Tutoring a White boy in calculus

Last summer, I looked high and low for a job that would pay. I had my research gig which paid me enough to cover rent and some food. As this was to be my last free summer, I wanted to make sure I had enough money to pay for all of the things I would want to do.

I ended up tutoring a college student. He is a White 20-year-old from the suburbs who decided early on in his college career that he would not need calculus.

By the way, that never works out. Take calculus freshman year. Just do it. That is my advice.

Turns out, he needed calculus as a Finance major after all!

I have four points to make:
1. Hispanic girls can do math
2. We need to be better about the kinds of educators we allow to teach at our institutions and more vigilant about the kinds of disadvantages our kids face
3. If I wanted a free summer, I should have just gone to a free beach every day!
4. A Hispanic girl tutored a White boy–there are at least three stereotypes we messed with in there!

His mom paid me $50 an hour to catch him up. He was getting an F on every quiz and exam. He was working extremely hard on his own but his professor…who was a jackass and more on that in a second…would not answer any of his questions after class.

So they hired me. His previous tutor had been a While male. Little did they know that I was a Hispanic girl! They looked me up and down on the first day and were skeptical of my abilities until I told them that I taught for a couple years and that I was in medical school. I was pretty good if I do say so myself! I hadn’t taken the kind of calculus the kid was taking since senior year of high school–and I remembered a lot!

See, unlike the kid, I had an excellent math teacher, one who valued process over results, one who taught me not how to get through calculus but how to work with numbers. I remember deriving formulas on my exams because he specifically asked us not to memorize things. The only thing he wanted us to memorize was the Unit Circle–for which I devised a nifty little trick and taught my whole class–and this kid.

As the summer moved on, I started to suspect that the kid might have a learning disability.  He needed many repetitions, he had difficulty staying on task, and he needed steps to memorize in order to complete a math problem, he had no sense of how to work with numbers and his algebra foundation was incredibly faulty. I ended up asking his previous tutor and sure enough, the kid did have a learning disability.

First, I have to be proud of myself for, after only a couple years teaching and a whole year since leaving, recognizing the signs.

Second, I was now concerned that he wasn’t receiving accommodations from me, nor from his professor. I asked if he got extra time on his exams. His answer was no. I asked what exactly happened when he would go ask questions, he said, in more words than this, that his professor thought he was a brown-noser who was entitled.

All of this was infuriating to me, so I offered to work with him on weekends too to catch him up. He did end up learning a lot of calculus, I have to say. However, his professor told him that given his performance before he obtained a tutor, he would not pass regardless of how he did on his final.

If I wasn’t angry before, I was like mama-bear now. I immediately made sure his mom knew everything that was going on. I told her about the lack of accommodations, the lack of respect from his professor and how this would all turn out if he did not advocate for himself. She wondered how this was done and I discussed with her how the kid should report him and get the ADA personnel involved.

In the end, it was all too little too late. He would have to take calculus again his senior year.

Of course, I felt guilty. I felt that I should have recognized the signs sooner. I felt that I wasn’t good enough at calculus to teach it to a White, no less. For sure, I had just solidified the belief they had at the beginning of the summer–that I wouldn’t do well, that I wasn’t qualified.

During our last session, I apologized to him and his mother for this and all the other faults I could think of at the time. They sat me down and said that I had done a great job. They said I had been patient, thoughtful, creative, and knowledgeable and that he couldn’t have learned as much without me. They said that surely, calculus in the Fall would be a piece of cake and that now, at least the school won’t mess with his accommodations.

I said goodbye and teared up a little bit in the car.

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