|By Tanya Pinto, Canada [ Published Date: January 11, 2004 ]|
I received an e-mail from Laura the other day. She said she was coming down to Kingston for a leadership high-school seminar, and she wanted us to get together for coffee or dinner. Before getting into medical school in Kingston, I had a brief stint at teaching. I worked for a teaching agency for students from private/public schools where we would teach students in small groups or privately one on one. Laura was one of my students and I was her Math and Science tutor.
Laura was recommended to our agency because she was having difficulty in Math and Science, more particularly with Math. She had barely passed her mid-term Math exam and her teacher felt that she needed tutoring without which she thought Laura would not pass. In my experience at the time, most students who had low marks were actually quite capable of getting high marks. The problem with them was that they simply did not reach their potential because they would rather spend their time doing other things, everything else other than study. They were often apathetic about their marks and I would battle their indifference and hostility almost on a daily basis. Getting them to do any extra work was a chore and I often tired of sounding like a nagging mother and being a child psychologist. So, when I was told that I would be getting a new student who was a “low achiever”, I had automatically assumed I would be working with yet another bratty, attention-needy, kid.
But as I started working with Laura, I found that she was nothing like the preconceived notions I had of her. She was by far the sweetest student I had come across. Whatever homework I would give her, would always be completed without any harassment on my part. She would listen attentively and learn diligently. She was not a quick learner and she would mostly get her sums wrong but we would go over it again and again till she got it right. It was obvious to me after a few sessions with her that it was not a lack of commitment to learning that was an issue but rather her understanding of the problems at hand. In time, I felt with hard work she could bring her marks up to a decent standard. And as far as her personality was concerned, she had the sunniest disposition for any 15 year old I had ever seen. She would laugh heartily and chatter away about the latest hoopla over the new boy and girl bands. She would show me her latest essays in English and History and talk to me of her travels. Her cheerful ways endeared her to me and I always remembered our teaching sessions being a rewarding time with Laura being her fun usual self except for this one time.
It was a cold snowy evening in April and Laura was to be my last student of the day. Laura had come on time as usual but right from the beginning I knew something was wrong. She had not smiled once and she was not her usual chatty self. She sat listening to my lecture on polynomials in silence. I had asked if anything is wrong and she replied “No”. I decided not to press the issue although something was clearly bothering her. I continued to talk and then I stopped mid-way in sentence as I noticed tears rolling down her cheek.
“What is wrong, Laura? Tell me what is wrong?” I pleaded with her as I watched tears fall uncontrollably, dotting the papers in front of her.
“I have no future,” she said quietly with her eyes full.
“I got another C on my Math exam and my Math teacher had another talk with me today and she told me that if I keep doing things this way, I will have no future. She says that I don’t study. That if I studied I would get better marks. But I do study, I study and study and try so hard. But I still don’t do well and I don’t know what to do anymore. She is going to talk to my parents again and Daddy’s going to get mad at me again. I hate myself.”
I sat stunned, taking in all she had said. The Math teacher had said that she had no future because of her C’s in Math? I thought about all her great qualities. Her persistence and determination, her people-skills, her ease with different languages, her sweet disposition. If you asked me whether I saw Laura as a neurosurgeon or an aerospace engineer, I would have to say “No”. Heck, I do not think I saw her as any kind of scientist or engineer considering the way her mind struggled through the problems of science and Math. But if you asked me if I saw her as a historian, a social worker, a teacher I would say “Yes” emphatically. Of course she had a bright future ahead of her. Maybe not in the traditional professions of Science, Engineering or Math that many are steered into but that is only one slice of the pie, not the whole. What her Math teacher said to her was inexcusable far from the truth and instead of encouraging Laura to learn, she was de-motivating her.
“Laura, listen to me, I think you have a great future ahead of you. Let me explain to you why I think that,” I said in response. I began to explain to her my thoughts on her situation. I knew she had a great future ahead of her because I never saw her give up on anything. She obviously struggled with Math and Science but never once did I see her complain about the work, or question the usefulness of its applications. She always did her homework, always listened attentively and always completed her homework. It is always easy to score high marks and cruise through a subject if a student has a predilection or a gift for Math and Science but what if you are a student who cannot understand a word of Math or Science, a student who has difficulty with it but nevertheless spends hours upon hours sifting through solutions? Does the determination and persistence in matters of hardship not say volumes about the brightness of the future ahead of that student? After all what is the greatest factor in the determination of success in the future? I am pretty sure most great minds would say it is persistence/determination/commitment. And as far as that was concerned, she had plenty to ensure her a great future.
She had listened intently to me and I was looking at her, searching for signs of confidence and optimism returning to her face. When she smiled and said “Thank you” softly, I knew all was going to be well again. I would have my old student back.
Laura’s final mark in Math was a C+. She has passed and more importantly, she had managed to get a B- on her final exam, which pulled her mark up. Her Math teacher had even commented that she had made good progress in her final exam, which had pleased Laura immensely. I kept in touch with Laura after I had moved away to university and now I was learning from her e-mail she was going to go to university herself. I was looking forward to meeting her for coffee.
As I sat with Laura in the coffee shop, I noticed she had not changed. She still had an infectious laugh, she was still sweet and giving, and she still had a problem with Math which as she put it “I am thankfully never going to have to take ever in university”. She was now learning Spanish and had a newfound interest in Mayan culture. She was going to South America in the summer to work on a Mayan dig. She will be studying history in university, and major in Mayan history. She wants to become an expert on Mayan history and write books on the topic. I smiled as I listened to all her plans and heard the passion in her voice as she spoke.
There was no doubt in my mind. She indeed had a great future ahead of her.