Embrace the Challenge


After riding the dot com wave, I decided to leave high-tech and embrace the challenge to find a way to give back by getting my teaching credentials at San Jose State. There I walked by this statue commemorating Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ brave protest at the 1968 Olympics, a watershed moment for civil rights on my way to classes every day. I wondered about the empty 2nd place podium and years later came upon this writeup: Peter Norman, the White Man in That Photo. In my first teaching assignment, I also found myself as the lone white person in the room.

My first teaching assignment was to help a teacher with a class of students with “learning issues“. On the day I showed up, the principal informed me that the teacher had quit. He asked if I’d be willing to still lead the class. I was also told that these were 8th graders that other teachers had given up on. The students were too hard to manage in their classrooms in a school where most student came from very tough backgrounds. My students all later confided in me that everyone of them was in a gang. They said they’d be lucky to live to the age of 18. Hence, education wasn’t a big priority for them – and education beyond high school was beyond their wildest dreams. They saw no reason to embrace the challenges of getting a good education.

It was also a school district where the kids spoke 56 different languages at home. The police told me they would connect with a language identifier before requesting a translator. It was imply too hard for them to engage with the community otherwise. When I showed up, my students definitely did not see me as being like them or being able to relate to them. I relied on my premise whenever starting with a new group: Start with Trust.

Embrace the Challenge – Growing Roses from Concrete

Tupac Rose

Leveraging a mentor’s tip helped me embrace the challenges. I remembered a book a professor had suggested that she used when she taught at juvenile hall. It was Tupac Shakur‘s book of poetry The Rose That Grew From Concrete.

I bought enough used copies of the book so each student could have one to keep as their own. The students were surprised that I even knew who Tupac was and that I knew lots of his material, but they were really surprised that I had bought them this book for them to keep. They didn’t know that Pac wrote poetry, they had really not expected me to be showing them something from Pac they hadn’t know about. When I next saw them, most of these 8th graders told me it was the first book they ever read. They were proud to carry it around with them, and they had selected their favorite poem. Some had also been inspired to write their first poem after reading it. I could not read any of their poems without tears coming to my eyes – pretty amazing stuff.

Some pointed out that this was cool, and the only other reading of poetry some previous teachers had tried to foist on them was some junk by Shakespeare. I pointed out that Shakespeare grew up in a different time, in another country and on another type of “concrete”. That tweaked their curiosity, and now a door was open to expand their horizons and awareness.

Knowing your audience and finding a connection provides context to start any dialog. Recognize that everyone is naturally creative, resourceful and whole. Help them recognize that as well in themselves and each other. Embrace the challenge, help where you can and enjoy watching roses grow from concrete.


Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature’s law is wrong it
learned to walk without having feet.
Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams,
it learned to breathe fresh air.
Long live the rose that grew from concrete
when no one else ever cared.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.