When I was in college, I tutored a fourth-grader at a school right across the street from my apartment. This was in a pretty bad part of Berkeley with a lot of really run-down houses, dead cars in unpaved driveways slowly being absorbed by the earth, their wheels halfway sunken in. There must have been crack dealers next door because there was always one guy or another posted on the street corner looking out for cops. My apartment building was new and pretty nice, but the school across the street wasn’t a good one. I wrote a little essay about my tutoring project and sent it around to my family.
I post this essay now because it kind of ties in to my previous two posts. It addresses a question the Tiger Mother might never ask, which is: what about the kids who aren’t on top, don’t get As, and in fact are way, way behind?
My tutoring gig – spring, 1992
I tutor a little black kid named Eddie Michaels [not his real name]. Today I picked him up from his classroom right after school, which is an established way of making a student feel important. Interestingly, it’s cool to have a tutor at this school, because lots of kids need one and there aren’t enough to go around. When I showed up, I heard several kids in Eddie’s class ask, “Who’s that man there?” and then Eddie said proudly, “He’s my tutor.” Walking down the hall with him is fun because he’s only about three feet tall; I keep thinking I’m going to trip over him or something. It reminds me of how my old physics teacher used lengths of stride as a means of teaching us about wavelengths. I walk along: klunk . . . klunk . . . klunk. By my side, Eddie: clop clop clop clop clop.
At the start of each tutoring session, the tutor and his student fill out a Work Plan Report. This is apparently a result of the education system’s inherent love for paperwork and bureaucracy. I admit to having lost a whole stack of Tutor Orientation Information handouts before having even looked at them prior to my first day on the job. (My student hasn’t seemed to have noticed.) The first question on the Work Plan Report is, “What is the Work Plan today?” I hand the form to Eddie to fill out. This may be a slight breach of tutorial procedure; the other tutors in the library with us fill out the forms themselves. Perhaps the Tutor Orientation literature specifies that the paperwork be done by the tutor, so that it is complete and accurate. I am stubborn, however. To the question “What is the Work Plan today?” Eddie has written, “Homework.” Now he is on the next question, “How will this be accomplished?” and he writes, “Good.” I make him change it to “Well,” and suggest a complete sentence, but do not require him to eliminate his brevity. After all, Hemingway himself would have probably written “Well.” Now we turn to the task at hand: Eddie is having problems with his multiplication.
I understand his anguish, for I too struggled with this as a kid. All they would do is give me test after test, using my failure as a whip to crack on my back. I remember my first multiplication quiz: I raised my hand when I was unable to do the first problem. “Three‑times‑two. What’s the answer?” asked the teacher. I felt like saying, “If I knew that I wouldn’t have raised my hand!” but I knew better than to be a wiseguy. Instead I put on my most pitiful, lugubrious face in hopes she would simply give me the answer. It worked: “It’s six. Three‑times‑two is six.” She walked away, and I sat there scratching my head, wondering how to compute the next one. Four‑times‑eight. No idea. Okay, let’s see what ol’ teach did on the first problem: nothing obvious. No numbers carried, nothing up her sleeve. Must be simple. Okay, let’s go with what I know. Three‑times‑two is six. Three‑plus‑two is five. Aaaaah, I got it. When you multiply, you simply add the numbers together and add one. So four‑times‑eight is four‑plus‑eight‑plus‑one, or thirteen. No problem.
The rest of the test was a piece of cake. I was the first to hand my paper in, while all the other students tore their hair out and cursed under their breaths, as lost as I had been. I handed the teacher the test and said something smug, like “Nooooooo problem!” After getting chewed out, I returned to my seat, now thoroughly demoralized and confused, and did what any respectable elementary school student would do: I cheated off the guy next to me. His answers were all wrong too, as were everybody else’s, so the teacher groaned, realized that she’d somehow wound up with another class full of idiots, and resorted to ceaseless repetition in teaching us multiplication.
From then on we were tested daily, starting out multiplying everything by one, then by two, and so on, according to our proficiency. Only a perfect test could move a student up to the next level, and we were given only two minutes to complete each test. The time limit, I suppose, was aimed at stopping certain students from deliberating (since computation, as we had already proven, was fruitless—memory alone was our only hope of learning).
It took me forever—many weeks, I think—to “learn” my threes. Three‑times‑eight was the hardest of all. To give myself extra time to compute this quotient, I used to fill in the rest of the test in tiny, faint numbers before the teacher said “GO!” so I could transcribe the easy ones quickly, and then get to work on three‑times‑eight. Once I finally got past that milestone, my friend John Gilman stuck out his hand and said, “Welcome to the fours!” At first I thought he said “force” and assumed he was making a reference to “Star Wars,” which was big that year and distracted all of us from our schoolwork. Once I understood what he was actually saying—I had to memorize the fours now—I was furious. I’d gotten nowhere—just to a harder set of problems. This continued all the way up to the tens, which fortunately were easy.
