Tales of a Tutor: Student Profile №1

Me in action, during a math tutorial

“I swear if I didn’t have more respect for you, I would just get up and leave.”

The story of how this quote came about needs some much needed context: One of my students, Jason*, had spent more than 10 minutes in the bathroom the previous day — and it wasn’t because he had bowel problems. He knew that by doing so, he’d lose his hallway privileges for a week. So here we are in the middle of a math tutorial, and Jason has got to pee. Like really badly. Like as bad as I had to when I paid my friend 25 bucks to pull over to the side of the road so I could go. (It’s a long story, for a different time.)

Since I could tell how badly Jason needed to go, I decided to ask my boss if it were OK if we made an exception for him. She declined, and I relayed the information back to him. He had this, “You’ve got to be out of your damn mind” look to him, but by this point in the year, he knew that I wasn’t playing around.

That’s when he delivered the aforementioned line — and said all that needed to be said about our relationship. It was one that took the longest to develop, but arguably the one with the greatest payoff.

This isn’t meant to be a hyperbole: Working on the South Side of Chicago at Percy L. Julian High School this past year reminded me of what Mr. Pryzbylewski had to go through in season 4 of HBO’s hit, The Wire.

Out of the 12 students that I worked with intensively this year, more than half came from single family homes, several were/are gang affiliated, a couple had family members that were recently killed, and at least one had a kid their parents weren’t aware of. Not exactly the type of peers I had in my cozy upstate New York suburbs.

Jason checked three out of four of these boxes. (He never mentioned a kid, and it would be unlike him to avoid sharing this if he had one.)

This isn’t info I was aware of on the first day. Or even the first month. With Jason, it took the entire first semester and more for him to see that I actually cared — that I was in his corner when he felt there was no one to turn to. This was huge for him because it seemed like he got off on the wrong foot with the other adults in the building, including his Algebra teacher, the dean and one of my two bosses.

Let’s be clear: He’s not some innocent kid who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The reason he gets in trouble and has poor grades in some of his classes is because he’s not willing to change someone’s initial opinion of him through hard work. Almost as if he shuts down in the face of authority.

I had many talks with him about this negative response to criticism, and because not much changed, I realize I have a long way to go before I can make it as the educator I know I can be.

But back to Math Lab.

Now if this was a script to a movie I’d say that every time Jason walked into the Math Lab classroom he was a completely different person. That he was able to forget about the gang-related troubles that followed him outside the confines of the classroom. That he could be completely focused when one of his uncles and his recently-released-from-prison father had both died within a two-week period. (The details of both were never relayed to me, and honestly, are none of my business.) The truth is that during the course of each week, Jason had good and bad days.

At the beginning of the year he put in minimal work during his bad days; it was a struggle just to get him to solve four or five problems within one class period. And even though I sympathized with him, I knew that math was a great distraction, which is why I pushed him to complete whatever he could while he was in the classroom.

There came a point though, when he simply refused to do anything, and I had to go from “friendly Mr. Sanders” to “Mr. Sanders the disciplinarian.” The latter seems like an oxymoron to anyone who knows me, but as an educator I had to let students know that if they weren’t meeting expectations there would be consequences. Thus, I took him to the dean.

There was a lot that was said during that conversation, but what stands out the most is that for the first and only time during the year, Jason was in tears.

Something changed in him that moment. Yes, he still had his bad days, but I think a part of him saw the consequences of letting his tutor down, and he didn’t want that to happen again.

Little by little, the kid who kept everything close to the vest started sprinkling in details that no other adult in the building was privy to: How he didn’t want to go to his father’s funeral because he didn’t want to see him “like that.” How his mom had sent him over to his uncle’s house to stay out of trouble and how much he hated it.

When he would share this, I’d tell him point-blank, “I’m not a professional in these matters,” before giving him some unsolicited advice. I hoped that he would take it, and once in a while he did: After telling his mom what it was like living with his uncle, she took him back with open arms.

Toward the end of the year, he’d say things like, “This is the only class I like,” or “If it wasn’t for you, I probably wouldn’t come to school” totally off-hand. As if his words didn’t validate the whole reason I wanted to get into education.

Now do I wish that he trusted the actual professionals in the school enough to spill his thoughts? Of course, but it’s a good first step.

Students like Jason are common within the Chicago Public School system. Yes, there are resources for them — counselors and the like — but I felt that I was in a unique position as his tutor to be an important influence in his life. Not only did I see him on a daily basis, but as a math instructor, he knew that I had his academic interests in mind.

We didn’t talk about college as much as I would have liked, but I let him know that if he adjusts his attitude and work ethic he could easily get a scholarship. For starters, Jason is a bright kid. Some other adults in the building might not think so, but he is. His mental math skills and ability to solve complex problems were above average among the students we worked with this year.

So yes, if you look at his report card it might say that he had a D for Algebra, but as I said before with Jason, that doesn’t tell the full story. He had a solid B in my class, and I’m convinced that if he gets his act together, he’ll set himself up for wonderful opportunities down the road.

But since I can’t be with him 24/7, it’s ultimately up to him to determine his path in life.

*Name changed for privacy reasons

Disclaimer: This article was written with permission from Jason’s mother.

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