Benton McTaggart overcomes a life riddled with struggles

St Mary boy ignored hunger, sold coconut drops in order not to miss school

BY INGRID BROWN Associate editor -- special assignment browni@jamaicaobserver.com

Saturday, July 18, 2015

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There were many days when Benton McTaggart went on an empty stomach. On the days that he was lucky, he would have boiled bananas with oil for lunch.

But McTaggart never missed a day of school because of the importance he placed on getting a good education.

When his mother could not afford the taxi fare from their home in Montreal, St Mary to Guy's Hill High, McTaggart quickly learnt to make coconut drops which he would sell to his classmates in order to earn enough money just to get to school for the week.

Today, the 28-year-old is able to reflect on how he not only struggled to earn two degrees, including an accelerated master's, but also paid his sister's way through university to ensure that she didn't become another casualty of poverty.

"There was an intrinsic motivation. I would cry if I didn't get to go to school, and so many days I would go without lunch rather than stay home," he said.

McTaggart, who holds a Master of Business Administration from the University of Rochester in New York and a Bachelor of Arts in Media and Communication from the University of the West Indies (UWI), currently works as a career strategy consultant for SoFi, one of the largest providers of student loan refinancing in the US.

His responsibilities include providing executive coaching and career management advice to experienced professionals and recent Ivy-league college graduates.

McTaggart, who has six siblings, recalls that his mother did odd jobs such as taking in washing and working in the fields to care for the family.

"My life was riddled with struggles because sometimes we only had one meal for the day," McTaggart explained.

His oldest sister helped to take care of the household while his mother eked out a living; and when his older brother turned 17 he got a job as a security guard to help put food on the table for everyone.

"We are from a very close-knit family, so we would always help each other," he said.

But despite going to school some days on an empty stomach, McTaggart has been excelling at academics from an early age -- reading at grade seven level when he was in grade three at Carron Hall Primary School. As such, he was a tad disappointed when he was placed at Guy's Hill High School, having been in the first batch of students to sit the Grade Six Achievement Test which replaced the Common Entrance Exam.

He had hoped to attend his first love St Mary High, which was also closer to his home and meant he would be able to walk there on the days when there was no money.

"When I started going to Guy's Hill, that was where most of my troubles started because my mother had to find $80 everyday, and in 1999 that was a lot of money, and so there were several days when I didn't have fare," he recalled.

"I remembered that when I was in primary school my best friend would take [coconut] drops to school that her mother had made and give it to us. I didn't want to miss school, and I didn't want to do anything illegal, so I thought that I could learn to make it and sell it to my schoolmates," he recalled.

It didn't take him a long time to learn how to make the sweet snack because he had started helping with the cooking at home when he was 10 years old.

"I used to make the drops on a Sundays and take them to school on Mondays and Tuesdays to sell, and whatever money I made from that was just enough to pay taxi fare for the week. It didn't matter to me that I didn't have any lunch money, I just wanted to get to school," he explained.

Unable to use more than his taxi fare each day from the meagre sales, McTaggart said he would sometimes carry boiled bananas and oil for his lunch and hide in a corner when eating in order to avoid possible ridicule.

Eventually, the guidance counsellor, Don Taylor, learnt of his struggles and made arrangements for him to receive lunch under the school feeding programme.

"Sometimes I would be ashamed, and so when I got the ticket I would go secretly and collect the lunch," McTaggart said.

Having survived the five years of high school, McTaggart hit another roadblock when it was time to sit the CXC examinations. Confident that he wanted to sit 11 subjects, McTaggart was faced with the almost impossible task of finding the money to pay for them.

He recalled that one of his most devastating days was when his mother informed him he could only take the few subjects the Government paid for and then work and attend evening class later on to get the remainder.

"It was really defeating to hear because my mother was never one to give up easily, and when she got money she would always be putting aside some for us to go to school, and so I knew it must have been hard for her to say," he recalled. But it was even harder for McTaggart, who said that that was one of the rare occasions he was not present in school as he was too overwhelmed.

"I stayed home and cried all day because I was doing really well in school and was getting the grades and now I wouldn't be able to take all the subjects I wanted," he said.

But a determined McTaggart said he started calling on family members overseas. However, nobody was in a position to help at that time. His last option was to ask an aunt to loan him the money and allow him to work it off by cleaning her pig pen. Fortunately for him, his aunt gave him the $6,000 for the CXC subjects, and his teen brother, who had just started working as a security guard, paid the $2,000 fee for the GCE subject.

The next hurdle to overcome was convincing the school to allow him to do that many subjects in one sitting. Given his involvement on the Schools' Challenge Quiz team and other extra curricular activities, the teachers thought it might be too much for him.

