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Two teens and an adult stand next to a statue. A colorful background is behind them.

“She’s small in stature but comes off as if she’s as big as Shaq; when she talks, you don’t feel like you’re looking down,” Jeremiah Griffith writes. Jeremiah is at right, pictured with his sister, Jayda, and his aunt, Suzanne, at Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry in 2021.

Courtesy of Jeremiah Griffith

My aunt recognized my potential. That changed my life.

She invited me to live with her in Chicago, seizing the opportunity to change our family’s story.

This personal essay series features stories by high school students taking part in Chalkbeat's fellowship program.

Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion, or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle, or it will starve to death.

I love this adage, which my Aunt Suzanne taught me and lives by. I apply it to my daily life, like when I’m trying to get to school on time or bored in my Russian class. I know how high expectations are for me — the expectations Suzanne has for me and the expectations I set for myself. 

Teenage boy in a gray hoodie and wearing clear-rimmed glasses.

Jeremiah Griffith

Courtesy photo

Being able to recount the story of the lion and the gazelle gives me the extra push I need during slumps. That is just one of the many pieces of wisdom that Suzanne learned from her grandparents, my great-grandparents, Norma and Clarence Joseph. Norma and Clarence weren’t perfect (nobody is), but they valued hard work and great character.

When Suzanne invited me to stay at her Chicago apartment this past summer, I didn’t think much of it. I had been comfortable living with my dad in New York City and, before that, with my mom near St. Louis. Then one day into my trip, which was supposed to last two weeks, Suzanne asked me if I wanted to live with her. We were family, yes, but we were also almost strangers to each other, so the offer was as shocking as you’d think. 

I said yes because I thought that’s what she wanted to hear. I said yes because I didn’t think she was serious. I said yes but never thought I could convince my parents to let me stay in Chicago — about 300 miles from my mom and 800 miles from my dad. (I was born in Chicago but hadn’t lived there since elementary school.)

Anyone who knows Aunt Suzanne, or has even had a conversation with her, will tell you some of the same things — things like, “she’s very intelligent,” “a strong presence,” “brutally honest,” and “formidable.” I think formidable is a perfect word to characterize her. She’s small in stature but comes off as if she’s as big as Shaq; when she talks, you don’t feel like you’re looking down.

As my two weeks in Chicago wrapped up, Suzanne asked me again if I wanted to live with her. I knew she was fierce, but I also knew I would be able to handle it. Living with someone so devoted to helping me advance in my life didn’t sound like a bad idea. So I said yes (and so did my parents).

But I wondered: Why would a busy professional without children of her own want to upend her life to fit me into it? Being Suzanne, she told me exactly why. 

We talked about it for three hours. Suzanne had a lot to say, including how she appreciated my passion for writing. (I had started a basketball blog.) The move, she told me, was a chance for me to break troubling patterns that had plagued generations of our family. She wanted to eliminate the struggles to pay rent and live a comfortable life. Suzanne saw something in me and seized the opportunity to change our family history. 

Why would she upend her life to fit me into it?

My aunt takes every opportunity to teach me a lesson about working hard and never cheating the system. She faced many challenges, having grown up on Chicago’s South Side and attending Harper High School. But the struggle made her who she is. She demands a lot of herself and others. Even at the grocery store, she’ll interrogate the employees until she finds her French Brie cheese. To her, “no” doesn’t exist; to her, a “no” is only the first step to getting a “yes.”  

Living with Suzanne hasn’t always been easy, but her influence has piqued my confidence and made me more thoughtful. I think about the world differently now. I think about the meaning of life. It’s not that I’m overthinking; I’m thinking deeply.

Before moving back to Chicago, I didn’t have a sense of community. It was me, me, me. I felt it was a dog-eat-dog world — you know, “social Darwinism.” These days, I’m more conscious of my surroundings. I understand how my words affect others. I hold the door for people. I don’t litter. I don’t let my friends litter. I’m more extroverted. I could probably talk to anybody on the street, and as a student journalist, that’s been a huge benefit; now, when I cover events, I feel like an eagle as I assertively look for the next piece of information to write my pieces.

My aunt talks my ear off every day about the importance of character. Although I have been a bit resistant to some of the things she’s told me, I have also adopted some of the qualities I admire most about Suzanne. As a result, I’m more consistent. I’m more positive. The past several months have been a period of growth and progress. These changes all started with Suzanne seeing a spark within me and dedicating herself to kindling it.

Jeremiah Griffith is a junior at Noble Academy in Chicago. He is a sportswriter for TrueStar magazine, a Chalkbeat Student Voices fellow, and previously managed his own sports blog, The Ball Talk. Jeremiah is also a volunteer at Rush University Medical Center, and he is a member of the National Honors Society and the National Association of Black Journalists. At Noble, he’s in the chess club and a track team co-captain.

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