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One of the things that makes America great is the opportunity for anyone to bring themselves up by their bootstraps. The stories are everywhere. Most start with a dedicated teacher. Some have a few others who help along the way.

I want to share this story from my coworker, Emily. It’s a great story about how a few real people behind the wiz-bang technology we take for granted offered inspiration to some eighth-graders. Or, maybe it was the eighth graders and their teacher who offered inspiration to the tech people. All I know is, this story really did bring a tear to a grizzled, middle-aged bald guy. It’s worth sharing.

I edited Emily’s story to fix a few minor grammar issues and I removed last names. I also removed a paragraph only relevant to my employer. Other than that, this is Emily’s story in her words.

Take it away, Emily.


Two weeks ago I received a cold call.

It was from a teacher at Zebulon Middle Magnet School. She wanted to bring a few eighth graders to Red Hat.

Typically I forward these things to our Community Relations team, but I grew up in Smithfield, not too far from Zebulon. The teacher, Barnanne, started to tell me how she was struggling to find ways to expose her kids to technology.

She talked about how rural her area was, the limited resources they had, and the lack of access. In her words “we’re poor.”

I immediately related.

Even though I grew up only about thirty minutes from Raleigh, it was a world away from the tobacco farms and country life I knew. My schools growing up were not flush with cash and they were limited in what they could do or expose us to.

I asked her what she had in mind and she said anything. She just wanted to spark something in these kids.

I asked her when she wanted to visit. She said, “What about April 25th? That’s the last day I can get the activity bus.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but this time of year is always the “busy” season in my world.

I thought “two weeks, ugh” and then started to think of all the projects and things I was supposed to be working on.

Was fitting in a middle school visit to Red Hat in two weeks really a priority?

But then I remembered a field trip from elementary school to UNC-Chapel Hill’s Morehead Planetarium. Several classes from our school went together and after the show, we sat outside and had a picnic lunch on campus.

As I was eating, I remember watching all the college students walking by and thinking “I’ll never be good enough to go somewhere like this.”

While my self-talk was negative (something I’m still working on!), that field trip sparked an interest…an interest in UNC…in something beyond the small world of Smithfield that I knew.

I told Barnanne “OK, let me see what I can do.”

The first thing I checked was our calendar to see if I could find an empty meeting room (luckily, I found one). Once I had that booked, I knew I needed to find the talent.

Chris, Marizol, and Vincent responded to that call and agreed to share with the group their path to technology.

I was in business.

I sent Barnanne an email and told her we could make it happen. Her response, “My students will be so excited!”

Next up, I needed swag.

I won’t say their names (for fear of people flooding their inboxes) but several Red Hatters helped me find a baseball cap or two to give to the students. To those swag fairies, THANK YOU!

Fast forward to today, it’s 9:15 A.M. and I’m waiting in the lobby for Barnanne and her students. We have a 9:30 A.M. start time with Chris speaking first, followed by Marizol and Vincent.

9:18 am…
9:27 am…
9:38 am…

I’m thinking “where are they…why didn’t I get Barnanne’s cell phone!”

Then I looked out the window and saw a group of young men walking across the street with a vibrant woman leading the way. That had to be them.

Barnanne, followed by five young men, came in and apologized for being late.

See, she had driven the activity bus HERSELF and told me that parking it and navigating the city had been tricky but that they were ready to go.

How many teachers do you know who would drive an activity bus in a city they don’t often travel, just so they could expose their kids to a new experience?!

While the students seemed happy to be here, they were quiet. I remember being painfully quiet in new surroundings when I was their age.

Once in the meeting room, Chris kicked us off and got them talking. He told them about his love for technology and the time he spent at his local electronics store when he was younger. Next thing you know, they’re asking Chris about AI, robots, and what the world is going to look like in 2030.

Marizol was up next. She shared with them about growing up in another country and moving to North Carolina for grad school, and how, as a native Spanish speaker, she remembers being taught computer networking in English by a Greek professor, who was also not fluent in English.

Then Vincent closed it. He shared his interest in building things from an early age. He talked about the communities in which he works at Red Hat and how those community members are as much colleagues as Red Hatters are.

We wrapped up the morning with a tour, grabbed lunch from the Hat Rack, and headed back to the room to debrief with the students.

I was struck by what they shared.

From Chris, they learned the importance of asking questions. The importance of asking why.

From Marizol, they learned the importance of perseverance no matter the environment or circumstance.

From Vincent, they learned the importance of figuring out what problems they want to solve and going from there.

In fact, we asked the students, “What are the problems you want to solve?”

Their answers…

Cure cancer.
Eliminate diabetes.
Tackle climate change.
End poverty.

Instead of asking them, “What do you want when you get older,” we asked them, “What do you NOT want when you get older?”

Their answers…

They don’t want to be homeless.
They don’t want to be poor.
They don’t want to be in debt.
They don’t want to sit at a desk. (OK, maybe not as deep as the rest but valid nonetheless.)

We brainstormed: how do you begin to solve poverty, what would lead someone to be homeless, and so on.

As we closed, I asked them what they observed walking around the building.

They said (and I’m paraphrasing), “Everyone seems like they want to be here. They’re focused. They seem to like who they’re working with. They seem engaged.”

We finished up and took a few group pictures.

I said goodbye to Barnanne, Grady, Jason, Aaron, Austin, and Zac, and went back to work.

But, hours later, I’m still thinking about their visit.

I share all of this because I’m so very grateful that teachers like Barnanne exist. And that there are those who are willing to drive the activity bus if they have to.

I’m so grateful for colleagues like Chris, Marizol, and Vincent who accepted an unsolicited calendar invite that read “Speak to Zebulon middle school group?”

I’m so grateful for swag fairies finding last minute goodies so the students didn’t leave empty-handed.

And I’m so thankful to work at an amazing company that encourages me to volunteer and give back.

Looking at this place through those students’ eyes today, I realize how very lucky I am to be here.

And how it all started with an experience at UNC long ago.