His mother died when he was just 10 years old and with her went my dad’s dream of a solid education. See, my grandfather needed his older boys to help tend the family wood and farm business—a need he felt was much more urgent than sitting in a classroom all day, figuring and writing words and reading. They could count money, drive the pick-up truck, make deliveries and collect the cash; as far as my grandfather was concerned, that’s all James Jr., 10, Berkley, 12, and Bobby, 14, needed to know.
I suppose this is why my acquiring a sound education was always so very urgent for my father. It was never an option to bring home less than an A—never a proposition for me to slack with my studies or forego college to pursue some kind of trade. Indeed, my Dad super-glued onto my psyche his insistence that I get a quality, continued education, and that I figure out what I wanted to do with m life as soon as I identified my passions. For him, it wasn’t “if” I was going to go college or have a successful career; it was “when.”
So when I, an architect hopeful with dreams of designing solar-powered mansions, came to the house with my second “C” on a Physics test, Daddy sat me down and insisted I figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, because little girls who couldn’t get a firm grasp of science and math didn’t grow up to be architects. Mediocre wasn’t going to cut it; I had to figure out what I liked in order to pick a career that would make me great.
I was in the ninth grade.
And right there at the kitchen table, I chose to become a journalist (partly because my favorite newscaster was on TV at that very moment, interviewing my favorite R&B group, but mostly because Daddy insisted).
I suppose now that I’m a mom, I can see how maniacal it was for Daddy to insist I decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my life at the tender age of 13. But I understand it. And I’m grateful. Because his insistence that I keep my eyes on the prize—the reward being a solid education, a high-paying career and a fulfilled life—made me focus in a way that I never would have if I didn’t have him constantly whispering in my ear, “You can do this, baby. You have to. No other choice but to be great.”
I did it, too. From the very moment Daddy said “go,” I ran—hard. As a high school student, I got myself a show at our school radio station, learned how to work camera and editing equipment in a media class and earned a full-tuition scholarship to a university with a great communications program. By age 20, I was a full-time reporter for an international news service; by age 23, I was a political reporter for the sixth-largest newspaper in the country, and; by age 28, I was an award-winning, nationally known entertainment reporter and first-time author. I’ve since worked as an editor at two national magazines, a columnist at a national parenting magazine, written 18 books, including a bestseller that’s sold more than 2 million copies and been translated into 30 languages, interviewed and written cover stories about dozens of celebrities, and appeared as a parenting and relationship expert on countless TV shows and news programs. I think I’ve done pretty okay with my father’s challenge to find a career and be good at it.
And for his encouragement, love, and commitment to being the best journalist I could be, I honor my father by insisting every last one of my bylines feature my maiden name—my daddy’s name. He may not have gotten the education he dreamed of, but through me, he got what he wanted—and then some: A child who is living out loud every last one of her dreams.
And even a few of his own, too.
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