13 October 2010


Tutor Tales, Volume 23

Just after three tutees became four, the four are threatening to revert back to three. Earlier this week, Doctor Decimator's mother asked to speak with me about a change of plans. She might be needing me to tutor her son any longer.

His grades have not shown any real improvement since I came on board again--and although she doesn't blame me at all, she thinks it would be best to enroll her son in his own school's after-school remedial programme.

"He just has so many distractions at home," she explained. "I think keeping him in a classroom setting will help him concentrate better."

I wanted to say, Ma'am, your son isn't distracted. He's lazy. But instead I turned to a very uncomfortable looking Doctor Decimator and remarked casually, "I've always thought that, in the end, all students get the tutors they deserve."

But then what do the tutors themselves get?

Having concluded that bit of official business, Doctor Decimator and I hunkered down to work. Or should I say, to wrestle? He needed to finish three pages worth of word problems on percentage that he had started in study hall. Or rather, he had to do them over because he had "answered" them using his favourite method of half-assed guessing--closely related to the making of pretty-patterns by filling in the circles on a multiple-choice answer sheet--and of course got them all wrong.

Well, nearly all . . .

There was one wild guess (better termed a lazy guess) that was actually correct. When I pointed it out, he was as delighted as if he had won the lottery--which, really, would have given him better odds. And I was so tickled that I didn't insist that he solve it properly for the full score.

But that is only the tip of the iceberg with him. Let's do a deeper dive now, starting with the problem of how much to pay for an item after the price goes up by 8.5%.

"Oh, this is easy," I told him. "Start by finding the decimal form of 8.5%."

He looked as if I had asked him to do higher level calculus. "I don't know how to do that."

It was another case of his famous amnesia. "Yes, you do, Doctor Decimator. We worked on conversions to and from fractions, decimals and percentage during my last visit."

"Well, I don't remember . . ."

I walked him through it. "What is 50% in decimal form? . . . Right. . . What about 5%? . . . Good. . . So what is 8.5%? . . . Um, not quite. Try again."

Anyway, he was able to solve that problem. Whether he will be able to do it the next time he has to is anyone's guess. And that's the story of his academic life.

Next for us was an increase in temperature from 32 degrees to 36 degrees. Find the percentage of the increase, etc.

The boy slumped back in his seat, looked up at me and asked, "Do I multiply or divide?"

"If I don't tell you, is there any hope that you'll give it some thought instead of just guessing?"

His eyes didn't leave mine. "It's division, right?"

"Right so far . . ."

He divided 32 by 4, got 8, and was about to write it down when I stopped him.

"That's not the right answer."

He grabbed his calculator to check it and then shoved it in my face.

I persisted: "You're not dividing them the right way."

"Then how should I divide them?"

"The only other way you can."

We must have squared off like that for a whole minute. I just wanted him to think for himself. He just wanted me to stop taking his homework more seriously than he does, when he has already confided in me that a classmate in the honour society lets him copy everything. (It's just too bad he can't also cheat off the tests.) And I don't know what it says about my character that I was the first to crack.

"Well, if it's not '32 divided by 4,' then it must be . . . ?"

He did some calculations. "125?"

"Not after you remember where the decimal point goes."

"1.25? . . . 12.5? . . . 0.125?"

I don't know whether Doctor Decimator would make a good poker player, but I do know I'd make a bad one. He just rattled off all the possible answers and figured out the correct one by my facial expression when he got to it.

And because of this, I'm going to be fired.


Sullivan McPig said...

Ack! I do not envy you this student.

Belfry Bat said...

Lots of people would think "what a stupid kid", or similarly dismissive things. My own take on it would be more that this kid clearly isn't ready to learn that '%' always means '/100', and he doesn't really *need* to know it right now, either; and when he's ready it'll be easy.

It's a cruel system that demands everyone learn everything in the same order; I suppose it's just the laziest way to make sure everyone is lectured and drilled on the same stuff through the formative years --- which is another policy of dubious value, I think. Hmmm... maybe the boyscouts, with their badges, are on to something...

Enbrethiliel said...


Sully: What I'd really like is for his mother to tutor him for just two weeks. Then she'd know.