"At the time of CXC there were still struggles because I couldn't even afford to go to extra lessons and so my biology and chemistry teacher, Mr Winston Johnson, was really good to me as he would ask me to make note of concepts I didn't understand and come to him after school. He would help me also with maths," McTaggart said.

Studying for exams was another challenge as McTaggart recalled that his blood pressure went up because he was not getting enough sleep.

"Because we had a big family in a small space I had to wait until everyone went to bed to get up and study until around 2:00 am," he said.

Despite having a full plate, McTaggart was successful in nine CXC subjects and one GCE.

For sixth form, McTaggart got accepted at St Mary High and was able to stay with an aunt who lived within walking distance of the school.

"Some days I still didn't have lunch money, but it didn't matter to me because I could still get to school," he said. And as for not being able to afford textbooks to prepare for the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE), McTaggart said he was lucky to have a classmate, Honeisha Richards, who would share her books with him.

On completing sixth form, McTaggart was accepted at UWI to do medicine. However, he could not come up with the $500,000 needed to start. On the advice of a teacher he opted for a programme which was less expensive, as he did not want to be sitting at home.

"My family wanted me to go and work and sit out university for a while, but I knew there was not much option for work in St Mary, and so I would probably end up sitting at home for a long time and I didn't want that," he recalled.

He was accepted to Carimac to study media and communication, after having taken the entrance test for want of something better to do when he had accompanied a friend to UWI earlier in the year.

Then began the struggle of funding his studies. McTaggart said his brother paid the fees for the first semester, but by second semester things began going downhill. As luck would have it, he landed a summer internship at Digicel and earned enough money for his fees doing promotions.

By the second year, while working full-time to get through school, McTaggart encountered another challenge. His sister Alicia graduated with several subjects but had no money to attend university.

Despite struggling to pay for his own schooling, McTaggart was determined that his sister would not end up sitting at home in St Mary and immediately brought her to Kingston when she got accepted at the Faculty of Pure and Applied Science at UWI.

"My sister was really smart, but she couldn't get anyone to co-sign a loan for her, and so I say I am taking her with me. My older sister said to me: 'How are you going to do it?' I say I won't leave her because a lot can happen in two years," he recalled.

McTaggart said he then rented a flat near campus for both of them, which cost more than he was earning at the time. Faced with the responsibility of paying both school fees, McTaggart said he got a second job at the library on the UWI campus to help with the utilities and food. With the help of bursaries he was able to keep them in school.

"My sister and I literally went through a period where sometimes we wouldn't have anything to eat. When Digicel had promotions I would take home some of the food to share it with her," he recalled.

When he completed his degree, McTaggart received a scholarship to pursue an MBA at the University of Rochester but, before taking up the offer, he made sure that his sister received a scholarship to pursue a master's at a university in Canada.

"I had about US$5,000 in savings and so I gave her US$3,000 to take with her and I went to the US with $2,000 on a big snow day wearing loafers and a thin coat," he recalled.

But his struggles were far from over as after paying the first month's rent and deposit for a small flat in New York, buying a blanket and proper coat and his books for school he was totally broke.

"They would provide food at orientation and for two weeks straight that was what I took home to eat, and when that was done all I lived on was cup soup," he recalled.

He eventually got a loan after his brother, who had just become a permanent resident, co-signed for him.

McTaggart said he quickly landed an internship as a digital marketing consultant for a mortgage company. He later got a job as a career advisor and did well enough there to be recommended for the position of admission assistant.

"I got an award for most outstanding graduate assistant for the admission office because I had a 98 per cent acceptance rate for all the people I recommended as candidate for graduate studies," he explained.

Today, McTaggart said he did it all because of the small steps he was willing to take to achieve his goal.

"There is this thing that if you are poor you can't do this and you can't do that, but I don't believe in it," he said.

His advice to others experiencing similar situations is that there are fringe benefits to growing up with limited opportunities.

"I believe it teaches you to be disciplined, self-motivated, vulnerable and most importantly, it teaches you the power of imagination. Others call it ambition, but honestly, you have to find something to latch on to so that you can pull yourself forward," he said.

"That's where your imagination comes into play. You visualise what you want to be and battle whatever odds to get there. I've lived this story for 28 years and I am getting to where I want to be," he said. "One of your biggest assets will be your vulnerability -- in my view -- it's the birthplace of creativity, intelligence and the opportunities to move forward. Don't let your circumstances define you, but instead define your own circumstances."

Do you know anyone who has been able to break the cycle of poverty through education? Let us tell their stories and help to inspire others. Email browni@jamaicaobserver.com or call 876 564-1522

 

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