Gunderson High School. It has been a second home to me for the past twelve years. Maybe that's why I am so proud, yet at the same time oddly defensive when someone asks me where I teach. That immediate protection I throw up comes of years of sympathetic, albeit misguided responses. "Is it a hard school to teach at?" "Oh, are the kids rough there?" "You must have a lot of patience."
Yes, I do have a lot of patience, and teaching in general always has its challenges. However, this applies to any school in any district. We have diverse population with students coming from all walks of life. Those "rough" kids are kind, thoughtful, and compassionate individuals that have experienced hardships I couldn't have imagined at their age. It has been a blessing to teach them as I have learned from my students as much as they have learned from me, if not more so. I've grown to be more open-minded and empathetic, and they have taught me that success looks different for every individual—there's no right path to achieving it.
Markus Wright is a barber based in San Jose, CA and a Gunderson Class of 2013 alum. Markus took beginning photography his junior year, my first year as a teacher. I would hear his laughter ring through the corridor before he even made it to my door. His joy was one of the highlights during my early years in education and also a highlight of this series. On my first visit to Markus' barber shop, I witnessed that joy still on full display. The same laughter that lit up my classroom ten years ago echoed through the hallways of Sola Salon, immediately letting me know which direction I needed to go.
Seeing Markus in his work environment brought me back ten years. When many of his peers were discussing which college was their top choice, Markus was cutting hair behind the bleachers after school. I vividly remember him asking if he could borrow a stool from my classroom. I didn't know at the time that he was looking for a barber chair, so naturally I said no. I share this memory with my current students often because achievement doesn't need to just be reflected on a report card or verified with a college acceptance letter. It is an individual's ambition that will ultimately determine their success. Dedication to a craft, whether it leads to a lucrative job or not, is a great starting recipe to happiness.
Markus credits his parents for the direction of both his professional and personal life. Markus' father, Mark Wright, is also a barber and currently runs his own barbershop in Pittsburg, CA.
Mark never pressured his son to follow in his footsteps but rather encouraged the opposite. However, Markus loved spending time in the barbershop as a kid and fell in love with the atmosphere. People didn't just come to get their hair cut but also socialize and enjoy each others company. Markus describes a barbershop as a place where he learned to be a man from Mark—a place where he was taught to speak with his head up and make eye contact, to be kind and respectful to others, and to carry himself with confidence. And do it all with a smile.
Markus carries that mindset in his own business today; when asked what he enjoys most about the profession, he tells me it is the relationships he's built with his clients. He's worked hard to build up a clientele in San Jose, but that journey hasn't been short of challenges. After barber college, Markus worked his way up at a local shop in Willow Glen. Two years after, he opened his own Wright Cuts, a beautiful shop located on Park Avenue. Unfortunately, Covid-19 restrictions forced Markus to downsize into a smaller and more affordable space in October 2021. We visited his old shop (now an architectural design firm), and he painted a picture of the past.
Beaming with pride, Markus describes the community he built. The shop would open at 9am sharp with three other barbers and two braiders working for him. He would collaborate with his neighbors, buying and selling their hair products to promote each others businesses. Once a week, Markus would BBQ in the little backyard behind their shop. People would come and hang out after a fresh cut, but everyone was welcome. He made his mark in the neighborhood—quite literally as well—as he cemented one of his clipper blades into the sidewalk.
I could tell that reliving the stories of what he describes as his dream shop is bittersweet for Markus, but whether it is in his own shop or renting a room in Sola Salons, Markus brings positive energy everyday. I loved seeing him talking and laughing with his clients, as not much has changed since he was in high school—he was still spreading joy to others.
His current setup at Sola Salon is temporary until he finds another lease that is suitable for his new shop. Sola Salon is a professional establishment where various hairstylists and barbers can lease a room. The halls and rooms have a sterile feel to them, but when you step into Markus' shop, the atmosphere and decor embraces you right away, and it drips with Markus' personality. I often joke that I feel old yet somehow stay young because of my students. One example of this is the use of slang; every year, there is a new word or phrase that has me scratching my head. Markus' word in 2012 was "raw." When we went over a particularly compelling image in class or I demonstrated a technique that he liked, I would bet money that the first words out of his mouth were going to be "that's raw!"
