It Takes Strength to be a Parent Instead of Your Child's
by Betty DeRamus, Detroit News, August 29, 2002
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Whenever she could swipe a spare second, Mama would perch in
the front window and look up and down our street. I used to
think she could see around corners, inside hallways and even
down night-shrouded alleys.
"What you want?" I'd yell whenever I saw her.
"Nothing," she'd answer, a smile softening her usually stern
mouth. "I'm just watching."
She was always watching. Looking. Keeping track. Sometime
she'd even show up at my school in the middle of the day with
a raincoat or boots, searching my face to see if I had smeared
on any lipstick.
There was no need back then for any special initiative to
increase community involvement, one of the goals of the
Detroit Public Schools as classes resume next week.
And no need for special parent advocates to help boost school
enrollment and encourage parents to become more involved in
their children's schools and lives.
Mama and her friends and neighbors noticed everything. The
night I nearly kissed the boy next door, her voice found me in
a corner of the front porch and called me inside. Later, she
banished another would-be boyfriend for failing to remove his
hat in the house. Her eyes saw everything, and she could smell
trouble while it was still struggling to take shape and claim
She wasn't alone, of course. The neighborhood was full of
I grew up surrounded by men and women who told stories,
spanked their kids and sat on front porches, rocking and
looking. They were ready to step into the center of any
situation and become the parents of any child they saw.
In my neighborhood school, which was Catholic, the nuns were
surrogate parents. Armed with nothing but sharp rulers and
tongues, they could make students walk in straight lines and
talk in worried whispers.
But nobody could replace Mama.
She was forever in motion, vacuuming rugs, talking someone
into giving her a job, fighting with landlords who refused to
fix sagging stairs, persuading my father that it was time to
move to yet another flat or house.
During one stretch of hard times, she turned our attic into a
boarding house, filling it with roomers. The first one to be
evicted was a West Indian foolish enough to admit to Mama's
face that he didn't believe in God.
She and the parents of my schoolmates not only came to schools
and school-community meetings. They made it clear that if
their youngsters messed up in school they would pay for it
twice -- at school and, later, at home.
Back then, I hated Mama's see-everything eyes and unbending
I didn't know how much strength it took to be my parent
instead of my friend.
I didn't understand why she kept me in schools that swaddled
my blossoming body in baggy, pleated skirts and stretched my
mind with writing contests.
Now, of course, I understand it all: the cod liver oil, enemas
and home-made cold remedies; the strict schedules and dating
restrictions; the unexpected school visits, and the men and
women who peered through windows, keeping watch.
They were trying to be real parents.
Betty DeRamus' column appears in The Detroit News on Tuesdays,
Thursdays and Saturdays. Call her at (313) 222-2620 or e-mail