It is what it is.
This simple mindset is a tricky beast that not only soothes one’s lot in life but seamlessly tamps down ambition, often justifying one uneducated generation after another and potentially leading to a fettered existence of poverty and crime. Conversely, there is nothing more “gangster” than eschewing such a life for a modern day Horatio Alger tale. In a nutshell, that’s Paul Hernandez’s story.
Born in Los Angeles to an immigrant Guatemalan single mother, Hernandez says he was destined at an early age to become a gang violence statistic.
“I came to the realization that things were different when I started venturing out of my community, whether it was looking for food or money,” said Hernandez, who today is a Central Michigan University associate professor. “I started seeing the men and women in the fancy cars and restaurants. I started asking questions, ‘What is this and how did they get it?’ What was normal to us, wasn’t necessarily the norm or the American dream.”
Looking back at his childhood through teen years, Paul Hernandez now knows his family was in deep poverty. Unlike other families ravaged by dysfunction, drugs and violence, the Hernandez family boasted a matriarch with no formal education who worked 15 hours a day, seven days a week.
“Probably in my early teens I started coming to the realization of a different road that I needed to take,” Hernandez said. “The community was same thing, different day. A popular thing was, ‘It is what it is.’ That was it. That’s the one response I got and it drove me insane. For weeks and months I wrestled with that and that was probably one of my first epiphanies.”
“When I realized the answer, that changed my life. It isn’t simply, it is what it is. It is what it is because somebody made it that way. That was the first moment when I realized I could change things for myself and my community.”
From there on it wouldn’t be easy for young Paul Hernandez. While he knew the path out of the barrio, he was still a street kid at heart and was easily bored with education. This was in part due to a common scenario in underprivileged schools, teachers unwilling or unprepared to catch students falling through the cracks by the dozen.
Hernandez’s was also fully immersed in gang life.
On the down low, however, he enrolled into Los Angeles City College before eventually graduating from Cal State University Los Angeles with a degree in sociology.
“FAFSA supported my education and [I took out] many loans, as is the case for many first generation college students,” explained Hernandez. “I was not aware of how to navigate through higher education in a manner that would have allowed me to have had my education paid for in order to avoid taking out so many loans.”
But with determination, he ended up in the Midwest for grad school, earning a Ph.D in sociology from Michigan State University.
“I worked full time and went to school full time, which was very difficult and exhausting but I needed to work to help support my momma and other family members,” he explained.
Paul Hernandez’s Real Talk
Nowadays, Paul Hernandez’s focus is sociology of education and social inequality.
In 2008 he started working with troubled middle school and high school teenagers around the Detroit area. Today he travels around the country instructing teachers and schools with at-risk students to implement a unique pedagogical approach of his own design called “Real Talk,” which helps teachers and administrators improve passing rates and build meaningful relationships with students on the cusp of dropping out.
In addition, he’s developed a “College 101” program for at-risk high school sophomores to see themselves in college. In a nutshell, he said his philosophy is to get teachers to establish relationships with the kids and not just view them as students, which he feels is often a dehumanizing term.
Mostly though, Paul Hernandez admits he’s training teachers to become the exact type of educator he needed when he was a troubled youth on a dangerous track.
“The people who often made a difference for me were a custodian or librarian who showed an act of kindness or gave me the benefit of the doubt,” Hernandez said. “They did it in an unselfish manner knowing they wouldn’t see an immediate result but believing there would be a long-term effect. Well, they were right. That’s one of the main things I try to teach teachers today—you can’t always go into it expecting to see an immediate change. If you do that, you’re going to fail.”
Still tattooed, which offers him daily reminders of a previous life, Hernandez said his exterior often gives him credibility with the troubled kids he mentors.
“Anywhere I go they all recognize one commonality,” Hernandez said. “What we all share is that pain. That’s the one powerful component.”
After a brief pause, he adds, “You leave the life but you never really leave it. I go home to Los Angeles, go to the same gutter I grew up in. The transformation was education and the key was to not lose myself. That’s one of the biggest fears I have with these kids is that they’ll lose themselves. That’s a legitimate fear. Nobody wants to do that. So one of the things I teach them is how you don’t have to lose yourself. You just combine your passion with education in a manner where you remain you, which you develop in a way that education allows you to develop.”