Timeica Bethel has experienced a lot in her 23 years. A teacher at LEARN’s Romano Butler campus in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood, she overcame poverty and a difficult upbringing to become an Ivy League graduate, garnering attention from the media, city leaders, and famed Princeton scholar Cornel West, who is now her mentor.
But even with all the attention, Bethel is always on task, ensuring that the young people before her in the classroom – many of whom are in the same situation as she was not long ago – are able to take advantage of the same opportunities that she did.
Bethel is on task, even during a phone interview for this story, which she interrupts a few times in order to get her third-graders situated and ready to work and to speak with a parent about her concerns with a student.
“Voices off in 5…4...3…2…”
“Yes, ma’am, I think your son’s behavior is mirroring some of the problems we’ve seen in the past.”
Raised in the LeClaire Courts Section 8 housing projects near Midway Airport, Bethel’s childhood story reads like an all-too-familiar tale of urban hopelessness: an absentee father and a mother with substance addictions, both of whom left her and her siblings at a very young age to be raised by their grandmother.
However, exposure to poverty, drug deals and violence during her formative years was not enough to stifle Bethel’s natural curiosity about the world outside of LeClaire’s 24 square blocks: she maintained straight A’s and was ranked first in her class at Phoebe A. Hearst Fine Arts Magnet School. That academic distinction scored her the Daniel Murphy Scholarship, which provides financial assistance to economically struggling Chicago students to attend high school.
Bethel originally intended to use the scholarship to attend Providence St. Mel School on the west side -- not too far from LeClaire. But last-second enrollment problems led to her being without a high school to go to less than a couple weeks before the beginning of the school year.
Enter Francis W. Parker School in Lakeview, a good hour-and-a-half bus ride from LeClaire. Luckily, the school had an extra slot for her. She hadn’t even heard of Parker before, so adaptation had to come quickly.
“There was culture shock that first week,” she said. “There were couches in the hallway, and I didn’t understand how people were dropping their kids off in BMWs and Porsches.”
Bethel said the shock didn’t last very long, as Parker – which has a Pre-K-12 program that many of the school’s students see all the way through – embraced her with open arms.
“I felt super welcome; super accepted,” she said. “Even though I hadn’t been there for 10 years as many of my classmates had been, they still accepted me. Everyone was nice and didn’t treat me differently.”
Bethel, who’d never used a computer before attending Parker, credits the school with giving her the tools to get accepted into Yale University in 2007. When boarding the plane for New Haven, Conn., she brought with her a healthy amount of excitement, nervousness … and indecisiveness.
She started off in pre-med because she has always loved science, and also, she admits, because she wanted to “make enough money to get her family out of the projects.” Her med school aspirations ended when she found the impersonal, 500-person lectures to be too stifling for her.
The following year, Bethel moved into pre-law. But as much as she liked reading case law, a summer internship at a corporate law office in Chicago clashed with her familial inclinations. Law school also fell off her radar.
“I’m a real big family person, and I saw all the attorneys getting to work so early and staying so, so late,” she said. “I wanted to have a family someday and be able to spend time with them.”
Junior year started off with Bethel “lost and confused” about what to do next. It was ultimately that lengthy bus ride to Parker – and the many intriguing things she saw in the transition between the two disparate environments – that informed her decision to ultimately finish with a Bachelor of Arts in sociology.
“During that [bus] ride, the faces I saw changed; the people I saw changed, and so did the landscape,” she said. “I majored in sociology because I wanted to learn more about different kinds of people and their interactions.”
Her final year at Yale took Bethel abroad to Kenya to study East African history before ultimately applying to the Teach For America program in 2011. After so many changes in studies and uncertainty about the future, it was her great-grandmother – a former teacher – whom she said pushed her to finally settle on education.
“She passed away at the end of my junior year of college, so I wanted to do something to follow in her footsteps,” she said. “Plus, I loved school my whole life; it was a way to escape my home life by focusing on reading and academics.”
In March 2011, shortly before graduation from Yale, the Chicago Tribune caught wind of Bethel’s story, turning her into a minor local celebrity. She appeared on MSNBC’s “The Martin Bashir Show,” Fox Chicago News and Michael Eric Dyson’s radio show. She served as Cornel West’s escort during his visit at Yale’s Black Solidarity Conference just a month earlier; she now speaks with him on the phone every couple of weeks.
Bethel also recently caught the attention of Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard during a recent two-day National Partnership for Educational Access (NPEA) conference in mid-April, where she spoke on a panel espousing the benefits of the Daniel Murphy Scholarship.
"Timeica is living proof that being born into poverty and success in academics and in life are not mutually exclusive things," Brizard said. "I can't think of a better person to stand in front of our young people every day and encourage them to succeed. She's not just a teacher, but a role model as well."
“My goal is to get all my students accepted to Yale,” Bethel said. “I want them to be Francis Parker-ready, able to compete with peers in schools like that. I try to prepare them as much as possible.”
It’s that passion for success that led Robin Johnson, her principal at LEARN, to hire her on the spot following her interview; something she’s done for only one other teacher in her career.
“I really felt she would be able to connect with the students, and that she had the skill set to take them beyond where they are,” Johnson said. “I wanted the students to see someone who could come from a particular community and be successful. I knew she could be that example.”