I try not to even get started on all the problems with K-12 education these days (at least in CA) because after a year of tutoring–first Classi, now Mineisha–it just got too frustrating to think about all the things that go wrong and all the impossibilities of trying to fix those things. But today Mineisha inadvertently reminded me why the fight seems so futile. She had a multiplication worksheet (inexplicably titled “multiplication bumper cars”), five rows of “5 x 8 = ? ” type problems. She could do some of the easier problems but had difficulty as soon as we started getting into bigger numbers–like 8 x 4. So for those she would start drawing tally marks, four rows of eight marks. Naturally she made mistakes in counting all the marks, and it just took forever, so I tried to explain that she can write the numeral eight four times and then add that up. She’s good at adding, fortunately. But by that point she was just tired of the whole exercise. When I said she should do her homework, she said she would prefer to just do it by calculator. What can I say to that? Xanthe suggested that she can’t use calculators on tests, but I didn’t even try that one because I don’t think she really cares about her test scores. And then she said she doesn’t have to turn in this homework anyway, because her music class is tomorrow and when they have music they leave the class while the homework is corrected. This one left me speechless. I guess that’s what happens–you try not to cut enrichment programs like music or dance or art, and instead they take up valuable (or perhaps not even so valuable… but don’t get me started on teachers) class time. I just don’t know what to say to get her motivated. I remember hating the times tables myself while Mommy was trying to help me memorize them. I mean it’s handy to know them by heart, but I think there’s less and less of a need to do so. At times I’ve been out shopping and have been surprised that the staff have used calculators to do simple addition or multiplication, but I suppose this means that even in the real world Mineisha may never need to multiply numbers in her head. It’s all very frustrating.

I’ve noticed that a lot of us who are educated and middle-class and who tutor kids who are less privileged, and whose parents have little education, are constantly frustrated by all these issues which seem to never have come up in our own upbringing, and which we do not expect to be problems when we raise our own kids. How do we who believe so firmly in education impart the value of learning to kids in whose world school hardly has a place? One tutor writes on our discussion board that he was trying to help his student understand why he needs to learn standard English, but the student says if he becomes a rapper or a sports star that won’t be important. And those are the images kids get about how to get out of poverty or out of the ghettos–you go into music or sports. They don’t have too many other role models.

I tutor, but I don’t think I’m a role model. I don’t know if Mineisha thinks she and I have anything in common, and frankly I don’t blame her. I mean we like each other and we get along, but our worlds are just so different. Sometimes I think the best way to help these kids is for them to have tutors, teachers, counselors etc. who have had similar upbringings, who can then relate to them better. But why on earth would someone like that want to come back to the same neighborhood, to a thankless, frustrating, low-paying job? The system is little help, so it’s uphill the whole way. Sometimes I think it’s only those of us with middle-class liberal guilt and/or liberal principles who will even bother, and then we and the kids can’t relate to one another. And even though I do tutor, it hardly makes a dent in my time. I don’t have to live or work in their neighborhood. I only have to put in two hours a week to tutor Mineisha, and thirty minutes of that is transportation. Our principles tell us that the education system has problems and that it’s up to us to fix them, but we’re so aware of the myriad ways in which we’re limited, and how ill-equipped we are with all our privilege to understand lives so different from ours. And much as we all want to help, I know–I know–we’re all glad this isn’t our life and we can escape back to our own comfortable world after an hour and a half. It drives me and many others nuts, wanting in our ethics to do more, but feeling limited by the system and by our own upbringing.

I would love to hear what you think on this. How can we, who are so privileged, make kids in other circumstances share our values so they can be prepared to live in our world? Should we even be trying to impose our values on them–and if not, where does that leave them? Leave a comment!

And now, as Xanthe said on the way home, “The first thing I’m going to do when I get home is make myself a goddamn CUP OF TEA!”

currently: frustrated, and going to do work and send emails to try and get myself out of it

[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at]