The Saturday mornings I have to get up and arrive half-awake to tutor and mentor at my local elementary school are not easy ones. It’s only the vague notion of not letting my kids down that forces me not to turn on the snooze button and get back under my warm and beckoning covers.
But after I’ve powered through third grade math exercises, reviewed book reports, lectured on the importance of reading, conflict resolution, listening to parents, paying attention in class and a whole host of other topics, I always come away with the same conclusion: It was well worth fighting past my Saturday morning indolence.
For four years now, I have been volunteering as a tutor and art enrichment teacher at a Saturday Academy in my local community. The several dozen students in the program range from kindergarten to 12th grade and arrive on Saturday mornings for a variety of academic and disciplinary reasons. Almost all of them are minorities. Many of them come from working class families. A large percentage of them are foreign-born and are from families where English is not the primary language spoken at home.
Through the years, I have learned to treasure the small victories like when a student sounds out a difficult word on their own or recognizes the first steps to solve a math problem. I leave those Saturdays with a great sense of accomplishment but often with a lingering tinge of concern about my kids and their futures.
One particular Saturday, a few months back, I was tasked with helping tutor a third grader who I had never seen at the program before. He was very reserved and hadn’t brought any homework so I skillfully tried to pull as much information as possible from him about what he was learning in school and where he needed help. No such luck.
As I paused to rethink my strategy, his mother came over to our table and put a stack of papers in front of him. She did not speak English but turned to me and gave me the biggest smile signaling such gratitude and relief for helping her son. She spoke with him in Arabic, pointed to the papers and walked out the door.
I gestured to the papers, asking what his mother had said but only got an apathetic shrug in response. When I looked through the papers, I saw a handful of tests with failing grades at the top of the pages and red ink filling the margins. There was also a note written on a torn piece of paper from his teacher.
The note was addressed to “whom it may concern” and explained that my new student was severely below grade level in all subjects, failing all his assignments and needed intensive tutoring and support outside of the classroom or would not be promoted to the next grade.
My heart broke. I felt the weight of his future in my hands. As an education advocate, I knew the statistics, that if my little friend could not read by the end of the year, he would be four times more likely to drop out of school.
We studiously talked through all of his tests and I gave him problems to work on to make sure he fully understood how to correctly complete the test questions. I tried to make him laugh throughout the morning and even managed to get a few slight, barely-noticeable smiles. I told him that I wanted to see him next time so we could continue our progress.
When I went home that afternoon, I continued to think of my new student the rest of the day and for the following weeks thereafter. I agonized over how his, and many students like him, unattended academic challenges had led to a strong disinterest in school and aversion to schoolwork, which continued to contribute to his problems in the classroom.
I never saw that little boy again. But I wake up on my assigned Saturday mornings thinking maybe I’ll see him today. I can't give up on him. Sometimes all us tutors and mentors can do is relish in the small victories, bring a smile to a young person’s face and hope they keep coming back. It may not seem like a lot – but it might, just might, help break the cycle of poverty, crime and hopelessness.
Happy National Mentoring Month to all the tutors and mentors that make a difference in the lives of young people everyday. If you are interested in becoming a mentor, pledge to join United Way’s Readers, Tutors and Mentors initiative. If you are interested in supporting policies and programs that promote mentoring in schools, send a message to your congressional representative today.