By: Kiara Abdullah

There are certain questions that almost all of my co-workers and I cringe at. They aren’t particularly difficult questions to answer. We aren’t unaware of the answer. We aren’t unprepared to answer. We just aren’t sure which answer to give.

“So… What do you do?” is one of those questions.

Most of us have developed an answer which addresses at least a part of what we do. We smile widely and explain, “I work for an organization that places diverse and intelligent young people in failing and turn-around schools.” Others may answer, “I work as a mentor.” And, still others might say, “I work as a tutor in challenge-rich environments.”
All of these things are true. But none of them is complete.

The complete answer involves the “Cici effect.”


Cierra has never been “student of the month.” She’s never made honor roll and, if you ask her, “doesn’t care” or plan on it either. She is a self-proclaimed ‘trouble maker’ and is filled with spunk for days. Other teachers warned me about Cierra’s lack of work ethic and ever disruptive behavior. “Just don’t engage her,” they would say, “it’s easier for everyone.” So, on the first day of class I looked for it, the notorious sass and lack of work ethic, I was warned about. I got nothing. I waited again on day two, day three, and day four but, by the end of the first week Cierra hadn’t started one fight, missed one homework assignment or cursed out one student. But she did earn an A.

I don’t think I ever met Cierra, but I was glad to have met “Cici,” the bold, daring and super gifted US History student who always does her work. She answered questions when prompted, challenged concepts when necessary and was always on time.

One day, I spied Cici helping out a student who was struggling. The student she was helping had just moved from a rural village in Mexico and spoke almost no English. Cici spoke even less Spanish. But, Cici handled the challenge like a champ. She used pencils and M&M’s to describe the concept of diplomatic compromise. She helped him finish his entire worksheet and she did all of it without being asked.

I was blown away.

I asked Cici for her mother’s number and called home during my lunch break to tell her mother about all the great things Cici was doing in class. “Hello?” I reluctantly began the conversation. “Is this Cici’s mom?” I continued. A stern “yes and what about it?” followed. All of a sudden the words came pouring from my mouth. I told the whole story about the new student and the pencils and the m&m’s and I kept going until I found myself starting to talk in circles. The phone line went silent before her mother abruptly spoke stating, “Excuse me?!”
This was not the conversation I was expecting.

And, I had no clue what to do or say. Her mother must’ve heard my worry over the phone and finished her sentence, “Excuse me?! Are you calling to say something nice?” I confirmed, “um…yes.” Her mother burst into tears exclaiming, “You are the first person in nine years of public school education to ever tell me something nice about my daughter. People call all the time and they never once ever say anything nice.” I finally exhaled glad I made the decision to call. We talked for another five minutes before we finally hung up.

I finished my lunch and then went to find Cici to tell her the good news. I asked why she was so amazing in my class and she said, “Because I can be amazing. You let me be me.”

That’s the Cici effect. The effect of forgetting for five minutes about how tired or hungry or stressed you are because you are helping someone else. You are doing work that matters. So when people ask, “what do you do?” I’ve decided to take all the moments of Cici and making opportunities real and simply respond, “I make a difference, how about you?”


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