From South Central to Silicon Valley

Posted by Jessica Alter /August 30, 2012 / FounderTalk, Uncategorized

This FounderDating guest post was written by Mandela Schumacher-Hodge for our FounderTalk series. Mandela is the Co-founder and COO of Tioki, the premiere online professional network for educators (formerly known as DemoLesson). Tioki is backed by Kapor Capital, 500 StartUps, and Imagine K-12. A former 6th grade Teacher and Teach for America alum, Mandela holds a Masters in Education Administration and Policy, and was a Doctoral student at the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Sciences. She can be reached/followed here.

The whole freaking system was broken! And they expect little old me to be able to help fix it? Improbable. No, actually flat out impossible. How did this even happen? How could things have gotten so bad? Who’s to be held responsible? Where can I even begin to help? These questions flooded my mind and so did the harsh reality that maybe I just wasn’t cut out for this. This was by far the most difficult thing I had ever attempted in my life, and I seriously contemplated just walking away. No, ”this” wasn’t entrepreneurship in The Valley, rather it was teaching 6th graders in South Central Los Angeles.

I came into my first year of teaching in South Central ready to take on the broken U.S. education system and do my part to close the achievement gap and provide all children with equal access to a quality education. I drank plenty of the “Kool-Aid” at the Teach for America Summer Institute (aka teaching boot camp to the umpteenth degree of intensity). The liquid courage left me feeling emboldened to apply my leadership, organizational, and creativity skills to the setting of a classroom in one of the poorest, most gang-infested neighborhoods in the country. Not unlike the feeling of starting your first company, I was brimming with “I can make this happen” excitement and eager to take on the challenge.

The Lock Down

Then came my first “Lock Down.” Unfortunately, the community was plagued with heavy gang-activity and violence. Whenever there was a threat to the students (e.g. a police chase, shooting), the school would be locked up with everyone inside of it – students, teachers, staff, and parents – and we would all be required to secure our classroom doors, get on the floor, and remain there until we received the clear notice. This happened at numerous times during my first year teaching, but I’ll never forget my initial reaction. Whereas I felt utterly terrified inside, most of my students (10 and 11 year-olds) appeared calm and unfazed. They had done this before I realized – in elementary school.

The obstacles seemed literally stacked against me:

  • Unprepared – The majority of my 6th grade students came in reading at a 3rd grade level (yes, that means my 10 and 11 year-olds reading at the proficiency level of a 7 year old.)
  • No support – Few of my students had parents or guardians who could assist them with their studies; they were working their second or third job, they didn’t have the content knowledge to assist, or they didn’t speak the language
  • No money – Many of my students’ families did not have enough money to purchase a full-year’s worth of school supplies, nor did they have the money to invest in duplicates of the school uniform, resulting in many of my students wearing the same clothes to school every single day
  • No resources – The violence of the neighborhood also caused the school to close its gates promptly at 3:30pm everyday, refusing entry to anyone into the building, and giving the students no opportunity to participate in after school tutoring or extracurricular activities.
  • No stability – By far the worst reality of all, though, was that several of my students were homeless, living in cars or moving from place to place.

How could I possibly expect my students to do their homework when they didn’t even have a desk or a counter to work at? How can I help my students catch up with their studies if there’s no place for me to tutor them? How can I honestly change these students’ lives when there are so many things that are out of my control? The challenges appeared insurmountable, and had I decided to walk away, any rationale person would have understood, consoling me with the “oh well, at least you tried” line. But just as that overwhelming sense of defeat began to take hold something, or rather someone, came across my desk, renewed my hope, and reinvigorated my spirit.

Three Truths and A Lie

At first glance, Edgar looked like most of my other 6th grade students. About a half a foot shorter than I, his face still carried the baby fat of his former years, and his personality was one reminiscent of most other 10 year-old boys in the school. The first one out the door to play at recess, resistant to tucking in his school uniform t-shirt, a skateboarder and X-Games fan, a Diary of a Wimpy Kid reader, and just another one of the many boys starting to get these weird fuzzy feelings towards girls. Edgar did have his unique qualities, though. He was always on time to class, rarely missed homework assignments, got straight As and Bs, and was always willing to help his classmates out. Overall, Edgar had a kind disposition, great work ethic, and was the type of student that teachers listed under the “a pleasure to have in class” column in their grade books.

Although happy to have him in class, for most of the first semester, I did not pay particular attention to Edgar or spend any time with him outside of the structured class periods. I was wrapped up in the storm of surviving my first year of teaching and the “sink or swim” high-pressure atmosphere meant most of my extra time was spent reprimanding those who were misbehaving, and providing remedial instruction for those performing poorly on tests.

That was, until, our first week back to school from winter break. I had an agenda to help the class get to know one another better. To start off, I began with a little game called 3 Truths and a Lie. Each person took a turn announcing three truths and one lie about themselves, and the audience had to guess which one of the four statements was the lie. We got a kick out of learning new things about one another while racking our brains trying to decipher the lies from the truths. When it was Edgar’s turn, he said:

“I am named after my father.

I used to be in a gang.

I want to be a chef when I grow up.

My favorite superhero is Batman.”

