I’d always park my car right in front of the house at the spot on the curb where my brother and I sat to looked up at the stars when we were kids. At that spot I could for my straight line from my seat, through the passenger side window, straight down the path, and up the steps. If the weather was nice I could even see straight through the open door and see Grandma sitting in her chair. I would shut off the car, grab my stuff and walk down the path, which was just enough time for her to walk across the living room and greet me by the door.
After I finished my Economics degree, but before I finished my math degree, and eventually left MSU I started hanging out with my Grandma more often. The magnetic pull of Chicago draws lots of Michigan State students to go party and hang out with recent grads. My girlfriend at the time was starting Teach for America in Chicago, but I was still at MSU to take the one class I needed to finally finish my math degree and then I had to wait for the rest of the year to then spend another year student teaching. I had lots of free time to think about the fact that my non-ed major girlfriend could be finished with 2 years of teaching before I ever start. My light also schedule meant that I could make time to drive into Gary, Indiana on my way down to visit Chicago for the first time without tagging along with my dad.
She’d greet me, give me a hug, and probably tell me to “shut the door and stop letting the cold air in”. After I briefed her on my agenda for the weekend, we’d kinda start hanging out. I’d sit in my grandfather’s old chair, which to me was new and exciting. When I was last there with my Dad, he would sit in that chair and I would sit on the couch, or if my mom and uncle were on the couch, I might just go hang out in the kitchen or go downstairs and watch tv. In fact on my first visit I instinctively walked over to the couch before Grandma insisted I sit in the chair that was closer to her. I felt honored, and a little anxious as I pivoted and walked past the TV, and sat in the big, plastic-encased chair. In that walk across the living room I realized a couple things. 1) I must be grown now 2) I don’t know what grown ups are supposed to talk about with their Grandma.
These days Grandma’s regular routine consisted of daytime television and church on Sunday, but she had certainly lived an interesting life up to this point. Born in rural Mississippi, after marrying Grand Daddy she had my Dad, went to Arizona for WWII, and then they all headed up north for more opportunity. Where better than Gary Indiana, a city so focused around factory work that it was named after the founding chairman of US Steel Corp. Her and Grand Daddy used the GI Bill to buy first brand new house on her block of Kentucky Street and Grand Daddy found work in the Steel Mill. Their move was part of the second wave of the Great Migration, where 5 million black people left the south to less prejudiced opportunities of the north over the next 25 years.
After just finishing my African American history class a year prior, I was really curious about the stories of our families history. In those stories was hopefully some clear direction for me and my future. It was disconcerting seeing my future playing out in my girlfriend’s Chicago classroom, while I had to head back to MSU and still be in college for one 3 hour class. In between our two worlds was Gary, where I’d often sit mulling over ways to earn a masters degree while in the same time that I would have spent doing student teaching. Especially if I could get trained in a big urban environment like Chicago, not the suburban internship placement near my parents house which MSU placed a lot of students. It was at this time I started to look at urban education grad programs at colleges other than Michigan State. Sitting in Grand Daddy’s chair, I could have used some guidance about whether I should leave the number 1 secondary education school in the country, and a place that was really good to me. This kind of life guidance I thought would be a great thing for Grandma to advise me on! I was hoping for something like Neo’s visit to the oracle like in the Matrix. I ended up having to answer my questions, so it was a lot like Jeopardy. It was also literally Jeopardy.
We watched Jeopardy. We heard the clues, we guessed the questions, and congratulate ourselves if we got it right. then we watched the 12 o’clock news. Grandma wasn’t interested in telling me what to do, or passing along stories full of wisdom and guidance, or imparting on me some responsibility to uphold the family name or serve our black youth. That was for me to figure out on my own as she was trying to figure out the questions to Alex Trebek’s answers. Turns out, that was actually lot more fun. As the visits progressed I would help getting things out of tall places, driving her to run errands, and seeing whether the mail had come yet, without opening the door and letting the cold air in. I’d be lying if she did tell me lots of stories from the past. Lots of stories of me when I was a kid, or about Grand Daddy and the vegetable stand he ran out of his pickup truck when his shift finished, and what my Dad was like growing up. It’s not like she wasn’t taklative, she just never pretended that she could tell me what I should do with my life. Besides, watching jeopardy with Grandma was entertaining enough to postpone worrying about figuring all that stuff out right then anyways.
Those days in Gary came to mind this week because I attended my school’s People of Color affinity group. As with most things recently, I was embarrassingly late. By the time I arrived everyone had settled in, and finished sharing in response to that day’s prompt…meaning it was immediately my turn. My mind went blank initially when looking at the prompt, “Choose the name of someone who valued you”, then I began telling a few stories of my time with Grandma who initially popped into my mind. She wasn’t super talkative, especially when it comes to life advice, but it was clear that she valued our time together. It was also clear how much I valued being in the group of educators, after the guilt of coming late subsided. The teachers made a welcoming space with flowers, candles, and a centerpiece which now has the name of my grandma. It was great, I left feeling great, and I woke up needing to write this.
The meeting at school was surprising, as I expected to be dissecting different issues and indignities that were arising at work. Issues of race at work always leave me a little unsure. You can never know how these conversations will go, and I always imagine conversations of race will go terribly. It would be cool if there was a group I could go to that would give me the right thing to do/say, and provide straight answers for how to address racial problems as they arise at work. This meeting would give me no more of that than my trips to visit my Grandma would help me decide what to do with my life. What they both gave me was a feeling that I was valued and maybe that is the most important step. Race is so complex, and appears in so many forms, your coworkers might not be any more able to see the nuance surrounding you than my Grandma could parse through university policies. With some things, you’re ultimately the one responsible for working on yourself or your organization. It’s on you to understand other perspectives, and make decisions. The weight on your shoulders, can be made a lot lighter if you felt valued. In the face of The difficulties of racism, the thing that our group of people of color decided to use the first step of the year to support and affirm each other, and I’m ok if that is we keep taking that step over and over all year long.
After a few visits with Grandma, I started pulling out GRE flash cards during the commercial breaks. I explained to Grandma that this test was going to help me apply for grad school, so I could take summer school and be halfway through a masters degree by the time I started teaching. I would have also explained that I am going to apply to a few programs at other schools, including Harvard, where I could earn a full masters in the same amount of time. However, I could tell she was as disconneted from this whole process as she was to that unused microwave in the kitchen that she uses as cake holder. She pleasantly encouraged me to do my thing, without weighing in on what I should do, at least until the commercial break ended.