So I’m at All Star Code’s fifth-anniversary event at the High Line Hotel in New York City on Wednesday, and one of the program’s students, Alex Reyes, asks me if I know how the video game “Pong” works.
I—who haven’t thought about “Pong,” a table tennis simulation game, in eons—realize that I have no clue how the game actually “works” beyond that you want the paddles to hit the ball.
He happily explains to me how “Pong” relates to physics and how he has an app called Fysical that can help students better understand the discipline. All of it absolutely goes over my head because I didn’t get further than trigonometry and advanced biology in school. Although I was a good student in math, I sucked at geometry, got my ass served to me in most science classes and never even bothered with physics, which seemed intimidating.
Could I have conquered this beast if I’d had Reyes’ app? The possibilities are limitless, just like the potential of the black and brown students who are part of All Star Code’s program, which gives male teens the tools they need to be successful in tech.
Even though I made my mark as a blogger, I’m not particularly tech savvy. I used to be. I learned how to code for a Commodore 64 when I was in elementary school [Editor’s note: I’m old]. I wish I’d stuck with it. Maybe I could have invented something of note. Maybe I could have been a programmer who could do something beyond creating little “choose your own adventure” games in code. But the creative and writing side of me was too strong. Those were always my priorities, while computer programming was a distant fourth behind art, writing and music.
Seeing the young men at their various stations showing off their apps during All Star Code’s event reminded me of the many, many times as a teen I participated in similar functions. Even though there were initial hints of nervousness displayed by a few of the teens, all of them pitched their apps with a charm and friendliness that would have made your old-timey corner salesman proud. I remember how youth gave me a sort of superpower—a fearlessness wherein I truly believed in myself because others had put so much faith and belief in my talent and skills.
It wasn’t until I got older and more experienced that I began to fear these sorts of interactions. I’d been an extrovert all of my childhood, yet when I hit my late teens and early 20s, I found myself being fearful in situations I would normally have relished. It was during my 20s when my social anxiety came to the forefront and started “ruining” my childhood pluck and vigor, eventually making me the half-extrovert, half-introvert I am today, writing this column, Antisocial, aka “the society column for people afraid of people due to a somewhat annoying social anxiety disorder.’
Since I know only one way to solve a problem (to confront it), I go to events—the thing I fear—and engage with people head-on, at times to mixed results. Sometimes I’m successful, like with these teens I met on Wednesday. And sometimes I’m the cat that climbed up the tree, only to get stuck there and in need of a little help getting down.
At All Star Code’s fifth-anniversary event, I was both.
Christina Lewis knows who the enemy is in her fight for young men of color. It’s an enemy that I’m all too familiar with and have battled as well.
“The enemy is hopelessness,” said Lewis, the founder and CEO of All Star Code, during her remarks Wednesday night.
“Our young men of color are a huge untapped talent pool, yet too many feel hopeless because they see no realistic positive stories of success that speak to them,” said Lewis later in an email exchange with The Root. “In five years we have created a pipeline of technical talent from high school into college of young men who have the skills, networks and know-how to create their own paths within or without corporate America. That is what our students want.”
Lewis was inspired to create All Star Code because of her father’s own story as a young man of color looking for opportunities in a world that often shutters them to young black men. He succeeded in spite of these hurdles.
Lewis’ father was Reginald F. Lewis, best known for his nearly $1 billion deal for TLC Beatrice in 1987. He passed away from brain cancer in 1993.
Over the past five years, All Star Code’s tech-centric “Summer Intensive” program has graduated 290 students. And in 2018, almost 1,000 students in three cities applied for the program. Wednesday night’s event was to honor those students as well as individuals like Google’s Demma Rosa Rodriguez, head of equity engineering for the tech giant. Rodriguez, an Afro-Latina, talked about her roots as she accepted the Hank Williams Trailblazer Award.
“I was always one of the few, only, in the room,” Rodriguez said. “Nothing prepared me for the dearth of people of color in engineering.”
I couldn’t hear this without thinking of my father and sister, both engineers, and their stories of often being the lonely onlies. For my sister, she found engineering so confounding that she left the field altogether for accounting several years ago. My father also left engineering for management when he worked in the aerospace industry. While he enjoyed his work as an engineer, the money he sought was more in leadership roles.
That’s what’s remarkable about groups like All Star Code and other nonprofits that target students of color to bring them into the tech sector. They’re working to ensure that more black students will try STEM and stick with it, diversifying this world of math and computer science so there are fewer “lonely onlies.”
One thing that All Star Code imparts to its students is that failure is an integral part of success. That you might try several things before you find something that works. That you might create several apps or programs that won’t turn out quite right. But that from each failure, each mistake, we learn and apply those lessons to future ventures. That all of our failures prepare us for success.
“Don’t be afraid to fail. Fail and fail harder until you succeed” is a quote from a student that was placed on flyers on tables at the event. I take it to heart because, goodness knows, I know failure. I’ve failed at jobs, websites and TV shows, and all of those failures made me better, smarter and more prepared for the next task at hand.
Having social anxiety is annoying, but it’s more of a mild annoyance when I feel good. It’s never so bad that I can’t physically step into the room and start talking to people. But if you want to shut me up and stop me dead in my tracks, just give me something more physical to deal with—like stairs.
To get to the event at the High Line, I had to walk up several very large stone steps to get to the Refectory, where the celebration was held, and as I went up I knew I was in for trouble when it would come time for me to go home.
You see? I can climb upstairs with no problem, but getting down? Uhhhhh. I’ve struggled with what I think is a type of vertigo for years. I can barely walk down stairs I’m unfamiliar with without having to grip the handrail for dear life, and I still struggle to convince myself to go down escalators.
Airports—with all their escalators and people movers—are basically nightmare fuel for me. It’s amazing, considering the long list of things I have random phobias of, that I manage to leave my apartment at all. (One of my longtime phobias is, literally, of wide-open spaces, and years ago I developed agoraphobia, the remnants of which I still deal with.)
Fortunately, one of the women working the main table saw me—the cat that climbed up the tree and couldn’t climb down—and leaped to save me, offering her hand for me to balance off of and hold as I made my way down. It’s always those first couple of steps that are the hardest to negotiate, but once I start going down, I’m usually good. Yes, it’s embarrassing and annoying, and I have no idea how I would have gotten down those steps if no one had been at the front. Maybe I’d be writing this blog post from the steps of the Refectory right now, my new home.
But I’m not because I won’t let my fears run me. Not my fear of failure, not my fear of steps, not my fear of engaging. Just another one of life’s hurdles I have to get over, either on my own or with a little help from the universe.