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Mom shared generational love of reading, writing, education with her children, their friends

May 11, 2010



For years, I’ve been asked: Why do you spend so much time trying to get people to read? Why do you focus so much on literacy?

The complex answer is that civilizations and cities cannot survive without intelligent and informed people to run them.

The simple answer is: my mother.

Her name is Marva Jeanne Riley. She taught me to read when I was 3. She required the use of perfect English grammar in our home, and she encouraged me to love books.

She didn’t ask whether I wanted to do any of that. Those decisions are not for children to make. She knew that the more I knew, the farther I’d go. And she worked at it even when illness took her strength and career.

When English was required
She was one of two daughters born to my Tarboro, N.C., grandparents. He worked in a cotton mill. She was a substitute teacher. They worked hard for many things, but none harder than sending their two daughters to college.

My mother graduated from North Carolina Central University, a proud school that hugs southeast Durham. My parents, college sweethearts, married and moved to New York, where my father taught chemistry and my mother taught English at Morningside Elementary back when English was a required elementary school subject. It still should be.

In 1967, my mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Little was known of the disease in the 1960s. She and her children moved back home. She never got better.

A pinch for ‘ain’t’
But the illness that took her strength didn’t stop her from being a teacher. As she moved from cane to walker to wheelchair, she held classes in our living room for us and the neighborhood children.

Her sister, my aunt Lorna Lloyd, a reading specialist, used to bring home her lesson plans. My mother used them to teach the neighborhood children, ensuring that they were better prepared than other children. If you wanted to hang out with the Rileys, you had to learn reading and grammar. If any of us said “ain’t,” my mother would call us over to her wheelchair and give us a hard pinch on the arm. Her legs might have failed her, but there was nothing wrong with her hands.

Years later, a classmate, Vivian Cummings, told me to thank my mom. She remembered those early lessons, and said they made a difference in her life.

It is the same difference they made in mine. For all that she has given me, I’d like to take this Mother’s Day to say, “Thank you, Mommy! I’m still reading and still writing — and still loving both.”

Contact ROCHELLE RILEY: To order a copy of Rochelle Riley’s latest book, “Raising a Parent: Lessons My Daughter Taught Me While We Grew Up Together,” go to or

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