Sunlight streamed into Room 325, quiet and airy as we walked in on a Friday afternoon. With her usual effortless cheerfulness, she was laughing with a student as they planned an upcoming computer science event. Putting everyone at ease with her excitement and bright smile, computer science teacher Yulia Genkina can be found bouncing around the third floor, endlessly busy, but always optimistic. With a myriad of unexpected passions and professions, Genkina is an amazingly multi-talented individual, whose colorful life is a clear reflection of her unique charisma and character.
Q: What was life like growing up?
A: Growing up as an adult is much different than growing up as a child. I grew up in Russia, so it’s very different from here. I played with things that children aren’t allowed to play with here, like sticks with rusty nails, and I killed rats. It was fun; I was mostly outside all the time skipping school.
Q: As a child, what were your dreams and goals for the future?
A: I was going to be a gangster in Russia because that was the cool thing to do, but I realized, being a girl, it’s not really an ambition you could have there. You gotta be a dude to be a gangster. Then, I wanted to explore art history, to just live in museums, tour museums, and tour cities and go to different cities and look at architecture and things like that. Then, I wanted to be a singer. I was in a band and everything, like I was really into that. And then I wanted to leave the country so bad, so I was like fine, I’ll do math, because only immigrants that know math things and science things are really welcome here. So I was like, ‘yeah, I know math.’ And I got here, and then, I decided that I would do math for a little bit and then I’ll still do art history and history of religion, and then I just ended up in math. You know, all over the place.
Q: What role did your parents play in your goals?
A: Definitely the idea that I’m a gangster. My dad just decided that’s how he would raise me. I was raised by my father mostly, and he’s a tough guy, a tough Russian guy, and fed me all these stories about the gangster life, and I said to myself, ‘Yeah, I’m totally down for that.’ But it was weird, because he was definitely also not, he just thinks that he is. [It was] this world of illusion, that just because I live in a poor neighborhood, I have to be this way.
Q: What was your high school experience like? How different was it from the typical high school experience of a Stuyvesant student or any student today?
A: We don’t have high school in Russia; we have like a school school and only the last two years count as high school, and for that, I got a scholarship to go to a private high school, even though I was like an average C, B student, but they were like, ‘Hey, you’re active and energetic—you should come here. We’re gonna give you a scholarship.’ So, I was on a debate team on TV; I was playing basketball; I was causing all sorts of trouble. It started at 10 in the morning, which was amazing, but it ended at 10 pm because of all the afterschool activities that you were required to do. You’re supposed to kind of run them like your own business, because it was like a business school, so I had like a business training younger kids to be in an econ competition, but I was a poor kid in a private school, you know, so I still kept my gangster vibes and was very aggressive and like, ‘No, you don’t understand me.’
Q: What extracurriculars were you in?
A: I had a band in Russia in high school, and it was like a small school, so everyone knew that I could sing. So they were like, ‘Let’s make a band,’ so we made a band, and it was like a rock band, and I was supposed to learn how to scream on stage and I did. We were doing covers on Cranberry’s stuff and like songs about zombies. Then, my husband and I had a band, and it was completely different, and we had like old-timey music, like country music with a guitar and a violin.
Q: How did that influence who you are today?
A: Honestly, I don’t know. What I tell my teachers, who I barely keep in contact with because I was an awful student, is that ‘Oh, I’m a teacher now,’ and they’re like, ‘What? Somebody let you near children?’ Maybe I grew up with a full sense of rebelliousness that I feel like I still have, but I really don’t. I feel like [rebelliousness] is too much integrated into this society and this system that it’s really just an image at this point.
When and who decided that you should come to the United States? Why?
A: I wanted to leave Russia in high school. I looked at colleges in Europe; I didn’t wanna go to the States—I have too many relatives here, and woah—but Europe doesn’t have scholarships, and my dad said, ‘we’re not paying for your school,’ because school in Russia is free, so I eventually found a school in Russia that works with a school in the U.S., so I figured that’s where I was gonna be going.
Q: What did it feel like when coming to the United States?
A: I was excited. I didn’t really feel very at home in Russia. Like on the one hand I did, but on the other hand, I didn’t quite fit in with the way things were going. Like I always wore bright colors. Places like Petersburg had people who mainly wore gray colors, so I didn’t quite fit in with my colors and my smile. I didn’t choose this personality; I think a part of it was my rebelliousness, and since my dad raised me, he didn’t really have a sense of style, so I experimented a lot with my clothes. Like, I remember in 7th grade, I wore this really pink, sparkly dress that would leave a pile of glitter on my chair every time I got up and a trail of glitter on the floor every time I walked. I loved it. No one said what I could and couldn’t wear, I mean the teachers did tell me, but who cares what they think, because clearly, they’re wrong.
Q: You were in a circus. What drew you into that?
