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On a summer Thursday afternoon in St. Paul’s historic Rondo neighborhood, Mercedes Yarbrough—Mizz Mercedez to her students—passes out magazines to her comic book class. A giant cartoon of Sonic the Hedgehog smiles down at the class of soon-to-be fourth through sixth graders. Mercedes, who drew the character in dry-erase marker, has added the speech bubble, “Don’t worry, be happy.”
Mercedes’s apparel, too, showcases those cartoon skills: Her T-shirt features the cover of her latest Black history comic book. She’s also wearing bright orange sneakers. Today’s activity, she explains to the class, is vision boards. The children will use their comic book skills to visualize their own dreams.
“You’re going to look around and look for pictures that symbolize the goals that you guys wrote down,” Mercedes explains. She points to a collage a previous student created. “I loved how creative she was with the different colors when she was writing,” Mercedes says. “She even wrote her name in a cool, creative way.”
She goes on to list the student’s goals: Become a baker, read a new book, improve at gymnastics. “And then she wants to invent a new candy, so I thought that was really cool,” Mercedes adds.
She invites the students to write down a playlist of songs they want to hear. And she streams their requests—including Maroon 5’s “She Will Be Loved” and Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next”—as she moves around the room. She demonstrates for one student how to find images in the magazines that could be symbols for his vision board.
One picture shows someone holding a cell phone. “Maybe you want to make an app or something,” Mercedes suggested.
“Yeah!” the kid exclaims.
Later, Mercedes reflects on this vision board exercise.
“I like to work on things that focus on helping them with their future,” she tells Sahan Journal. “I just want to inspire this generation of dreams and teach them how to dream. Because a lot of them don’t know how right now.”
Mercedes, 32, has plenty of dreams of her own. Over the summer, she teaches at Freedom School, a free program through St. Paul Public Schools with roots in the civil rights movement. As the school year starts up again, she’s getting ready to go back to work as an intervention specialist at the district’s Jie Ming Mandarin Immersion Academy.
But she’s also a cartoonist, a video-game designer, a social-media producer, a sneakerhead, and a mother of four boys. Her goal is to make learning fun for kids. That means creating a cartoon on seeing the bright side of a difficult situation through “magic glasses” and social media videos spotlighting students’ talents. This year, Mercedes has published two Black history comic books, filled with fun facts about the past and Black entrepreneurs of the present. One of her animated creations is “Black Girl Magic”: a Cinderella-like tale about building self-acceptance and confidence.
How does she do it all? What kind of educator has the creativity and endless energy to constantly invent new ways to engage students?
Someone whose own life experience involves riding the bus to high school as a baby; watching her mother go from single teen mom to Ph.D.; raising four boys; imagining a metaverse future; and realizing her gift for connecting with students.
Mercedes knows what it’s like to feel inspired and energized in school—and she knows how students of color can lose their joy in education. She’s made it her mission to cultivate that spark and connection in her students.
The result may be Black girl magic, but it’s not as simple as waving a wand. Mercedes has a method for getting there. And it didn’t just come to her overnight.
‘In schools forever’
Mercedes got her start in education young. Really young. She rode the bus to Central High School as a baby with her 15-year-old mother. As her mom completed her high school education, Mercedes attended a daycare inside the school.
“My mom had me in schools forever with her, and I kind of just followed in her footsteps,” Mercedes recalls. Her mom was still in high school when she had Mercedes’s brother, becoming a teenage single mom with two kids.
She instilled the value of education in Mercedes from the outset. “She says school saved her life,” Mercedes says.
Mercedes’s mother, Dr. Naomi Taylor, went on to earn a doctorate in education, and became a teacher herself. She’s now the director of intercultural life at St. Paul Academy and Summit School, one of Minnesota’s most elite private schools.
As a child, Mercedes attended the school where her mother then taught: the Museum Magnet School, located in the same Rondo building where Mercedes now teaches her Freedom School classes. (The magnet school has since closed.)
“I always loved school,” Mercedes says. She enjoyed celebrating holidays with her class and extracurricular programs. Again, her mom played a leading role. “We would have to go to work with her early, so she would sign me up for reading groups,” Mercedes recalls.