Bat: I've been tutoring Doctor Decimator for over a year. When I first met him, he thought I was one of those really strict tutors, and he turned in decent work every time. Now that he knows I won't be all over him if he decides to slack off for a week (or a month), he takes his liberties. When I told him that "we all get the tutors we deserve," I was envisioning him being pinned to his Maths workbook by a WWE champion.

More generally, I do agree with you that the system we have now is awful--and I love the idea of a "badge system"!

twowaysofrenouncingthedevil said...

How old is he?
I'm reading this that you have a kid that's too darned clever to bother being smart.
In the end, this may benefit him. Because, in the end, getting a good grade on a test really isn't nearly as important as they say it is, and sometimes isn't important at all, but being able to manipulate mom and bluff down/wear down your tutor, that's power, man.
So maybe it's time for a little discussion about what he wants in life. Because if what he wants is to some day be the best drug dealer in the school, or some middle manager in retail who can get away with getting other people to do his work while he draws enough salary for a payment on a fast car, there he goes. Hey, if he's really, really good at it he might make it to CEO and defrauding thousands to put millions into his personal account. But if he wants to cure cancer or uncover ancient ruins in the middle of Timbuktu or even just one day be able to read some text in a language no one else he knows can read, he's going to have to jump through some "other people hoops". Right now, he thinks of succeeding at school as letting other people win. He has to see it as a choice he makes for himself, how he views school, and that what other people think is, in the end, irrelevant. He shouldn't let other peoples' expectations convince him to change his behavior and fail when he shouldn't any more than he's letting it change his behavior to succeed.
Of course, maybe that's not him at all. You're bringing back memories again. . . .
Meanwhile, you've been in flux before, you're good at it, right?

Enbrethiliel said...


He's twelve and small for his age. =P He's not sure what he wants to do with his life, but that's okay because he comes from a family of millionares.

Yes, really. Last month, his thirteen-year-old brother was hospitalised and their grandfather's idea of an appropriate get-well-soon gift was an iPad. When Doctor Decimator complained that it wasn't fair for someone to be rewarded for falling ill, their grandfather shut him up by getting him a new iPhone. Whatever they want, they get.

Manipulating mommy and wearing down the tutor? In the great scheme of things, those are nothing!

And yes, I've been at loose ends before. Just a few months ago, actually. I was so depressed at having no new tutees two months into the school year that my friends were telling me I should have gone back to full-time teaching. Then I found myself with four and felt like a millionaire! And now one of them might be dropping out, and I'm newly frustrated. This is a really good job and I like doing it . . . but it doesn't guarantee anything.

twowaysofrenouncingthedevil said...

Ah, see. . . . so the kid's right. He has absolutely no need to pass a test on percentages. Really, step back, why should he need to pass a test on percentages?

At twelve, he already knows enough to disrespect what's being fed to him. What he needs to learn is that he has to go beyond rejection, and start figuring out what he wants, not just what he doesn't want. What his purpose is, and how to get to it. Who God created him to be, of course, and all that. Then he gets to decide whether he needs to step on the percentages tests to get there or not.

So many affluent young men think that rejecting norms is far enough. No one ever teaches them that they have to go beyond rejecting, and figure out what it is they *do* value. Sometimes, they step up when someone expresses the belief that they are capable of it.

I personally despise limbo, but you're a small business owner so I guess uncertainty is part of your world? Of course, I don't have to remind you that "you" doesn't mean what you do, certainly it isn't comprised of what you are paid to do. I bet that doesn't help one bit, though, does it?

Hope the students fall out of the trees into your arms like fall leaves this season. . . .

Enbrethiliel said...


LOL! Yes, he's right about never needing any of this stuff. And if this were just about the money, I'd be happy to go to his house, play his guitar for an hour while he plays "Plants vs. Zombies" on his new iPhones (both of us promising not to tell on the other), and still charge his mother for my time. But I love this boy, too, and I don't like him turning into a despicable slob before my eyes.

Thanks for your good wishes for my "small business." (Oh, that's a scary term! I've been hiding behind "freelancer" for a while.)