UPTOWN — Anton Mullen’s girlfriend gave birth to a baby boy near the start of the school year, making the Uplift Community High School student an 18-year-old father.
His family was not thrilled about him becoming a teenage parent, but Uplift geometry teacher Zain Bullie visited Mullen at home one fall night with money and gifts for the newborn child.
"He was there for me when most of my family was not even there — it was loyalty that he showed to me,“ Mullen said. “A lot of other teachers wouldn't even care what I do.”
Bullie, 38, is one of the few black male teachers serving the predominantly black and low-income student body at Uplift. He lives in Uptown with his three sons and wife, Jacinda, co-founder and co-director of the acclaimed socially conscious Kuumba Lynx urban arts education program.
Bullie is a tall man with a cool and confident disposition who is prone to smile. He was born to working-class parents, grew up in Auburn Gresham and Calumet Park, and graduated from Thornwood High School in the south suburbs.
In the four years he's taught at Uplift, 900 W. Wilson Ave., Bullie said he has established nurturing relationships with many students.
That includes, he said, those who are “heavy in the streets,” and associated with people headed down dangerous paths in life.
Mullen, the young father, used to be in that category, Bullie said. Now, he’s playing varsity football at Uplift and “getting his life on track.” That includes thinking about the future of his family, with plans of attending college.
The student and teacher have known each other since Mullen was in eighth grade. Mullen “looks to me and talks to me like he’s my son," and asks a lot of “questions about life,” Bullie said.
Bullie’s position as one of the few black men teaching at Uplift puts him in an important role, said his wife, because it’s important for young black people to “see themselves in different roles in society.”
“It’s still important to see that there’s black people doing everything," she said.
Her husband is a “calm and peaceful” compliment to her fiery personality, she said. He shows a strong sense of responsibility and takes few days off work because he has "a lot of kids watching him.”
The couple met in 1998 during a martial arts lesson at a South Side mosque. They said they married following a three-month courtship that included open mic poetry events, plays, dinners and the birth of a strong spiritual bond.
At the time, Bullie was an administrative office assistant at the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. That followed a stint studying electrical engineering at Morehouse College. But after he and Jacinda married, friends of hers who taught at Uplift inspired him to seek a career in the classroom.
He enrolled at Northeastern Illinois University as an undergraduate student to study mathematics and post-secondary education, graduating in 2006. He taught math at Ames Middle School from 2007 until 2009, when he joined Uplift.
The teacher said he has referred about a dozen students from Ames to Uplift, and that he is particularly proud of one of them — Humboldt Park resident Tanya Smith, who graduated from Uplift in June.
Smith, 19, was one of the teen poets who won a citywide poetry slam earlier this year as part of the Kuumba Lynx Performance Ensemble.
She praised the Bullies, who she considers a second set of parents, for being “very influential,” people in a sometimes-troubled neighborhood that they’ve decided to live in despite the stigma associated with it.
Both husband and wife are committed to reaching out to at-risk youngsters, “and trying to get them to do something positive in their lives,” said Smith, who is taking classes at Kennedy King College with aspirations of transferring to the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Bullie admits that everyone he has mentored has not turned into a success story, and says that his wife knows kids who were in Kuumba Lynx when they were 9 or 10 “but now they’re gangbanging.”
“The challenges are when people don’t turn out the way you’d like them to turn out,” he said.
His responsibility “is to deliver a message, let kids know they have my love," he said, "and if they decide to get it together, they know that I got their back."