By SHIKIRI HIGHTOWER
It was a typical Wednesday night for 18-year-old Norman Grant, who was inside his grandmother’s apartment, surrounded by his great-grandmother, grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins. Like they have for the last nine years, his family was studying the Bible.
His religion, family and the Wednesday-night study group have centered Grant’s life and helped him beat the odds, says the senior who lives with his mother and 21-year-old sister in Hunters Point. Only 12 percent of California’s black students meet the requirements to attend a state college. Grant is one of them.
“The most important thing to me is my family. They’re always there for me,” said Grant, who is unrelated to 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who was shot to death on New Year’s by a BART policeman. “They give me no bad advice. I really believe in God, I believe that he watches me. He watches everybody.”
Minutes before Grant had stepped into his grandmother’s apartment for Bible study, he’d warned, “A lot of my family is in there. It can get loud.”
It can. During the Bible discussions family members are encouraged to present their personal stories and issues. They respond to one another and look to the Bible to explain the pain they endure and to Jesus as a model of overcoming difficulty.
During a recent Wednesday session Grant’s aunt Pearl Darmas tried to understand the death of her 19-year-old son who was shot five years ago this month.
“I’m looking for confirmation,” she said about her son. Two other family members have also lost children.
“That was the devil. The devil took your son,” said one family member.
“But if you keep asking God for confirmation, he’ll answer you,” another family member offered.
Cleveland Jones, Grant’s great-uncle, said later, “There’s a lot of positive stuff coming from us … listening to elderly people, people that say good things to him.”
Grant said he needed that support as he grew up in San Francisco and began to experience officials who treated him differently than his white peers. He recalled one incident in which police stopped him and a friend as they walked home. The police said they were looking for boys with a gun and searched them.
“I really felt offended,” said Grant, referring to the assumption that he and his friends might be criminals.
“I don’t need to steal, there’s no point. Growing up, I felt that I did have less than others. I still do,” said Grant, who loves hip-hop and basketball (especially the Lakers and Kobe Bryant). “I don’t let that effect what I want to do in life.”
While money has been scarce, Grant said he spent summers playing basketball and making money teaching 2- to 5-year-olds their ABCs through the San Francisco Youth Works Program at Little Children’s Development Center.
“The kids look up to me,” said Grant. “Working with them betters my perspective in life.”
Mission High teachers said Grant has a good attitude about life and school.
“Norman is hardworking and he’s serious about his future,” said Vivian Chin, the college counselor.
Varsity basketball coach Arnold Zelaya, who has known Norman for four years, added, “I wish I had 10 Normans on my team. He is a quiet leader. You can tell there is someone at home guiding him in the right direction.”
That right direction, Grant and his family said, started at home.
“I taught him that,” said his grandmother Shirley Long, who calls Grant every night to ensure he made it home safe. “When you get up in the morning, say good morning and your blessings, ‘Thank you Jesus for letting me be here,’” she said. “There’s a lot of things out here they can see. If they get caught up, there goes your dream—it’s gone.”
Grant’s great-aunt Joyce Rodgers said her nephew understands he is always watched.
“He knows there is a God, and he knows that God is watching him,” she said. “If I’m doing bad I wouldn’t want God to see me. You can’t hide from him or run from him, and this is the most important thing—to be honest with yourself and be honest with the Lord.”
Grant’s family has also offered models for dealing with injustice.
His great uncle Carl Durmas organizes protests with his church and has recently been active in seeking justice for Oscar Grant. Durmas fondly reminds Norman that he is part of “the bone brothers”—referring to how skinny Norman is—but he’s also proud of his nephew’s ability to stay away from negative influences.
“Times have been tough but it didn’t discourage him. He has not been influenced or derailed to anything negative. So I know that he has a righteousness [about] him,” he said.
Nowadays, Grant is finishing up his senior year, and like other seniors, he’s waiting for acceptance letters. San Francisco State, Sacramento State and Cal State LA are his top three choices. He said that in his group of friends, he is not unusual.
“All my friends are dedicated to attending college,” he said. “I’ve known I was going to college since the seventh grade.”