As Told To Ruth Etiesit Samuel

Sidney Keys III is a sophomore at Pace Academy in Atlanta. He is the founder of Books N Bros as well as a scholar, entrepreneur, athlete and an older brother. His middle school years culminated during the pandemic and moving from St. Louis to Atlanta after eighth grade has presented new challenges, but he’s taking them in stride.

This is probably the most normal schedule that I’ve had in a long time. We only have five classes a day and they alternate out every day, so we never have the same class at the same time.

I didn’t really get a graduation ceremony from eighth grade because of COVID, and I ended up moving a year ago. With all of that plus me missing my entire freshman year, it was a hard time for me. I didn’t know anyone, and I was stuck in the house every day. So I felt like I was in a repeated cycle every day.

This is my first year at Pace. It just took me a while to get used to how differently people live their lives because I’m not used to being around people with this much money. I didn’t come from a really wealthy background or anything. But I didn’t come here to fit in.

I had a speech impediment when I was younger, so I wasn’t able to really speak without stuttering. I ended up having to go to speech therapy. I overcame it eventually, but my way of escaping that stutter was through reading. I was able to read clearly in my head without stuttering, and that was something that brought me peace of mind. I was able to immerse myself in literacy and see myself as a character in a story.

But I got tired of seeing no representation in the books that I was reading. I was just trying to picture myself as a white boy — and my mom saw that and she took advantage of the issue. She took me to the only African American children’s bookstore in St. Louis, Eye See Me Bookstore. That was the first time I’d been exposed to African American literacy in that way.

The first book I found was “Danny Dollar Millionaire Extraordinaire: The Lemonade Escapade.” It’s about a Black boy who became a millionaire through saving and investing his money. It secretly taught me about financial literacy in a book that I found interesting. Books like that are what kept my attention. Being able to relate to a character when people say “Sidney, that looks like you on the cover” makes me feel really good. That’s something that I want to share through Books N Bros.

Courtesy of Winnie E. Thompson

Playing football and being able to make friends with people who know me for me is something that’s extremely important for me. I’m also a Miles Morales and Marvel fan, a Jordans connoisseur, and the eldest child and only boy in my family. I’m a part of the Black Student Alliance at school, and in my free time, I’m playing Minecraft or hanging out at Lenox Square Mall. Some of my role models are Will Smith, Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James.

Growing up in St. Louis, I grew up in a very suburban area. All my books had white people. So hearing about what happened to Mike Brown, I was terrified. I was scared.

It’s hard to have faith in today’s leaders, especially ones that don’t look like me. When I look back on the killing of Mike Brown, it reinforces the importance of good local leaders.

When leaders that don’t look like me make calls that affect me and my community — and they’ve never had to experience what me and my community have experienced — that’s what worries me. They begin to try to put themselves in the situation and they misperceive it or they can’t interpret it correctly.

When it’s time for college, I want to attend an HBCU so I can be around like-minded Black individuals who want to change the world. And you can do that in so many different ways. You can take the influencer route and influence those around you. You can start small with your community by picking up trash, helping the homeless or even speaking at your school or church. You don’t need to go to college for that.

When I grow up, I want to be an entrepreneur, speaker and writer of African American literature. I’d love to expand Books N Bros to a full-time business.

The most important thing to me right now is my Christian faith and family, both of which have grounded me through the pandemic. They’ve been there for me since day one. So if I stick with them, I know that we can get through anything.

However, I do feel pressure as an older sibling to be a good male role model for my four younger sisters. But it’s not something that I’m scared of. I know I can uphold the expectation. What being a big brother means to me is just showing them what they deserve, what a Black man should be like, what they should look for, and protecting them.

One of the biggest stereotypes or misconceptions regarding Gen Z is that we’re lazy, selfish or entitled. But right now, my plans are to get involved in the Atlanta community and replicate the food and clothing drives I used to host back home in St. Louis.

I feel like Gen Z was able to create so many spaces for people that didn’t fit in or thought that they didn’t. I believe that’s the legacy that we’re leaving behind — that age doesn’t determine your intelligence. It doesn’t determine whether you get an opinion or not. I believe that your voice should be heard regardless of age, gender, sexuality and race.