Tutoring: a Joy and a Challenge

My nephew has been my student since he was ten. He is now fifteen. Few aunts and nephews know one another as we do.  He has watched my health deteriorate, yet treats me like a hero. I have watched him struggle with ADHD challenges, and I consider him a hero. We have been known to work together six hours a day for three days in a row, then do it again a week later, for mid-terms, for finals, for other things in between. We have tackled together Spanish, History, Math, Algebra I, Religion (he is in a Catholic school and neither of us is Catholic), Integrated Science, Chemistry, Biology, and English. I think that covers it pretty much.

When he was in public school, his mom and I watched the town inbred system start to choke the exuberance and creativity out of him. We watched it in his eyes. Adam is a musician, a dancer, a dreamer. Since he was small, it seemed as if he was a brand new soul to this earth. EVERYTHING new excited him. We called him snack boy for a while. By three, he knew how to work the private beach, flitting among blankets at just the moment that families opened the coolers, the baskets, the bags. He would giggle and run off with the snack of the moment. His parents recognized this as a great help with the budget. He was never hungry for dinner. He was such a light among other lights, the families did not mind feeding him. He was a born storyteller and could work the world as if he were working a room.

But schoolwork held some problems for him. Serious problems. Adam was born with extremely mild spina bifida, which presented challenges. He also was very much a tactile and audial learner. When one sat next to him, and had a hand on his shoulder, he focused pretty well. He had short-term memory glitches, so that if he worked too long, he could not recall bits of information he’d known cold an hour before.

I learned his patterns in elementary school. Adam was also adopted from Bolivia, and was growing up in a town whose prejudices were barely disguised… that is, when people bothered to even try to suppress them.

It was and is a society that had learned to label squirmy boys as ADHD and drug them to quiet them down. Adam’s mom did not care to do this to him. It was hard enough to see some of the light dim as Adam tried and failed at every team sport around. “I just don’t have the killer instinct, Mom,” he’d say. And his mom was not a woman who cared to foster that in him. Competition was one thing; winning at all costs, another.

By fifth grade, she decided to try him at the school he still attends. For Adam, it was the right choice, though not a perfect choice. We do not all have the money to access the perfect choice. His mom felt glad she could access any other school. Even there, however, Adam chose to keep his dancing, acting, and even his violin-playing under wraps for a couple of years. It was then that I began to work with him on a regular basis.

He was diagnosed with ADHD and some other learning idiosyncrasies, but it was not until halfway through the year that his mom finally decided to try medications. Fortunately, they helped him. They quieted the noise in his head, and he did not have the side effects others had. In fact, Adam became more confident during the seventh grade. He recognized they helped. His grades began to be consistently of honor roll caliber.

I was working with him one day, as we acted out the difference between revolutions and rotations, when discussing planetary action. I was the sun, of course. His mom was earth, he was the moon, and his sister chose to be Pluto, so she could be coolly apart from us.

We were prepping for his final exams. He turned to me and said, “I’m really not a stupid kid, am I. Why did they make me feel like I was a stupid kid?” His dark eyes were shiny and I had no acceptable answer.

I said, “There is absolutely no answer that makes sense or isn’t cruel. You have nothing to do with stupid. I am so proud to be your aunt and your tutor. I love working with you.”

I do not think there has been even one time when he has acted as if our work together was burdensome to him. I have never seen or known of a kid more willing to spend hours with his tutor, studying, writing, talking things out.

Well this past weekend, we had to do a research paper. He is a sophomore and his whole class was assigned a ten page research paper, their first, about a month ago. Their teacher did not discuss the process. She did not ask for a thesis statement. She did not talk about what was involved with outlining or index cards or drafts. She simply told them, three days before their spring vacation last week, that the paper would be do the Wednesday after their break. She told them, when they asked questions, to simply refer to the twenty-page style manual. She collected no work during the process.

Her tests were consistently drawing low C’s and D’s from nine out of eleven students, but since two students got B’s or A’s, she’d discount the rest of the children as lazy. One of the achievers has a photographic memory–or whatever that is called now. The other is younger than the rest and has an IQ off the charts. She is not in the honors section because of a scheduling conflict. We have watched Adam’s self-confidence sink bit by bit, as this English course ate into his time for other work. This was the year he was to put to use the lessons learned in our years of studying each week together.

Unfortunately, we both realized, along with his mom, that he needed me again to get through the year. And this paper. We spent three days and approximately twenty hours of work together on this paper. Adam needs structure for long assignments. He likes to have steps written out, so he can check them off. None of this is unusual. Frankly, research papers have been taught in the same way since the 1950s. Step by step, with the teacher collecting each step, giving feedback and guidance. They hand in a rough draft and then have suggestions for the final. Their citations and bibliographies are TAUGHT. Adam’s class had none of this.

