On a winter night in 2002, Christopher Yanov, the founder and sole staff member of Reality Changers, sat with a handful of eighth graders and their college-student tutors in a meeting room in the Iglesia Presbiteriana Hispana. The one-story stucco-and-cinderblock building that squats on the corner of 28th and B Street in Golden Hill looks more like an urban fort than a church. Steel bars cover its windows, hardened locks secure the wide front doors. Inside, Yanov and the tutors worked with students on their homework at folding tables, the quiet in the room punctuated by occasional murmured consultations.
Reality Changers, Yanov’s eighth-month-old program to help local youth stay out of gangs and aim for college, had an official census of 12. Attendance was normally spotty. Tonight he had 6. He didn’t know whether it was going to fly.
A rock clattered against the bars and rattled the window glass. Heads snapped up from books. Another rock crashed hard on the bars; if it had hit the pane directly, it would have shattered it. Salvo after salvo of pebbles clanged against steel and glass.
“How come we’re out here and not in there?”
“Hey, Chris! You forgotten your friends?”
A face pushed between the bars and pressed against the glass. “Chris! You only talking to the smart kids now?”
The tutors looked at Yanov, eyes wide. They hadn’t bargained for this. The kids shot sidelong looks at each other and tried to look cool.
Yanov walked outside and greeted the guys, eighth and ninth graders from the neighborhood. He taught these kids at Kroc Middle School and played basketball with them at the park on weekends. Edgar and Luis were there, and the others were guys from their crew. They wore baggy pants and oversize black jackets, and their heads were shaved. Last spring, when he’d started Reality Changers, he’d invited most of them, Edgar and Luis especially, to join. They’d all turned him down.
“Hey, Chris, no fair, you didn’t let us in!”
“You guys know you’re invited,” he said. “You just got to get your grades up.”
“Kids inside did.”
“You’re our man. You should just let us in.”
“When you get your 3.0, we’ll be glad to have you. See you around.” Yanov waved goodbye and walked back into the church.
The rest of the session, the guys outside threw rocks and pushed their faces against the windows. The kids inside couldn’t concentrate, and the tutors were rattled. No more work got done that night. The kids left, and the tutors chalked up the night as a loss.
Yanov couldn’t stop grinning.
Those guys wanted in. He knew he had something.
At 23, two years out of UCSD, with no connections, no background in education, and no funding, Christopher Yanov started a program for kids who had no hope of college to prepare them to go. Seven years later, 55 Reality Changers graduates now attend college, every one of them the first in their families to do so. Another 100 high school students are currently part of the program. This is the story of Yanov’s lurching startup, and of Jorge Narvaez, who was in the room at the Iglesia that night, and of Edgar Castillo, who was throwing rocks, and the difference Yanov made for both of them.
In the fall of 2000, Yanov started work as a substitute teacher at Ray A. Kroc Middle School in Clairemont Mesa, where the student body spoke 12 languages and gangs were a constant presence in the courtyard. The week he was assigned to cover math classes, he watched the kids file into the low-ceilinged classroom and settle into their desks. First, the good girls who sat down and opened their binders, sure to have their homework done. Then, shuffling into the room just ahead of the bell, laughing, cursing, thumping each other on the arm, the gangbangers, the tough kids with shaved heads who hung out at the coral tree in the courtyard. They stuck their feet out in the aisle, folded their arms, and narrowed their eyes to slits. Jorge slouched in his seat and stared past Yanov. Edgar drew in his notebook.
Edgar hung out at the coral tree now. He’d shaved his head, and every day he looked more like the hard guys. Jorge went his own way. He got in fights, and he ditched school to spend days with his girlfriend. Both looked ripe to join a gang and start the familiar trajectory: tags, petty theft, gang fights, drugs. Quit school at 15 or 16. Father a child. Get arrested and sent to prison. All before 21.
Yanov knew Edgar and Jorge from other classes. Smart guys, both of them. He’d talked with each enough to know they wanted something better. All they had was their desire. Desire is potent fuel, but fuel alone isn’t enough. Kids need a launch platform, a flight plan, and a lot of support crew. Without these, their fuel goes flat. Or it explodes.
Middle-class kids are surrounded by support crew, a phalanx of parents, teachers, guidance counselors, tutors, test coaches, and college advisors who assume that they’re headed for college and whose job it is to help the kids get there. This crew helps them step up to the demands of high school, stay with it when expectations ratchet up, and imagine what they can do with their lives. Middle-class kids live in a culture of peers who are doing the same and of parents and other adults who see college as a given. Surrounded by these assumptions, they are carried upward on a powerful escalator.
The way up looks different if your undocumented mother works cleaning houses and your stepfather cooks at a Mexican restaurant, and nobody around you has ever gone to college, and you’ve never even stepped onto a campus. You don’t have pictures in your head of the world you want to reach, no talismans to guide you toward that hazy ideal called college. Your parents struggled to get to the U.S., maybe came without papers, because it was so important to get here, because here their kids had a shot at a decent education, and they knew education was the key to making a better life. They want it for you, talk to you about it all the time, but making it happen, that’s up to you. You don’t know where to start, and there’s no one around who can tell you what you need to do. You might not even know that you’d be allowed to go to college.