Eugene Lemon’s first exposure to computers was in an East Oakland high school in 1964 when a teacher allowed him to play tic-tac-toe sometimes in the class to keep him from “tearing the classroom up.”
He retired from a 20-year teaching career in 2012, but he continues to work every day at The Hidden Genius Project, an initiative that aims to teach coding to male African American high school students. The organization also teaches entrepreneurship and leadership skills.
The program, which supports 40 kids, recently won a $500,000 Google Impact Challenge Grant, which awards 10 innovative Bay Area nonprofits.
When Lemon was growing up, he faced similar struggles as the students he teaches today. He describes himself as a “terror” as a high school student and as an ex-felon. But his experience with computers sparked a light in him that turned his life around.
Lemon’s office lies at a busy intersection near the Fox Theater, where construction projects are never-ending, and street walls are covered with abstract geometric shapes, green monsters and random doodles. The building is just one of the many new, gray high-rises that have sprouted in downtown Oakland. It’s just one more nondescript brick in the wall of buildings that has come to characterize the neighborhood.
Visitors walk through a hallway with bare walls and open a heavy industrial door to reach a room full of laughter, friendly banter and a large stack of MacBooks on the table with “CODE” stickers on them.
“Everyone is here because they want to be here,” said Rebecca Wilson, a member of Lemon’s five-person team.
Coding stickers line the table and organizational charts of upcoming events are scribbled on the whiteboards around the room. The room fills with Lemon’s jovial laugh as he remembers the success stories of many of his students. The other members of his team laugh with him while they work on their laptops.
The key to success, said Lemon, is to establish a personal connection with the students. For instance, Lemon recently took a student who was having problems in school out to dinner. Afterward, he noticed the way the student greeted him was different than how he usually greeted him.
“We developed a connection with him with the dinner thing,” said Lemon. “Hopefully he’s just as good next week, but if not we can still deal with it. No one’s going to change overnight, but it made me happy.”
Lemon’s eyes light up talking about his student’s accomplishments. In 2012, he was commissioned by Professor Stephen Cooper from Stanford University to find talented young men for a summer coding program. The teachers and counselors at the school insisted Lemon enroll a young girl from an East Oakland high school with a failing GPA. Her teachers said she wouldn’t graduate on time–not because of her academic ability, but rather because she was bored. Lemon, though skeptical, accepted her. It paid off. The instructors at the Stanford program all declared her “the sharpest by far” in the program and promised to write her a recommendation letter to “go anywhere in the world.” The student went back to high school with a new attitude and graduated on time, Lemon said, speaking proudly of how she is now pursuing a computer science degree in college.
“What I really like is when they get something,” said Lemon about his students, who range from age 13 to 18. “You see this big smile on their face and you can see you gave this youngster this information.”