By Niles Ellis
I slide out of bed around 5:25 a.m., the sun still preparing for a long day in the sky. It's pitch-black, except for the faint light at the end of the corridor, which leads upstairs to Nana's house. This illumination is my sunrise every morning. As my foot touches the cold tiled floor, I arrive at my early morning sanctuary. I turn left into the kitchen and see the little old lady cooking breakfast: delicious grits, cheesy yellow eggs, crispy, tangy veggie patties. This daily routine brings new conversations, new stories, and more lessons.
At 13, I bring her my latest complaint: mom babies me too much by driving me to school. Nana just nods. When I finished my ranting, my grandmother asks if I want to hear a story.
"When I was a little girl, even younger than you, I used to have these flatties. My two sisters and I all had the same size shoes."
What do shoes have to do with this?
"In those flat shoes, the three of us walked the entire three and a half miles to and from school daily. In those days, Scotland County had no busing for black students. We lived across town from the black schools. On those long, 90-degree summer-like days, we walked. Feet burning from our flatties, school clothes near ruined from sweating up a storm, but nonetheless, happy to make it to school and learn some more and happy to be alive. An opportunity not many blacks had in the South."
I was speechless. From that day on, my grandmother's story has always remained with me.
As a point guard, I must see the game from everyone's angle and encourage everyone to appreciate their opportunity. Nana's story provides the model for me to do this. In my first high school JV game, I felt like I couldn't miss a shot, but my teammates played as if they were in the bleachers. I looked up at the scoreboard; we were losing. One man can't make a team. So I became a general on the court, spreading the ball around. Everyone found opportunity. We won.
Nana's stories help me to value opportunities. When I was 16, I was nominated for People to People. I needed to raise money for this opportunity to travel across Europe with 20 other students for 20 days. By spring, after a long winter of work, I had raised the $4,000 for the trip. I did odd jobs like shoveling snow, taking out my neighbor's trash, and created a website to sell eccentric rubber bracelets.
Everything was set to go; I was to represent America as a teenage liaison and also tour Cannes, Italy, visit the remarkable Monte Carlo, and explore Barcelona. Then a bubbling apprehension began to boil over me the closer we neared the summer. Every day I wondered if I was actually ready for this trip. I had never traveled without my parents and this would be my first trip outside the United States. I feared the language barrier and I knew nothing about the Spanish homestay family. The fact that my money and effort would be lost did not drive me to overcome my fears as much as Nana's story.
I had to go, considering the story of that little girl in the South who only knew Florence as a city in South Carolina. I would be a kid from Brooklyn seeing parts of the world some members of my family didn't even know existed. Without Nana's story, my perspective would have been completely different. Sometimes, I think back on that little girl in the small town, 65 years ago. She seized her opportunity and never looked back. Well, my opportunity is coming, and I've learned from my mistakes. The only time I'm looking back is over my shoulder to see that little girl's face--smiling at me.
Niles Ellis, a graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School, is now a freshman at Vanderbilt University.