Plus, the assignment itself was vague, and when he asked for help, the teacher simply barked at him to just DO it. And we did. He chose a literature genre, legends, that he’d studied. He chose five legends and we narrowed it down to three. Together, we found–as instructed–a secondary source on each legend. HE found some common threads beyond the definition of legend. There was no time for note cards at this point. We tackled a thesis statement together. We developed a general outline that simply organized the thoughts he expressed to me, and I asked him to write a “garbage draft” and have it ready for us for this past weekend.

In the meantime, I did research as well, just in case we needed more. I read his style manual and the other MLA sixty-page guide she said they should use. When I was done, I was more confused. Fortunately, Adam was not. He’d found a plug in site, where he could put in information and the site spit out the cite. YES.

What is my point? Adam learned NOTHING of how to approach a paper. Next year he will be in Honors English, but, unlike the honors students, he will not have had any guidance in process. What he did learn was how to write a comparative lit. essay. What I learned is that Adam has an unusual talent in assimilating information from many disciplines in creative ways. What he learned was the value of a garbage draft. For the first time in his life, he simply sat at the computer and wrote without censorship. He read all his research, as I suggested, then wrote, referring ONLY to the outline. The draft was more than ten pages, which was perfect.

Together, we hammered out a rough draft which HE had to edit before I did. I had suggested he not worry about a conclusion or more than a rough introduction, until we’d finished the guts. By the end, we were punch drunk.  I made us stop mid-sentence and suggested we go have our dinners. (He went to his dad’s. I stayed with his mom.) I pointed out that Adam often had his best writing moments in the first twenty minutes he returned to work after dinner.

My ADHD “lazy” nephew, the kid his GUIDANCE COUNSELOR said we should just accept as a “C student,” looked at the paper, and in twenty minutes, reworked the introduction and wrote a stunning conclusion without my help. In the process, he had realized he saw a new thread he had followed that, to him, made legend different from myths or ballads or fables. He changed a few sentences in the guts to emphasize this thread and wrote his conclusion in a style that mirrored the introduction, yet stated it in a more forceful, moving way.

He said, “Is this more like what you taught me yesterday about parallel construction?” It was. “Have I made it clear it’s my opinion without using I or me?” He had.

He teared up again and said, “You helped me all along, but I really CAN call it my paper, can’t I!” Indeed he could.

I told him never to let me hear him refer to himself as stupid again. Yesterday, his mom called me. Their teacher was OUT and might be out today. The paper is due tomorrow, Wednesday. The writer of the style manual was filling in and was appalled with SIX of the eleven kids were in tears. They had tried to write the paper, did not understand how to do it, what she wanted, or how to cite. He asked whether they had been taught each step. Nope. He asked whether any had finished their work and just two raised their hands.

Adam was one. The teacher looked at his paper, and smiled at him. Adam admitted immediately that he’d had help, but the teacher hushed him and said, “You ALL should have had help. Adam, this is really good, but I hear you in it. I am glad you had someone to help you, but I recognize your voice.”

It was the first time Adam realized that anyone had heard his voice. He realized that someone thought he was smart, aside from his mom and me. His friends all asked if he could help THEM, even the little girl who was younger. His friends.

And I learned the meaning of perseverance and patience, not because of anything I did, but because of him. HIS work. His willingness to talk about everything he thought, to try every suggestion I offered, to keep at it until it was done. I learned something about legends as a literary form because he taught me.

Sunday night we’d discussed the fact that he was not a loser because he had a challenge. I asked him if he thought I was a loser because I had gotten heavy, now that walking was so hard for me. He’d said, “Of course not. I mean, you keep walking even though it hurts.”

I asked him how that was any different from what HE did? He keeps trying even though it takes his time from what he loves. Even though it takes him longer to learn sometimes. For the first time, I saw that light bulb thing go off. It really DOES look like that.

“I’m not a loser. I’m not stupid. I want to be a teacher, I think. I want to do it right, so kids like me don’t feel the way I’ve felt. I mean, not just ADHD.” And he told me they were studying racisim, slavery, prejudice, in history. And he talked about the racism he’d had to endure, something about which I know NOTHING. Not as he knows it. “I want to teach history, how we got to bad places, so we can not go there any more. I want to make kids feel like you make me feel.”

I think that was the best thing I have ever heard from him or any other child. But just when he and I were starting to feel too sentimental, he looked at me and said, “Well. Unless I decide to be a famous rock star.” And he ran off to play with his X-box.


About jlwriter25

I have been through major life upheavals over the last seven years and, much to my surprise, I find myself following my dreams as I head into my sixtieth year. I am brand new in some ways, though I live inside packaging that is less than stellar to most people. Still, it's my packaging and I've made my peace with the imperfections. The phoenix is my symbol for my life. I hope to read and write the stories of other phoenix boomers as well as my own, or link to other blogs that inspire people to realize that sixty is not done! After fifteen years of working on other people's deadlines to do promotional writings for two major universities, my disability has freed me to fly on my own time now. I have found my voice in words and in paint. I write about my own life and vision, and I paint from nature. I paint from fantasies and dreams in my head. I paint simply for the joy of painting. While I will continue to maintain a highly personal blog elsewhere, I want to inspire and be inspired by life now in this one.
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