During my first few years teaching, I worked with a student who took a lot of…work. She had some stuff happening at home so school became an outlet. And as large as the school was, she always seemed to end up in my classroom. Even if that wasn’t the case, when there aren’t many teachers of color at a school, students of color tend to migrate to them. I call it “magnets.”

My interactions with this student usually included me responding to her in one of these ways:

“Why are you looking at me like that?”

“I understand that [insert Fascist dictator] was a bad person, but we are still in school so that word isn’t appropriate. Besides, never talk about people’s mamas.”

“Mr. or Ms. [insert any teacher] wasn’t racist yesterday. Now you failed a test so we have to get the NAACP on the line.”

“Are we really going to do this again today?”

At her graduation, I must admit I cried a bit. I cry at most graduations but sometimes you see kids walk across that stage, and it really hits home that we need a raise.

A few years later, I was in Home Depot when I heard a familiar voice call me. It was her. And she was bagging items at the register.

“I know what you are thinking,” she started. “I don’t know what I want to do yet so I’m working here until I figure it out. Or maybe I just stay here. Who knows? The pay is good so it isn’t so bad.”

“What are you trying to figure out?” I asked.

“What I want to study or do. Maybe I’ll be a police officer or social worker. I like history and English too,” she continued.

I looked at my bag of paint samples and industrial cleaning supplies so I could think for a second. “I am not down on working. Ultimately that’s the goal of college,” I explained. “But I just don’t see how you’ll find those things out by working here. Pick up a few classes at the community college to figure out what you are interested in. Just don’t let time pass you and you haven’t made a move.”

I stumbled upon college counseling. I felt that it made teaching better because it creates a solid end goal way past next week’s test. I think I knew the combination of the two was my passion when I worked with another student in my first venture into college access.

In middle school, he was a wannabe gangster. Working in gang-prevention taught me that those wannabes turn into actual gangsters soon after. The posturing easily becomes a reality especially if the kid is really good at posturing. He was jumped into a gang pretty early and had an awakening at end of his junior year of high school: he wanted to go to college. Years of running the streets made certain things difficult though: he couldn’t take the bus across town because the route took him through rival territory; he couldn’t participate in some college access organizations because they were located in rival territories; and his mom needed him to work part-time to help the family. We figured out a way that he could meet me–on his day off, he could take multiple buses instead of the direct line, or I could go to his high school.

During one visit to his high school, I met with his academic counselor.

“Can you enroll him in Geometry this summer?” I asked. “We’ll prep him so I believe he’ll do well.”

“Geometry,” she mumbled as she scrolled through his transcript. “Hey! If he takes Geometry, he will be A-G eligible!”

“I know. That’s why I’m asking.”

“It’s a good thing because we would have missed it. Too many students here to keep tabs on all of them especially if they don’t seem interested in college.”

“Waiting for them to come to you is also how you lose them,” I replied.

This year, when the seniors thanked me in the final school newspaper, many of them said different versions of “Ms. Hoy really wants you to go to college.” This is true and some of that is for selfish reasons as I mentioned before (making the teaching better). I also like hearing about kids in their college physics classes talking about globalization, Diaspora, and race. Makes me happy.

While I don’t think college can do all things for all people, the process, at the very least, creates thinking people. The act of getting to a place of saying, “this works for me because…” and “this does not work for me because…” is what I am thinking about. I am troubled when I think about how we interact with each other as adults in meaningless and hurtful ways and how much of that is because we feel a lack of control in our own destiny. It’s the difference between working at Home Depot because that’s what you really wanted to do rather than sitting this one out, with “this one” being your life. Or missing out on a huge, life-changing opportunity because someone didn’t tell you something.

I always talk about reading anything I can get my hands on and recently I’ve been working through Lean In, among some others. Part of Sandberg’s introduction goes through what it really means to have it all (I also think about the article in The Atlantic that freaked out a lot of my professor friends). Sandberg implies that “all” is up to us, not what someone else has said “all” should be.

I also think about the especially terrible month our country has had and my activist friends’ call for more community policing, for our communities to take responsibility for our own tenor. In some ways, the police chief in Dallas asking for BLM protestors to join the police force was an effort to do the same–take control of your own destiny.

In both instances, Sandberg and the police chief in Dallas recognize what Sandberg calls the chicken/egg debate in that: yes, there are systemic pieces that make things harder, and nearly impossible, in most situations. But how else do we make those changes if not from within and with our understanding of the other, or as we say in certain circles, with “not only the master’s tools”?

Once you recognize the problem, figure out your role in fixing it, and then go do it. And Ms. Hoy really wanting students to go to college is doing just that. At least for me.