This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Part Three of a three-part series
At a raucous parent meeting I attended, one man sat silently in the back of the room.
I had hoped to talk with him after the meeting ended, but he slipped away before I had the chance to introduce myself.
The next day, though, I answered a phone call at my desk downtown from a man named Keith Gray.
"Well, what made me call you was it seemed like you were only getting a one-side story of the school," he said.
Gray’s grandson, also named Keith, is entering the first grade this fall. Through Little Keith’s kindergarten year, Gray volunteered at the school most days. He got to know Blaine Elementary’s principal, Gianeen Powell, pretty well. After learning who I was, he asked her for my number.
"She didn’t ask me to do this," he said. "I asked her if I could contact you, because I thought it wasn’t fair."
A few days later, I visited Gray on his block in Strawberry Mansion. We sat in a leafy abandoned lot across from his house where the neighbors maintain the grass and have patio furniture and barbecue grills set up.
In 2009, when Little Keith was still in his mother’s womb, his father, also named Keith, was murdered.
"He was at a nightclub down in Center City, Third and Market. Got into an argument with another guy. And I think they were pushing and shoving, whatever have you, and it was squashed," said Gray.
The bouncer kicked the other guy out first.
"And then my son came out, I don’t know, 15-20 minutes later. And as soon as he walked out, the guy confronted him," he said. "They struggled, and the guy shot him in the chest."
Keith Gray plays in a vacant lot near his grandfather’s house in Strawberry Mansion. (Emma Lee/WHYY) Gray’s son was 29 years old. Little Keith’s mother was 5 1/2 months pregnant.
Over the next few years, Gray stayed in his grandson’s life. And the more he spent time with him, the more he could see that he needed him.
That became especially apparent when the 2014-15 school year started. Little Keith should have started kindergarten last September with the rest of the kids at Blaine, but, living with his mom, it wasn’t happening.
"I’m kind of a stickler for education, but she wasn’t so much," said Gray. "That’s when I totally just said, just let him stay here with me and I can get him there everyday."
In early October, Little Keith moved in with his grandfather full time. At that point, he had missed weeks of school.
"He needed to be with me so he could get to school," Gray said. "You can read in between the lines, other than that he would have constantly been late, wouldn’t have been there."
At first, it was an adjustment.
"I was a single man. I could go out. Whenever I wanted to go out, I’d just go out. Can’t do that now. If I didn’t want to come straight home from work, I didn’t have to," he said. "He’s changed my whole lifestyle."
Quickly, though, Gray began to relish the new routine. Every morning, the pair would get up at 6:45 a.m., brush their teeth together, and eat breakfast. He’d iron Little Keith’s clothes, pack him a lunch, and then walk him and a few of the other kids on the block to school.
The more he spent time with Little Keith, the more he reminded him of his son, and Gray seemed to be presented an opportunity for redemption.
"They’re the same. They actually look alike. He’s outspoken, very inquisitive. He wants to know everything," said Gray. "He’s like the reincarnation of his father. He’s growing the same way."
This time, though, Gray is counting on a much different outcome.
"Any mistakes I might have made with the first, I get to do over," said Gray, tears welling in his eyes. "It’s like a do-over."
He says the biggest mistake he made with his son was not spending enough time with him as a boy.
"We spent more time as an adult than I did with him as a child. And that’s different now with him," said Gray. "You know, it’s not money or anything, it’s the time that you spend. And that’s the biggest thing that I learned. You can pay what you need to pay and all that, but if you aren’t spending time, I mean, what are you doing?"