By Len Lear
How often have you heard on TV shows like American Idol and The Voice a variation of the adage, “If you get knocked down, get back up and fight harder,” “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” etc.?
Well, Nahjee Grant is living proof that there really might be a golden nugget of truth is those hoary clichés. Nahjee, 28, an author of children’s books who drew a big crowd at Barnes & Noble in Willow Grove on Feb. 19, was failing in his classes in ninth grade at Lower Merion High School and in danger of riding off the rails.
“My mom tried her best to get through to me to do better and at times set me up with tutors for after school sessions, but I never really went,” admitted Nahjee, an only child. “She said, ‘Do you want to be the cool smart kid or the cool dumb kid?’ My dad usually tried to have me think about the bigger picture and think about how I can’t have a bright future if I’m not focused on the present, and he encouraged me to stay focused. My principal gave me an ultimatum that if I passed all of my classes in the first half of the school year, I would be allowed to continue the rest of the year in 10th grade. But if I failed another class, I’d have to remain in 9th.” (Nahjee’s mom was a disabilities coordinator for a large orthopedics company. His father, who was a handyman/sexton for a few local churches, died in 2011.)
Nahjee (an Arabic word meaning “strength”) decided to get his act together. “I learned that your actions and inaction have consequences and totake full advantage of a second chance if you’re lucky enough to get one.”
After high school, Nahjee studied part-time at Villanova University for Business Administration and one-and-a-half years at Montgomery County Community College for Entrepreneurship and Communications. And his parents’ relentless work ethic advice definitely took root. He worked at numerous jobs, including delivering pizza, cashier, detailing cars and the late night shift at a 24/7 health club.
But a short story writing course when he was a senior in high school in 2007 was the sparkplug that propelled Nahjee to start writing children’s books to encourage kids to avoid the mistakes that almost derailed his own future. “I decided to pursue becoming an author in 2009 because we need more people of color telling stories that not only represent their own background and culture but can appeal to other groups as well through universal messages.” His first published book was “Newie” in 2013 about a newt who aspired to be a singer. Since then, he has written six more books, including “The Journey of the Cool Smart Kid,” about his own personal story of overcoming academic struggles in school and ultimately pursuing his passions.
Grant visits several schools every week as a resident author for the AARP Foundation Experience Corps, going into inner-city schools and encouraging the kids to pursue their education with passion. (AARP Foundation Experience Corps is an intergenerational volunteer-based tutoring program that is proven to help children who aren’t reading at grade level to become good readers by the end of third grade and disrupt the cycle of poverty.) “My ultimate goal as a writer is to encourage every person regardless of their age, color or religion, to be comfortable with who they are and gain the confidence to strive for success.”
Grant, who is now a full-time author, penned one particularly powerful book entitled “Believe in Yourself. A Mirror of Hope” about a family member who died of cancer.
When asked about the issue of race, Grant said, “I’ve been racially profiled many times from simply walking down the street to driving my car in cases where I was simply minding my own business.”
You might say that Grant puts his time and money where his books’ messages are. For example, last year he collected over 200 turkeys and 200 toys, which were delivered to needy families, respectively, during Thanksgiving and Christmas at local churches. For this work he was given the Shining Star Award from the Ardmore Initiative, a civic group.
What talent would Nahjee most like to have that he does not now have? “Dance. I was never a good dancer, and it’s one talent I wish I had on the dance floor!”
What is Grant’s biggest pet peeve? “Traffic. I’m surprised there’s not an app that hasn’t figured out how to decongest the streets yet! I’d pay a premium for any app or idea that has figured it out.”
For more information, visit www.nahjeegrant.com, where you can order the books and “Cool Smart Kid” t-shirts. A scholarship for high school seniors with an interest in the arts is also offered. The link is on the tabs menu of the website.