By this time, the teachers were exhausted and never bothered to test us on the elevens and twelves. Of course, they somehow expected us to know them anyway and whenever a student stumbled on eleven‑times‑three or twelve‑times‑six he was a goner. It was at that time that some mathematics genius taught me a trick on the elevens—to just write the number twice—and this changed my way of thinking about multiplication. I realized you could develop a method to figure these things out, and it wasn’t just memorization. Extensive brainstorming taught me a little trick for multiplying by twelves: simply multiply the number by eleven, and then add it to the ensuing quotient. Twelve‑times‑six: eleven‑times‑six (sixty‑six) plus six, or seventy‑two. It was a miracle to me: I had just taught myself in five minutes what the teachers had never taught me after weeks and weeks of effort.
This all comes flooding back to me in my tutoring, when I learn that Eddie Michaels cannot multiply by twelves. I take about five minutes to explain the little trick I picked up, and the moment is as magical for him as it had been for me. When I quiz him, I can see the little gears turning in his head, his lips spelling out “sixty‑six, plus six, is ...” (and then he shouts) “SEVENTY‑TWO!” Upon my verification of his answer, he jumps into the air, his arms outstretched in the victory salute of a bicycle racer or the “touchdown” signal of a football referee (more likely the case), and he whoops with joy.
As the teachers bring around the juice and cookies, I realize we’ve barely got time to fill out the Work Evaluation Report. This one is aimed at the student, but Eddie seems stumped at the first question, “What did you learn today?” and looks to me for input. I tell him, “You learned how to multiply by twelve, didn’t you?” He writes his answer and goes on to the second one: “What did your tutor learn today?” Wanting not to merely transcribe my answer to him, I now speak as if to a third party: “I learned that Eddie is pretty smart.” He “overhears” my comment and writes down his answer. Filing his form, I see that he has answered the first question “You learned how to multiply by twelve,” and the second, “I learned that Eddie is pretty smart.” I let it go, even though I could be found guilty of dictating answers to a student. Oh well.
Now, it’s time for the big payoff: the Wonderbuck. The tutors fill out blank checks, writing in the amount of one to five Wonderbucks, according to the performance of the student. (Tutors, unfortunately, do not receive Wonderbucks, or bucks of any kind for that matter.) Today Eddie was on time, stayed on task, finished his homework, and did two other Wonderful things which I can’t remember right now. It is pretty much understood that every student gets all five Wonderbucks every day. These bucks are filed in a special folder by the tutor to be redeemed at some later date by the student (probably in exchange for more juice and cookies).
But today I feel like Eddie has made a major breakthrough, which calls for more money. After all, ours is a Capitalist society, and for every student to earn five Wonderbucks regardless of his performance would be downright Communist. But now I am faced with a dilemma: were I to take up the matter with the higher‑ups, challenging the status quo, I would certainly have my request denied—and poor Eddie would learn the futility of politics at far too young an age. Instead, I eschew morality and slyly swipe an extra Wonderbuck carelessly left on the supply table by an overworked teacher, and fill it out for the total of five extra Wonderbucks. Winking to Eddie, I drop it in his folder. His eyes light up, and his hand covers his mouth in universal child sign language for “I won’t tell!” I whisper in his ear, “That’s for learning your multiplication,” and he nods his understanding. He knows he’s earned it.
As soon as you finish reading this, I want you to chew it up and swallow it. That’s because if it were to fall into the wrong hands, I would be arrested and punished for the crime of Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor, having admittedly stolen Wonderbucks in the presence of a child. “How could you corrupt him like that?” you might ask.
Look, my approach is purely pragmatic. If this kid is going to get anywhere in the educational system, he’s going to learn how to be results-oriented. I am hoping to rebuild Eddie’s conception of performance versus reward. Not all tutors do this. Many hope to win over their students (who can often be ornery and uncooperative) by bringing them food or gum before the lesson. Then, the cookies and juice are brought out after it, followed in rapid succession by the Wonderbucks, whether or not the student has done well. These students are smart: they won’t work if they don’t have to. You think I’d work at the bike shop all week if my paycheck didn’t depend on it? No chance.
Of course it’s difficult juggling my own schoolwork with a part time job and this tutoring. But it’s worth it, as I decided on my first day as a tutor when I arrived late, sweating and out of breath, having ridden my bike flat-out coming straight from a midterm exam. I explained to Eddie why I was late: I wanted to take as much time as possible on the test so that I would do well. For me, “doing well” means getting an A. My student, however, follows a different standard: he asked me, “Do you think you passed ?”
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