Taylor recalls that Mercedes was a stubborn, humorous child who loved sports and drawing. She showed her creativity from a young age. For a sixth-grade science project, most kids put together poster boards about their assigned plants. Mercedes, whose plant was basil, brought in the ingredients for pesto pasta—and provided samples.
“She just always went the extra creative way,” Taylor says.
Once she got to junior high, though, school became less fun. Mercedes, who has Black, white, and Indigenous heritage, recalls she was often the only brown girl in her advanced classes.
“I did not feel like I belonged,” she said. “I wanted to change my classes to be with my friends or the cool kids. Being smart and a person of color was not seen as cool.”
After Mercedes graduated, she studied accounting at the University of Wisconsin–River Falls. “I had fun in college, but I hated accounting,” she said. “I just went to school because that’s what I was told to do. I didn’t really know what I was going for.”
She left college after she got pregnant with her first son. Taylor, then a professor at Hamline University, encouraged Mercedes to apply for a position with the Minnesota Reading Corps. The nonprofit was hiring tutors for prekindergarteners at Hamline Elementary, next to the university. Mercedes’s son was the right age for the program, too. Echoing her mother’s experience decades before, she took him to work with her.
“I started to get confidence as a teacher,” Mercedes says. “I’m actually impacting these kids. And it made me aware of how powerful or influential you can be to young minds.”
The principal offered Mercedes a job at the school, and in the fall of 2013, she became a special education teaching assistant for fifth grade. Many of her students had been diagnosed with emotional and behavioral disorders—a label disproportionately given to Black and American Indian students in Minnesota.
“That fifth-grade group probably got 30 percent of what they were supposed to learn that year because of behavior distractions,” Mercedes says.
But as Mercedes got to know her students, she started to understand the root causes of their behavioral challenges. All of the students labeled with an emotional or behavioral disorder faced serious problems in their home lives: a parent in jail or coping with addiction. Many of her students had fallen into the foster care system.
These kids often feel alone in the world, Mercedes says. “I took the time to build a relationship and was able to get through to those kids,” she says. “It was very challenging, but my most rewarding year.”
“Students were responding to her,” Taylor recalls. “They were starting to self-regulate or deescalate in terms of getting back into whatever it is they were supposed to be doing.”
By the end of the year, Mercedes recognized that she had a talent for education.
“One thing that made me want to stay was—these kids need me,” she says. “Realizing that I had a gift of connecting with kids. I knew how to build relationships. I knew how to make school fun.”
Magic glasses and comic books
Mercedes spent eight years in classrooms in St. Paul and Spring Lake Park before starting at Jie Ming in the fall of 2020. She’d gotten to know Bobbie Johnson, the principal of Jie Ming, when the Chinese immersion school shared a building with Hamline Elementary; she’d sent her own sons there. Now, she would be working in the same school as her older kids.
After nearly a decade in a classroom, Mercedes had mastered the art of connecting with students. As a behavior specialist, she knew how to identify students’ strengths and channel their energy into leadership opportunities.
But there was one challenge she had yet to surmount: starting at a new school during distance learning.
“I didn’t know the kids, I didn’t have that relationship, and it was so hard to build that relationship virtually,” she says. “I was just frustrated with the education system. I felt like it was old, played out, and boring. I’m a behavior specialist and I have to help the kids, and I get the most challenging kids that don’t want to be at school. So I have to find creative ways.”
Mercedes had already been thinking about entrepreneurship. Before the pandemic, she enrolled in a small-business essentials class through the nonprofit Women Venture (Taylor’s suggestion). She had a dream for a company, Sprinkle My Feet, which would allow people to design their own sneakers. She also created a sneaker-design video game.
“When you have a dream or vision that you’re trying to make, it can sometimes be unbelievable to people,” she says. “But you have to believe in yourself and keep going. It’s also scary because we are programmed to not dream and believe we can do anything we put our mind to.” But the speakers, and the energy of being in a room with like-minded women, motivated her and helped develop her confidence.
Now, she took her cartooning and entrepreneurship talents to the education field. She wrote an animated cartoon called “Black Girl Magic,” about a Black girl learning to be confident in her hair and skin. Another cartoon, “The Magic Glasses,” shows a young girl looking at her neighborhood following the George Floyd uprising. Through her magic glasses, she can see a more positive future.
