, Mr. Burgos has risen above his peers. And in so doing, he has not only served as a model to his son about what it means to be a man, but has taught his daughters an invaluable lesson about what they can expect from a partner. He is affectionate, compassionate, and hands-on. As a result, his children are mature, hard-working, and polite.

After completing high school in Puerto Rico, Mr. Burgos didn’t have enough money to attend college, where he had hoped to study psychology. He instead turned to work and parenting, imploring his children to make something of themselves. He advised them to choose a career based not how much it paid them but on how much passion it instilled in them.

This fall, after a lifetime of hard work and sacrifice, Mr. Burgos will send his eldest daughter, Jada, onto college, where she will begin her scholarship-supported studies of forensic psychology.

Happy Father’s Day, Mr. Burgos.

Brendan Lowe is a Teach for America corps member who is in his second year of teaching high school in the South Bronx. His dispatch for GOOD appears on Fridays.

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