“The person who deserves most pity is a lonesome one on a rainy day who doesn’t know how to read.” -Benjamin Franklin
When I first started tutoring in elementary schools I was a math tutor for girls. We ran before and after school programs teaching STEM. The STE part of that equation was best left to other tutors, but I do alright with numbers and math. I loved working with those girls, we had so much fun together. I still do before school tutoring twice a week for a group of middle school girls. It’s worth getting up at 5 AM every morning to work with them, and any one of my past roommates can attest to the fact that I’d rather die than get up that early unless it’s worthwhile. So when I was offered a position a few years ago to do some reading programs as well I was on board. I was given some numbers and data on where they stood as far as literacy rates were concerned. Then I was just kind of given free reign to go about it my way since none of them were really expected to succeed anyways.
I am able to make sense of math and that is a valuable skill in the education sector, but literature is where my heart really is and all the sudden I was given the the opportunity to make reading lists. I went right for the classics in my head, the ones I loved, the ones that student should read. Ya know….A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, The Bell Jar. All the great ones. And we were going to do plays and make posters and….and all these ideas.
Teaching math can be hard, but I figured teaching reading would be a simple task. I was told I’d have 12 students to work with. The lowest of the low before they become labeled special needs and labeled with actual learning disabilities. So, as my students wandered in and I was doing a head count imagine my surprise when I realized every single one of my 12 students were males.
I was OK with that, but all the sudden all my curricular plans had to get tossed. I couldn’t expect these boys to be interested in Little Women. That’s the literary equivalent of a chick flick, but I wasn’t giving up on classics, my students can read graphic novels and manga and what have you on their own time, I actively encourage them to do just that, but on my time we’re reading lit.
So there I was standing before a dozen 14-16 year old boys. I’ve never been a 14-16 year old boy. I had no idea what the hell to say. They wanted to talk about video games….ummm….yeah so I once played Gauntlet Legends all the way through when I had a broken leg and had nothing else to do. And back in the day (and I do mean waaayyy back in the day) I played sim city every now and then. Oh! And once my friend and I killed the world tour in Rock Band. None of them were impressed. And then with the anime. I’ve watched every Miyazaki film; Porco Rosso and Spirited Away were my favorites but other than Miyazaki I have no fucking clue about anime. I can’t get into it.
And beyond the topics that interested them, the energy was so much different than working with the girls. Once again; I love my girls, they are sweet and thoughtful and calm. They try hard, they want to please me, and they want to learn. It’s not that the boys didn’t want to learn, it’s just that…well…they were all over the damn place.
So much energy and movement. It was rapid fire. ‘Teacher you like rap?’ ‘It’s not my favorite, but I don’t hate….hey, wait, NO! please don’t play with the skateboard right now….umm, yeah so rap, it’s not bad I guess….wait you? Can you put the basketball away, it’s not cool in a library….what was I saying?’ ‘Ay, teacher, why we gotta be here, can’t we go outside?’ ‘Yeah, sure we can go outside….oh, you over there, you don’t wanna go outside? But I can’t leave some of you here while the rest go outsi…..what are you doing?! Put you’re cellphone away, no, we can’t go to youtube right now maybe later….’
It was just all over the place. If any administrative member of the education community had witnessed my flailing about that first day I probably would have lost my job.
At the end of the session after I had answered about 300 questions about myself and realized I had a group of comedians on my hands I finally asked about reading. I simply asked for any of them to name any of their favorite authors and or books. Any author, any book. Anything.
And they had nothing. Blank stares. Usually when I ask the girls what they know and or understand and or like about math I can get some answers. Maybe they like multiplication because it is simply memorization. Or some like geometry because shapes are visual. But the boys had looked at me like I had asked them to recite Einsteins special law of relativity.
The first two weeks were rough. We didn’t get much reading done, we really just got to know each other and I started to learn how to work with all the energy. It was such a stark contrast from working with the girls. During those two weeks I started looking into literacy rates of boys. It’s a silent problem. Or at least a quiet one. Everyone knows girls have a hard time with math. When you try to write a grant to get funding to run special programs for girls for math people fall over their feet trying to help you. When you ask for volunteer help, people line up like crazy, when you tell people you teach girls math they commend you as though you are a saint. And good for the girls. They need that. I needed extra help with math when I was younger and I received it. I want girls to not be afraid of numbers and not give into the idea that they are victims when it comes to math. But what about the boys?
When I began asking for help with this program I ran into a lot more road blocks than I ever did with the girls. People weren’t necessarily mean to me, but they were indifferent. ‘Shouldn’t you be teaching boys AND girls?’ is a question I often was asked, but no one asked that when I would describe the program I worked on for the girls. Or when I would ask for resources for the girls, I could barely get the words ‘I teach girls STEM…’ out of my mouth and people would be scrambling to get me all the resources they could. When it came to the boys I got a lot of….’that’s nice, good luck, we just can’t help a whole lot right now…’