West of 25th, immaculate BMWs and Mercedes parked on the broad avenues. To the east, aging Toyotas with oxidized finishes shared the streets with plumbers’ vans and pickups with crumpled fenders and plates from Baja and Mahopacán. On the side streets east of 25th, a taco shop, a nail salon, a by-the-slice pizzeria, two small groceries, a fruit stand, a liquor store, a 99-cent store, a barber shop, and a video store served the neighborhood’s most immediate needs. A union hall, a nursing home, and a heating and air-conditioning business have been there for decades. The Las Lomas gang controlled the streets.
The Sunday Yanov walked into the bare sanctuary at Iglesia Presbiteriana he found his place. The church was new, maybe 30 families, lots with teenagers, and a struggling youth group. Pastor Tom Simpson was glad for his new parishioner who wanted to work with the kids. Yanov moved into an apartment at 29th and A Street and started a one-man mano a mano antigang effort. He hung around the taco shop and played pickup basketball at the courts in the park. He got to know the guys with shaved heads, and he invited them to the church youth group. They came and behaved a little better than they did on the street. But they kept on fighting and using. They still quit school. They got arrested. Some fled to Mexico. Too many of them ended up in prison. Yanov’s church work wasn’t getting anywhere.
He charged through UCSD, graduated in two and a half years, with a plan to go to law school. So many of the guys he worked with got chewed up in the courts and the prisons; with a law degree he could make a difference. He started law school at Cal Western.
Yanov hadn’t reckoned on the avalanche of reading and writing that buries first-year law students. Four hundred pages some weeks. He kept losing ground. At the end of the first semester, he’d failed one course, and his average was 68. The dean of students told him he’d need to bring it to 74 by the end of the year. Spring semester he nearly lived in the library; between February and May he bought only one tank of gas. At the end of the term, the dean called him in for a chat. He hadn’t made a 74. He’d need to find something else to do with his life.
Yanov had never failed at anything. He needed to figure out Plan B. He signed up with San Diego Unified as a substitute teacher, and when he told the kids he played basketball with in Golden Hill that he’d be subbing, they said, “Come sub at our school.” They went to Kroc.
At Kroc, Yanov wore a suit and tie every day; the kids needed to see he took his work seriously. He talked to kids about staying clean of drugs and going to college, but nothing he said changed the realities of their lives. On the HBO series The Wire, Duquan, a young black man isolated in his neighborhood, asked, “How do we get from here to the rest of the world?” That fit the kids Yanov worked with. They knew there was a rest of the world but had no idea how to get there. An eighth-grade girl he’d talked to about college asked, “Am I allowed to go?”
The week he subbed for math, he sat after school in the quiet teachers’ lounge. He thought about Jorge and Edgar and all the other kids he taught. They didn’t need more talk. They needed a bridge to the rest of the world and a shot at changing the realities of their lives. He smoothed a napkin from some teacher’s takeout and wrote “Reality Changers.” He liked the sound of it. “Agentes de Cambio.” Even better in Spanish. He folded the napkin and tucked it into his wallet.
He laid out his plan to Pastor Simpson. It was simple, and wildly ambitious. Start with eighth graders. They couldn’t just walk in to Reality Changers; he’d invite the ones he wanted. The kids he wanted weren’t necessarily the smartest ones. He wanted the strong personalities, the ones with staying power.
They’d need it. They’d have to keep a 3.0 average to stay in. Commit to no drugs and no sex. Drug testing, unannounced. Do volunteer work. Come every week to the program meeting. Work on English vocabulary and writing, have dinner together, maybe speakers. He’d have one-on-one tutors, college students, close enough in age that kids could see themselves and their futures in their tutors.
He needed a serious carrot. Like Academic Connections, UCSD’s three-week summer program for high school students. Get these kids onto campus. Live in the dorms, take a college course — taste college. The biggest carrot: Keep a 3.0 all through high school, and they could get into college. Get in, and he’d guarantee them scholarships. He didn’t know how, but he had four years to figure that out.
All he had was the space at the church.
In the next months, he talked to Edgar and Jorge and about ten other guys. Jorge remembers Yanov’s invitation, delivered to him after school:
“You do drugs?”
“You had sex?”
“I’m starting a program for guys who want to go to college. You interested?”
Yanov started Reality Changers with Jorge and three others. Edgar had said he’d think about it. Yanov never heard back from him.
Jorge couldn’t wait to get to the Reality Changers meetings. “It was survival, that simple.”
A 3.0 felt like a staggering goal when he started; by the end of ninth grade at James Madison, he’d kept the 3.0, joined the biology club, run track, and had a girlfriend.
The next summer he went to Academic Connections. He walked into his dorm room at UCSD and looked around. Bed. Desk. Chair. Shelves. Closet. Window. All his. Nobody else in the room. First time in his life he’d had a room of his own. He shut the door and sat on the bed and looked around at everything. All his.