Imagine my delight when I first saw his slogan on his business card: "If It Ain't Raw, It Ain't Wright."
Style is nothing without substance though, and while Markus' shop has that swag (another word he taught me back in 2012...don't cringe as you imagine me saying it out loud), it is backed up with collaboration, hard work, and attention to detail. He works with his friend, Austin, side-by-side. Getting to know Austin and his relationship with Markus has also been insightful. They joke around often—trash talking in fantasy football, bringing up an embarrassing moment, etc—but the foundation of their friendship and business partnership is built on mutual respect. Austin would bounce a question over to Markus during a cut, and Markus would answer in stride. When a client is running late, Austin immediately offers to help cover to avoid a backlog. The ease of their working relationship adds to the ambiance of the shop, and I see the community Markus described previously a little more clearly now.
While Markus credits his father's influence for his career choice, he speaks emotionally on how he gets his joyous, larger-than-life personality from his mother. Aside from Markus wanting to pursue a career as a barber, the other fact I knew from the start was how close he was to his mom. During the end of his junior year, I saw a change in Markus. The contagious laugh would be missing some days. Other days, he would ask to step outside and take an important phone call. While these changes never affected his kindness toward others, I did noticed a lack of focus at times in class.
That's when he told me his mom was in the hospital. She was diagnosed HIV positive when Markus was in fifth grade, and it had taken a turn for the worse. Markus and his sister, Jaszmine, were living with his mom at the time; I couldn't imagine the burden for them as they took on the responsibility of caring for her. The phone calls, the absences from school, and the tired expressions came from late nights in the hospital and early drives to school the next morning.
She passed right after his high school graduation. Markus describes how the joy he exhibits was inherited from his mom, and that there's a void that cannot be filled since her passing. "She would loved to see all this, Ms. Cheung. Like you don't know...my mom was my biggest supporter."
I know that his mom would be so proud of the man Markus has become. It's evident not just in his career, but in the relationships he has built. After his mom's passing, he and his sister continued to live together and make ends meet, despite his dad wanting them to move in with him. Tragedy brought them closer and sharing the loss he felt made them inseparable. Coming from a small family, Markus now refers to his friends as his village. "What I was going through made us closer. When I hurt, they also hurt for me. I realized that they are my family."
That village came over to Markus' place as the Niners and Eagles battled it out for the NFC Championship. Markus, like myself, is a huge Niners fan. We both were so excited for the possibility of our team heading to the Super Bowl, that I found it hard to focus on anything but the game. Luckily, I was still able to capture moments throughout of love, excitement, and outrage—sometimes all at once. That's football for you.
A couple of his friends didn't share the same love for our Bay Area team. His roommate, Mikey, took the crown that day as an Eagles fan, dressed head to toe in green. If you watched the game, you can probably guess how Mikey acted the majority of the time: a lot of cheering, a lot of smack-talking, and celebrating the big W at the end. Markus would look at Mikey, shake his head, and laugh. Rivalry or not, they always remember to lift each other up.
There's an abundance of love, passion, and dedication that surrounds Markus. It is apparent not only in his work, but the way he lives. I am very fortunate to have met him during my first year as an educator and grateful that he keeps in touch. I reached out to Markus when I first wanted to start this series, because he was one of the first students that made me rethink the definition of success.
I was taught that success was to get good grades, go to a good college, find a good job, and make good money. In that order. I stepped into the classroom hoping to instill those values in my students and instead learned that overcoming adversity, being passionate in life, and sharing your love with others is what matters most.
So thank you, Markus. Thank you for sharing your full story with me and allowing me to share it with the world. Keep smiling. Keep laughing. It made all the difference in my classroom ten years ago and from the looks of it, you continue to inspire the lives of many today.