three words: high.school.algebra.
For the past year I’ve been tutoring a student named Latisha through our church’s tutoring program. The illiteracy and high school dropout rates in our neighborhood are disheartening to say the least, so rather than shaking my head and thinking about what bummer that is, I decided to tutor a student named Latisha.
I was nervous about tutoring but I quickly bonded with Latisha & we had a great time increasing her vocabulary through playing scrabble, doing multiplication drills (with spiderman flash cards! score!). Tutoring has reminded me that investing in people isn’t always about the results, though helping her succeed in school is a motivation. The longer I tutored her, the more I realized that our relationship was just as valuable as her academic success. I felt great when she got good marks on the homework I helped her with, we had fun sharing our favorite youtube videos with each other- she had never seen Weezer’s “pork and beans” and I indulged her love of Mariah Carey.
Gone are the days of carefree scrabble games and youtube videos. It’s getting serious people. high school algebra serious. Since Latisha began her freshman year of high school this year the stakes are higher, she’s flunking math and has a goal to get her grade up to passing by the end of the semester.
Those of you that know me are laughing right now that I’m her tutor. Why? I can’t think of any better illustrations than the blind leading the blind. I have failed, with a big ref F every single algebra class I’ve ever taken. From high school all the way through undergrad at Michigan State, I have never received a passing grade in a math class. In fact, I had to apply for special permission from the dean of MSU to take a substitute class instead of algebra just so I could graduate. In high school I was diagnosed with dyscalculia, a form of dyslexia that affects math abilities. Though I could excel at other subjects math was my achilles heel. Once I got past the shame and embarrassment from classmates who would mock me for the scarlet letter F that was perpetually on my homework, quizzes or tests, this learning disability actually had some humorous moments.
Like the time when I was doing study abroad in England and took a trip to the Netherlands. Exchange rates were tricky for me to mentally calculate & I had almost figured out the equivalent price in U.S. dollars to the British pound when my friends and I decided to visit Amsterdam for the weekend. The exchange rate there was great, so I didn’t have to worry about overspending. Then we stopped on the way home in Belgium, in Brugge to be exact where the local specialty was mussels. Though I have never enjoyed seafood, I threw caution to the wind; “when in rome!” I thought & ordered what I believed to be a small portion of shellfish at a reasonable price. Here is a picture of what arrived at our table:
It is a cauldron of mussels. The waitress must have thought that I had either a hearty appetite, a ginormous love of mussels, or had no clue what I was ordering and that despite this, it would secure her a large tip. The only time I have ever enjoyed mussels was in Monterey, CA with my aunt at her friend’s restaurant, and I think that might be the last time I’ve ever enjoyed mussels. My friends roared with laughter when they saw my cauldron arrive at the table amidst their sandwiches and petite bowls of soup. I tried to pawn the mussels off on them, feigning generosity and enthrallment at just how good the local delicacy was- “really, you should try it!” I offered. It didn’t work. I was left with a cauldron of mussels, minus three or four, still hungry, and the worst part- it cost $50. When I calculated the exchange rate, somehow I came up with $15, instead of $50, which to a college student who was subsisting on convenience store sandwiches to save up to see the sights in Europe, it felt like a splurge. It was a splurge, waaaay more than I had anticipated. I decided to laugh about it with my friends, feeling bad that I had wasted the food & couldn’t even take it back with me on the bus to London.
Though I’m not helping Latisha calculate exchange rates, something bigger rests in unlocking what the sum of n = with the exponents and quadrilaterals and all that other math-y talk. About 10 minutes in I started to panic and thought “I can’t do this! I can’t be responsible for her failing math!” After a few M&M’s, a confession of my learning disability and some laughter, another student named Barbara came to help us. “Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve studied this stuff? It was 1992!” I tried to offer like it was simply a time lapse rather than a learning disability. Both girls looked at me with raised eybrows “we weren’t even born in 1992!” That made me feel better. Now instead of being incompetent at math, I was incompetent and old.
By the end of our time together, with Barbara’s help we had plowed through most of her worksheet. It still looks like a foreign language to me and I don’t think I’ll be able to offer Latisha much help without someone else as we try to get her math grades up. But I do know I can be there to cheer her along, help her to find resources and pursue her other goals. Just not the goals of being able to divide fractions or calculate exchange rates.