Huh? The wheels started turning in my head, but before I could process, several students’ hands shot up. “You lied when you said you used to be in a gang,” the first contestant blurted out. “Nope,” Edgar calmly replied. “That’s true.” Several mouths hit the floor, including my own. I remember calling on the next person to give it a go, but I don’t remember listening for their response. I was already consumed with my own thoughts, trying to grapple with what I had just heard Edgar say. Edgar – well-behaved, high-performing, “normal” 10 year-old boy – Edgar used to be in a gang?!?! I couldn’t believe it. What did that mean? What had he done? How did he get out? My mind was racing with questions. “Uh, sorry Edgar, what did you say? What was the lie?” “Batman, Ms. Schumacher-Hodge. Batman is not my favorite superhero. Spiderman is,” he clarified.

I didn’t sleep much that night, as my thoughts were still on Edgar’s ”truth.”  Ever since I started teaching, I had seen and heard so many things about the gangs of South Central. It terrified me to think of what a 10 year-old could be doing and learning in a gang. My heart and mind were heavy with concern and the next day I asked Edgar if he’d come into class during lunch to talk

“Edgar, What did you mean when you said you were in a gang?” “I used to be different Ms. S-H. When my family and I were living in Texas, my life was different,” he replied matter-of-factly. concern egged me on to delve deeper. “When was this? What happened? Do your parents know about this? Edgar, I want you to know I am asking you these questions as your teacher and someone who cares about you. Telling your classmates and I that you used to be in a gang is a heavy statement and in order for me to make sure you are OK and safe now, I am asking you to share with me what happened.”

“O.K., Ms. S-H.” And then he confided in me…

His father was a notorious gang leader in Texas for years. He recalled his family home being filled with gang members, weapons, and drugs. As he got older and wiser, he was able to start comprehending what was going on. The transactions, the meetings, the plans being made, and by age 7, his dad was sending him on delivery runs. He explained that he followed orders and never opened the packages to look at what was inside them but that he knew that most of the times it was money; a few times it was drugs. At age 8 is when things got really serious. He had to do and see things that he didn’t feel comfortable sharing with me. He just summed it up as “really bad.”  But one thing he did confide in me was seeing his father’s brother shot right in front of him. That day, his father was arrested and sentenced to 25 years minimum in prison. When asked why his dad went to jail, he replied, “He made some poor choices and now he has to pay for them.”

He went on to explain that after he saw what happened to his dad in Texas, he realized that choices have consequences. His dad’s choice to be in a gang resulted in him doing bad things, which further led to his incarceration, which now has left Edgar’s mom without a husband and Edgar and his siblings without a dad. Edgar said that his mom moved the family out to South Central to live with her family and that since coming here last year, he’d grown close to his grandfather. He said his grandfather teaches him to not be ashamed of his past and what he’s been through because it’s made him who he is. More than that, though, his grandfather teaches him that life is all about choices. You can choose to be happy or you can choose not to be. You can choose to be angry or you can choose not to be. Everyday you have the ability to choose what you want to think about, what you want to do, and who you want to be. But whatever you ultimately decide will dictate what happens in your life. And so that is why Edgar says he always tries to smile, even when he’s not having the greatest day. “I’m making the choice to look at the good, think about the good, and just try to be happy.” 

Wow. I was floored. 10 years on this earth, and this young man exuded a maturity and self-awareness that far exceeded his age –maybe even my age. I kept thinking, if this young man can go through such horrific experiences and come out the other end as a better, stronger, happier person all because he’s making the decision to be this way, then so can I, so can anyone.

That day, for those 20 something odd minutes during lunch, a shift occurred inside of me. Edgar made me realize that our lives are the result of the choices we make and how we choose to view them.  My life is not a movie script and my students are not paid actors. Life in South Central pretty much carried on as usual for another six months until school let out for summer vacation.  A few students still dropped out to join gangs, others never made the academic improvements I had hoped for.  However, there is no doubt in my mind that I became a better teacher to my students, and as a result, several of my students made incredible progress, both academically and personally

Bring On the Obstacles

However, the lessons Edgar taught me lived on far past my year teaching in South Central. When I left the classroom three years later to start building my edtech company, Tioki, with my Co-Founder, Brian Martinez, I soon realized that I would again be tested in many of the same ways I was that first year teaching. We began with a sheer desire to solve a problem and make things better, but were immediately confronted with the reality of being under-resourced, under-prepared, and completely overwhelmed. Most of my friends and family wondered why I was dropping out of my Ph.D. program, cashing out my retirement plan, and maxing out my credit cards, in order to invest my full time attention on Tioki. But one thing I understood, thanks to Edgar, was the impact choices have. If I was going to make it through the rough terrain of building a successful startup, I was going to have to make tough choices. I was going to have to choose to make sacrifice, dedication, and hard work the mantra of my life; I was going to have to choose to believe in my team’s ability to succeed, despite the myriad of obstacles that lined our path.

Even now, having successfully expanded our company there are still constant challenges. When it feels like the odds are stacked against us (and it often does), I think back to my time in the classroom in South Central, when I had to make due with so few resources and tools that progress seemed improbable. As a cofounder, I’m rarely  in complete control of the circumstances in which I am working. The economy, education policy, market trends, etc. are all factors that greatly impact my company’s ability to succeed. However, what I learned from Edgar four years ago is that I get to choose how I am going react to and work with those circumstances. No matter what the “facts” are or how dismal the odds look, choose to believe that it’s possible and then choose to take action.  A 10-year-old taught me that.