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Pearl Arrendondo: How Can Mentors Push Students To Move Beyond Their Circumstances?

Jun 29, 2018
Originally published on June 29, 2018 10:49 am

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode Hidden Potential

About Pearl Arredondo's TED Talk

Pearl Arredondo grew up in East Los Angeles, the daughter of gang members. Education was her ticket out. She says young people need mentors to push them not to be victims of their own circumstances.

About Pearl Arredondo

Pearl Arredondo is a middle school principal and education advocate. She is a co-founder of the San Fernando Institute for Applied Media, the first pilot middle school established in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Her inspiration to give back to students stems from her own experience growing up poor in the East Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Arredondo received her B.A. and M.A. from Pepperdine University, and her M.S. in Educational Leadership and Administration from National University.

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On the show today, ideas on Hidden Potential. So if Victor Rios is right, then the key to unlocking that hidden potential is through mentorship.

PEARL ARREDONDO: Yeah. You need mentors. You need that little voice in your head saying, you're better than this. And you can do more than this. If you never hear that, then you don't think that you can.

RAZ: This is Pearl Arredondo. She's a middle school principal. And Pearl grew up in East LA in the 1980s in a mostly Latino neighborhood.

ARREDONDO: My mom was born in Mexico. My dad was born in the U.S. But they were both gang members at the beginning. Luckily, my mom decided to step away from that life once she had children and realized it wasn't really going to be conducive to anything productive. But my dad was kind of in and out. He was one of the lead gang members there, and so he never actually lived with us. He was - he was in jail more than he was out.

And when he would come out, I was afraid of him. Like, when I would see him, my heart would race and I'd panic. And I'd be like, oh, my God, is he going to, like, kill us? Is he going to do something to us? The dream was really to get out of that neighborhood. I think for a while, I didn't know what I was going to do or where we were going to go. But I knew I didn't want to live like that. And so my mom would always tell us, like, you have to go to college so that you don't have to live like this. Like, that's the ticket is going to school.

RAZ: Was there anyone else besides your mom who really believed in you, who saw your potential despite, you know, the circumstances around you?

ARREDONDO: Yeah. It was my fifth-grade teacher. I remember she came over to my house one day. And my sister and I were playing dress up. And she knocks on the door. And it's like, oh, my God, it's my teacher. Why are you here? And she's like, I need to talk to your mom about school options. And she told my mom, like, you know, if she goes to the school that's right here, the local junior high, she's just going to get swallowed up in all the gang stuff. And she's like, she needs to go to a better school. And my mom was like, well, she's only in fifth grade. And she was like, yeah, it's OK. She's going to be fine. She needs to go. And so, yeah, next year, sixth grade, I was gone.

RAZ: Pearl Arredondo picks up her story from the TED stage.


ARREDONDO: So the next two years I took a school bus to the fancy side of town. And eventually, I ended up at a school where there was a mixture. There were some people who were really gang-affiliated, and then there was those of us really trying to make it to high school. Well, trying stay out of trouble was a little unavoidable. You had to survive. So I really needed a support network, a group of people who were going to help me make sure that I wasn't going to be a victim of my own circumstance, that they were going to push me beyond what I even thought I could do.

I needed teachers in the classroom every day who were going to say, you can move beyond that. But then I was accepted to Pepperdine University. And I came back to the same school that I attended to be a special ed assistant. And then I told them, I want to be a teacher. I really wanted to try to save more kids who were just like me. And so every year, I share my background with my kids because they need to know that everyone has a story, everyone has a struggle and everyone needs help along the way.

Creating a safe haven for our kids and getting to know exactly what they're going through, getting to know their families - I wanted that. And they need teachers to fight for them and empower them to move beyond their circumstances because it's time that kids like me stop being the exception and we become the norm.

RAZ: Why do you think that not just in schools but in business and all kinds of environments we tend to ignore kids who don't raise their hands or, you know, people who are kind of, you know, not the first to speak up or maybe seem to be a little bit different? Why do think they're ignored?

ARREDONDO: Sometimes I don't think it's done on purpose. I think it's just, you know, you get caught up with those who make it easy for you. And you naturally just kind of gravitate to those who are more open or who are talkative and, you know, the extroverts. And I think because I'm naturally an introvert, I do look for the kid who's not talking, you know, because I'm that kid.

RAZ: I mean, you must look out at your kids at your school and see a version of yourself in so many of them.

ARREDONDO: Oh, absolutely. You know, I have to sit with some of my toughest girls, you know, that have the most attitude. And a lot of them are dealing with the same things I did. You know, Dad's not there. Dad's in jail. Dad's gone. I think they have a lot of anger, too. And I remember feeling like that as a kid. And so, you know, I try to tell them about channeling it into different things and, you know, getting involved in activities after school.

And how can we take up more of their time in a productive way? You know, is it dance class? Is it sports? Is it art? Is it computers? Is photography? Something that's fun that's not just, you know, full academics, but they're still learning something. And so sometimes channeling that energy helps them out.

RAZ: Was it that fifth-grade teacher who unlocked your hidden potential?

ARREDONDO: Absolutely. And she stuck by me. I mean, even now - you know, she's retired, and I still talk to her. And maybe that's what it takes. I think it takes, you know, building that relationship. It's all on talking to people and getting to know them because once you do, it becomes - it's now personal. You now have a stake in their lives. And unless you get to know them, then they are just, you know, someone who's going to pass through. And it's those little two minutes of a conversation that would make all the difference.

RAZ: Pearl Arrendondo - she actually co-founded a new middle school in 2010. It's called the San Fernando Institute for Applied Media (ph). You can see Pearl's full talk at ted.com.


SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE: (Singing) You can make it if you try. You can make it if you try.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our episode Hidden Potential this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, go to ted.npr.org. To see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app. Our production staff here at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Janae West, Neva Grant, Rund Abdelfatah, Casey Herman, Rachel Faulkner, and Diba Mohtasham with help from Daniel Shookin (ph) and Lawrence Wu. Our intern is Megan Shellon (ph). Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Janet Lee. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.