Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Kid Whisperer

For obvious reasons, I'm not a big fan of television, but there's this show on the National Geographic channel called "The Dog Whisperer". I love it. For those of you who don't know about it, there's this guy named Caesar Millan who rescues and rehabilitates dogs so that they can be happy pets. After watching a few episodes, I've decided that I am feverishly in love with Caesar Millan because a) he's good with animals and small children, b) he's enormously sexy and I love his positive energy, and c) he's a bloody genius. When it comes to understanding the motivational and psychological impulses of dogs, Caesar does amazing work. People often remark that he "performs miracles." But really it seems as though the miracle itself is not performed on the dogs, but rather on the owners, who simply need better tools at being the caretakers of their own animals.

Last night, I picked up a new tutoring gig, working with a D-average 9th grader whose mother not only infantilizes and talks about her like she's not in the room, but apparently cannot keep a clean house. I am being very kind when I say that the mother is a poor housekeeper. What I should say is that the place is filthy disgusting, and that I had to wash my clothes when I got home and take a shower because I smelled like 16 cat litter boxes.

What first fascinated me about the situation was that the mother spoke for her daughter as if she was a mute and unable to speak for herself. The daughter, who is obviously one of the least popular girls in her grade and definitely not yet caught up with boys or making trouble, hung back with her head down and shoulders hunched over. The mother went on to tell me that I have a "miracle to make". The expectation is that the daughter passes her sub-level math and science classes with a "C" average for the term. Call me crazy, but I found it deplorable that the mother's expectations for her daughter's success was so...well...sub-par. But then I looked around and realized that the social and psychological reality the mother was constructing for everyone around her was...well...equally sub-par. The energy that she gave off was one of victimization and a lack of accountability. She sincerely wants her daughter to do better, but instead of really giving her the tools for doing so, she perpetuates the mindset of victimization. At one point, she even made excuses for her daughter, saying that the girl had "documented short term memory issues". Forgive me for inwardly rolling my eyes...

For the next two hours, I attempted to breathe out of my mouth so that the smell of the house wouldn't make me vomit. In those two hours, I animatedly walked the student through a science and math lesson. I discovered that her short term memory issues are a complete fabrication. No one can remember something if they aren't paying attention. And paying attention is a skill lost on kids who've never been given a book and told to go read it all day because the television is officially broken for the summer. I had to wonder if this kid even knew her way around a library, much less has a favorite author. I had to think back to when I was 14 and in love with Dickens, Shakespeare and Hemingway and Conrad before the start of my 9th grade year...

While the two hours went smoothly and productively for my little student, deep down I knew that they would be a complete wash. I would leave, and her mother would fill the space that I dug open, where learning was fun and not exhausting. Not to be a complete pessimist, but I know that I did nothing for this child but make her think that the only way she can learn is if she gets help from a tutor and has someone holding her hand. What I really need to be doing is tutoring her mother on how to give her the tools to be a better, more confident student. Just like Caesar Millan, the training lies in the owner, not the dog. Or in this case, the parent, not the kid.

Next week, instead of focusing on quadratic equations for an hour, I'm going to teach this kid how to really freaking study. And she's going to like it.


Jay said...

You. Rock. Thanks for taking the time to help out this kid. You described perfectly the world my wife lives in, where one of her students is doing poorly in school, so the child's mother purchases self-help books for the child to read. This student is now a master at imaginary self diagnosis and continues to do poorly in school.

Keep at it. This girl will learn and you are doing wonders for her self esteem just by hanging out and being a positive role model. Unless she sees a real, live fully functioning, successful woman, she'll never know that options exist for her. Bravo.

VJ said...

Yes, this effort & never say quit attitude is always impressive. And who knows? Every now and again some teacher does manage to spin dross into gold. It takes some time & lots of work & patience though. Cheers & Good Luck, 'VJ'