09 October 2011


Tutor Tales, Volume 34

Of all the tutees I have ever had, Scrap Metal has been the hardest nut to crack. His nanny hinted as much when she said she had been taking care of him for a year before he said anything halfway nice to her.

It happened earlier this year, when she had finished preparing his dinner and was about to leave him alone in the dining room (as per his preference that he eat alone or only with family members). No one was more surprised than she when he suddenly called her again to say:

"Stay here with me while I eat."

A command rather than a request, yes, but given the little boy in our story, it was a real breakthrough . . . and very sweet.

I was thinking of this last week, when I arrived for a tutorial while Scrap Metal was in the middle of a bowl of cereal. He pushed the cereal away and went immediately to work. I could tell he was still hungry, so I kept telling him we could take a break for five minutes so he could eat, but he kept shaking his head. Finally, it hit me . . .

"You don't like eating in front of people you don't trust yet!"

His eyes went wide.

"You know that eating with people makes you vulnerable to them, and you don't like that. One of my Business School teachers knew a man like you, who never did working lunches--or who waited until after eating with someone to talk about business--because he knew that eating makes your shields go down, and he didn't like that."

Of course, most of that went over Scrap Metal's seven(-but-soon-to-be-eight)-year-old's head . . . But he does have a natural dislike of his own vulnerability (whether or not he understands it consciously), and I could tell he wasn't too happy about my little diagnosis, because it meant something he had been hiding had come out into the light.

It's not the only thing that has come out into the light recently.

A decision from last month has just come back to haunt me, in the form of a letter from Scrap Metal's Maths teacher. Apparently, he is in danger of failing the whole quarter, because of his grades in a certain unit he has been struggling with. And of course, that is my fault. (That's only about 1% sarcastic; it's at least 99% professional.)

I wasn't surprised when I heard the news. Who else would know what a tutee's worst unit was? Let me tell you a bit about that evening I had to demonstrate the right method five times, only to hear at the end of each try: "My teacher doesn't do it that way! YOU are WRONG!"

Well, if that was the way it was going to be . . . "All right, Scrappy. Let's say I am wrong. You keep doing it the way you think is right and we'll see what happens when your test comes back."

The test has come back. He bombed so badly that the teacher wrote a letter warning that he might bomb the whole quarter. His parents are understandably upset. And the tutor writes an ironic blog post.

I confess that when I gave up teaching the method, I had dropped the Tutor Persona and gone into full Teacher Mode. The Maths lesson had become less important than the reality of what happens when when you don't properly prepare yourself for a test. There's a value there that anyone can carry through life, and I'm actually kind of happy that saw he couldn't just cruise by. Of course, this life lesson came at the price of a really low grade that makes me look as if I haven't been doing my job. But that's a whole other life lesson.

The good news is that Scrap Metal was at least properly chastened by the experience. The unit is still hard for him, but he has been listening as I demonstrate the method, doing the extra exercises I make for him, and accepting my corrections.

A life lesson and a Maths lesson. That's a pretty good deal.


Shannon Young said...

It sounds like you taught him an important lesson. I'm glad that you were able to learn from the experience too. Hopefully the long-term results will make it worth your discomfort now over this test.

Bob Wallace said...

It would have been a lot easier to just beat him like a rug!

Enbrethiliel said...


Shannon -- It looks as if it has sunk in! Thanks for the good wishes. =)

Bob -- I know, right? ;-)