How My Illiterate Grandmother Raised An Educated Black Man

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Terrell StarrFrom as early as 10 years old, I awoke to my grandmother tapping the ceiling directly underneath my bed with a wooden broomstick at 7 o’clock each morning during the school week. I rolled from underneath my covers, bathed, then made my way downstairs to the kitchen, where she would have a bowl of grits, a side of bacon, and a glass of orange juice ready for me on our kitchen countertop.

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Ever-watching the clock, she would make sure I finished breakfast in time to be out of the house at half-past seven, so I would make it to school on time. Before I left, my grandmother would often ask me if I had completed any homework assignments teachers had given the day before. I was a good student, so I almost always said, yes. But even if I didn’t do my homework, she would have no way of knowing.

My grandmother, Inez Starr, could neither read nor write.

In fact, she could barely write her own name, and I often had to handle any important business affairs on her behalf. Still, I never met a woman who cared more about education than she did. She, as some of my family members recall, put books in my hands as early as 3 years old. Never mind the fact that neither she nor I could read the words on the pages.

Her “Rell” (as she affectionately nicknamed me) was going to learn how to read — even if she couldn’t. “There is always a way to do what you want to do,” was a constant refrain of hers.

And no matter how violent and rough my West Side neighborhood in Detroit was, she never allowed me to make excuses when I got in trouble. I was a good kid for the most part, but temptation was hard to ignore sometimes.

At 13, my more rebellious years, I favored hanging out with some of the more mischievous young men in the neighborhood rather than coming straight home from school. My grandmother was elderly and couldn’t run after me on the streets, I figured. I could do what I wanted and come home when I wanted. One day, after hanging out in the streets, I arrived home only to see a police car drive up in front of our house moments later.

Those streets are no good, the officer told me. They’ll get you killed.

My grandmother had threatened to call the police on me to get me in line before, but I didn’t believe her. That was the last time I tested her word.

One day we were watching scholars on some talk show intellectualize, ad nauseam, about how violence and sexual images on television can make young people act out negatively in real life. She was not convinced. Worried that these scholars may have won my support, she stared directly into my eyes and, in her ungrammatical profundity, delivered her own, more succinct perspective:

You can go on out here and do something stupid if you won’t to, she said. But the police ain’t go come here and put handcuffs on that TV; they coming to arrest yo’ Black *ss!

In my grandmother’s eyes, there was no such thing as “external influences.” I had full control of my actions, and if I got into trouble, there always was some way I could have avoided it. The best way to stay out of trouble was to avoid it at all costs.

Sometimes my grandmother’s loving guardianship went too far.  One time I spotted a girl I knew from school walking past my house. (Let’s call her “Sharmaine.”) She didn’t know the neighborhood well and asked me if I could walk her to a store several blocks away.

When I told my grandmother I was going to escort Sharmaine to the store and would return in less than 30 minutes, she balked, responding, “No, you ain’t.”

Shocked at the thought that my grandmother would not allow me to walk Sharmaine to a destination less than three blocks away, I pleaded with her not to take away my manhood. My grandmother didn’t relent an inch. So, sullen-faced, I returned to my front porch to deliver the news that she would have to make her way to the store on her own.

“What?” Sharmaine said. “You joking?”

“Nope,” I replied.

Sharmaine then burst out laughing and walked away, leaving me on my porch steps embarrassed out of my skin.  I was 17 years old.

My grandmother’s logic behind why she wouldn’t allow me to be the gentleman of the ghetto:

That girl may try to set you up and get you robbed by some dopeboy friend. Who are her parents? Have I met her? Why she come all the way over here from where she lives? I don’t trust her.

My grandmother may have been a little too cautious in this case, but given how rough my neighborhood was and how many of my friends had become fathers before finishing high school (if they finished at all), I think she did the right thing, in hindsight.

We need more parents like my grandmother.

Parents who love their children so much, they are willing to make them uncomfortable in order to make them successful. And like my grandmother, love to the extreme to ensure their children do not slip into the unassuming pitfalls of incarceration and teenage pregnancy that negate a successful life trajectory.

Now some people may think my views or the approach taken by my grandmother is, and I am sorry for using dirty language, conservative. But it was this “conservative” upbringing that allowed me to grow into the college-educated and, for lack of a better word, liberal-thinking 31-year-old reporter I am today.

My old broom-tapping grandmother is gone now. She died right after I finished high school. But when I wake up each morning in my Bronx apartment to prepare for work, I still hear that broom-tapping sound that woke me up more than 15-years earlier.

She may not have been able to read, but she taught me to cook a mean pot roast! I make my own food now. As a life-long domestic maid, she taught me what knowledge she had.

And I continued to hear her omnipresent tapping during my four years of undergrad at Philander Smith College and three years of graduate school at the University of Illinois. Even in death, my grandmother “tapped” me through three degrees. And now she is tapping me toward a promising writing career.

All of this from a woman who wouldn’t be able to read this ode I wrote in her honor.

My grandmother is a testament to how a parent with few resources and little education can produce a productive human being, and it started with a broomstick and a simple caring “tap.”

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