“The lesson was to teach the kids, whatever you see in your neighborhood or what’s going on in your life, you have the power to change that. But you have to have the vision,” Mercedes says.
“Put on your magic glasses to see what you want to see. What are you going to do about it?”
She uses the cartoon as an educational tool, encouraging students to draw comics about things in their communities that they can change. That may involve leading the kids on trash pickups to clean up their neighborhoods. Or she may present a lesson explaining how kids can make their own magic glasses.
This year, Mercedes wrote and self-published two Black history comic books in her “Black 2 the Future” series. The comics feature lesser-known, real-life African American inventors who pioneered items like fire extinguishers, potato chips, and video games—innovations that kids often see in their daily lives. The drawings are peppered with logos from local Black clothing designers and other Black-owned businesses from today.
In one panel, a child attending the picket lines of a teachers strike finds a guitar. When he touches the guitar, he turns into Prince—a nod to the recently unearthed TV footage of young Prince attending the 1970 Minneapolis teacher strike. The opposite page provides a history lesson about Robert Flemming, Jr., a free African American man who fought in the Civil War and later invented a louder and more resonant guitar called the Euphonica.
Mercedes created initial sketches and wrote dialogue for the books, then hired illustrators from Nigeria and the Philippines to create full-color, detailed panels. She published her first volume in February, in time for Black History Month, and the second in July.
“I know that it’s going to take off really well,” says Reverend Dr. Darcel Hill, who leads the Freedom School program for the St. Paul district. “I have it signed, because it’s going to be a collector’s item. We’re going to hear about her, I believe, like we heard about Stan Lee when he first started with his comic book heroes.”
‘Today’s generation of Mr. Rogers’
In addition to her comics and cartooning, Mercedes cultivates a social media presence to honor students and teachers. She features short videos showcasing educators of color as well as a student “Talent of the Week.”
“My goal is to teach kids to have a soul, a good spirit, and they know what their strengths and talents are,” she said.
Taylor, who specializes in diversity, equity, and inclusion, has seen how the field often plays out in public as research and theory. Mercedes brings a crucial, often missing element: fun. “I really believe that if our classrooms were more culturally responsive, and students were having fun while learning,” Taylor says, “our classrooms and our schools and school systems would be very different.”
For Mercedes, creating online platforms that highlight students’ talents and make learning fun is a way to make kids feel special and cared for—and for her to create a virtual presence as a caring adult.
“Then I’ll be the online teacher in the metaverse, kind of like today’s generation of Mr. Rogers,” she said. “Actually teaching real things for them to be good people in this world. Just making learning fun.”
Karla Mack, a former St. Paul parent, sees that dynamic at work in Mercedes’s influence on her nine-year-old daughter, Skylar.
At Jie Ming, Skylar acted cautiously with others, often not talking to her teachers for the first several months of a school year. But with Mercedes as Skylar’s mentor, she started to come out of her shell and develop more confidence.
“I felt like Skylar really started to blossom a lot more in school,” Mack says. Her daughter felt more excited to attend, and asked more questions in class. When Mack’s family moved to Texas this summer, Mack reached out to Mercedes to give Skylar a pep talk before starting in her new school.
“When you have confidence, that’s a superpower: You can do whatever you put your mind to,” Mercedes says. That’s what she teaches her students: “They are superheroes with superpowers.”
Activating student superpowers
There’s another reason to focus on student talents: it encourages them to stick with activities they enjoy outside of technology.
That’s the focus of Mercedes’s next project, a collaboration with her fiancé: a comic book and animated game about broken robots.
“I feel like in today’s generation, more kids are becoming robots because they’re so addicted to technology,” she said. “Our goal is to have kids want to be a broken robot—which is to be themselves and not what society tells them to be.”
As the school year starts again, Jie Ming students may be looking forward to Mercedes’ creative activities. Once for Chinese New Year, she created a cardboard cutout of a tiger. On another occasion she researched historical landmarks in China and spread them out on the floor. This became a game for students to explore the country, says Bobbie Johnson, the principal.
Just as she encourages her students to lean into their talents, Mercedes is using her own: endless creativity and a strong connection with kids.
Mercedes repeats the mantra she recites for her students: “When you have confidence, it’s a superpower,” she says. “Right now I feel like I’m using my superpower.”