A: So I was in a small town, and the circus was in town, and they had so many after school programs, like the unicycle club, and they were friends with the music store where I worked and where I met my husband, so I got involved just kind of through that community. They taught me how to unicycle, how to juggle, and then they were looking for volunteers, and I had worked at the theater for a few years before that doing lights mostly and some sound, and I was like, ‘I can do all these things. Sign me up,’ so I volunteered for them.
Q: What work did you do in the circus?
A: I [volunteered] backstage, so bringing out swords that would be swallowed onto the stage, or if there are props that need to be brought out, or lights and sound, just backstage, backhand stuff.
Can you solve a Rubix cube?
No, not gonna learn. I don’t want to; that’s it. I mean, there’s math in it, and it makes total sense, but it’s the one thing I don’t wanna invest my time in.
Is there a particular hobby you are most passionate about?
I love working in the theater. I love hands-on things, like I love fixing things or breaking things and decorating things. I kind of just bounce around different activities. I just like doing a lot things, you know like sometimes I’ll sit down and sew a skirt.
How have you continued your talents/interests today as a teacher and outside of school?
Frankly, teaching just eats up your life. But I try when I teach students I’m like, ‘oh do you guys want to learn how to juggle?’ It’s literally the only opportunity I get to like practice continue this activity. It’s nice to see students doing, like I have one student who comes in and juggles all the time, and it’s like I’m practicing through watching her. My husband reminds me to play an instrument now. We just bought a piano, then like he’s like, ‘Why don’t you practice the piano,’ and I’m like, ‘I will.’
Where did you teach before Stuy?
I did just a little bit; I did student-teaching in the South Bronx for a semester, in the Bronx Academy of Letters. That was cool; I really liked it, and then other stuff, it wasn’t like teaching 30 kids teaching, it was like tutoring and teaching small groups and stuff like that, it doesn’t really count.
How did you end up teaching at Stuy?
I didn’t know what to do with my life, [for] a career, and I needed to decide something before I got deported; I needed to find a job that was a solid contribution to society, the United States, and there aren’t enough math teachers, so I decided I was gonna go teach math, but I didn’t like teaching math here because it wasn’t like Russia, and I liked the Russian way more. And then computer science came along, and I was like, ‘that sounds fun, that sounds more relatable, so I just did that.”
What was that transition like for you, going into teaching?
I was like super scared for the first day or year or two, but I’m used to audiences because working in different places, I’m comfortable talking to so many people. [But it still makes sense to be nervous because] English is not my first language, and I mix words up, and I’m still afraid to say stupid stuff, and when you’re standing up in front of a bunch of people singing a song you’ve rehearsed a million times, it is very different.
How do you incorporate your creativity into your teaching?
I try. I’m still beginning in my career, so in the beginning, you try to follow all the standards, and then every year, I add in something new.
How do you feel about the culture at Stuy?
Honestly, I’m worried about it. On the surface, it looks fabulous, but the longer you’re here, the more you realize that the people are nice here because you’re a teacher. God forbid, you’re a school aid or janitor. Like right away, there’s no respect. People are only nice to each other because they’re in a classroom, but outside, all kinds of stuff go on. There’s not enough drive to fix this environment, and there’s no guidance for you guys as students as to why these things are happening or how to fix them, and we as teachers don’t see it, or we just take it as, ‘oh, we don’t have to deal with discipline, so we’re not going to pay attention to the small things,’ but these small things accumulate into big problems.
How do you try to challenge the elitist culture at Stuy?
Actually, we just had our first CyberStuy event to try to [diversify comp sci] a little bit, and it just did not address that at all, because it was the first time we ran it, and we didn’t reach out to the right schools, but I made a lot of contacts there, so I’m hoping to run that event a couple of times a year in the future and reach out to schools that are under-represented, low-income middle schools. There are smart kids everywhere that definitely deserve to be at Stuy, and this school does not represent the demographics of the city at all, and to help fix that or slowly change that, I hope that this event will help. So I’m just starting, and obviously, if there’s some comments I hear in class, I think it’s enough. Like for example, some people just throw around the word ‘racist’ like it’s a joke, and just, you can’t do that with a word. So I think I’ve made enough pauses in class and comments about that so people don’t do it in my class anymore, but I’m convinced that when they come out of the classroom, they’re still gonna use the word. I can do what I can in my classroom, but beyond that, it’s kind of hard.
Do you wish you worked in a less hyper-competitive environment?
Um, no, I like it. Every place has its challenges, so if I go to a less competitive environment, there’s gonna be a million other problems. It’s gonna be the same amount of energy invested into making or trying to make any sort of change.
Do you ever want to start up or do your previous professions again? Do you miss them?
I want to get back to playing music definitely. It was lots of fun, plus we would play out in the restaurants and get free food and drinks. It’s a nice sort of break in like this happy world of music. It was just a nice atmosphere. I like a nice atmosphere where people are just relaxing and enjoying themselves, which is really hard to find in New York City.