The other day I was tutoring a seventh grade boy I’ll call Kevin, and things were not going well. Kevin was slouched in his chair, an oversized baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. I was trying to get to the bottom of this math re-test I was supposed to be helping him prepare for, but according to him he had no review sheet, no notes, no textbook, and his teacher had already left school. He responded to each of my questions sullenly, shifting his body further and further away from me.
“So what can you remember about the test?” I asked. “What sort of problems are going to be on it?”
“I dunno.” Kevin shrugged and pulled his cell phone from his pocket.
“Kevin, put the phone down.” I felt frustrated. I’m a get-things-done type of person who loves efficiency, and I wanted to report to Kevin’s mother that I’d fully prepared him for the test. Yet here we were, ten minutes in, and I didn’t even know what material was on the test. I also didn’t know Kevin very well – it was our first real session together — and I was starting to think he was uncooperative and impossible.
“Could we go to your teacher’s website? Maybe there’s something about the test there,” I suggested.
“There’s not,” Kevin said. “I already checked.”
I knew that how I handled this situation was going to affect the relationship between me and this kid for the rest of the year. Should I discipline him? Reason with him? Offer him a reward?
“Look, be real with me for a second,” I said. “Obviously, you don’t want to be here. I get that. But I’m not going anywhere, so let’s talk about it. What’s up? You won’t hurt my feelings. Just tell me why it sucks so bad to be here.”
“Because,” he said.
“Why? Tell me all the reasons why this is the worst. Let’s list them out.”
He sighed. “Because I’m tired.”
“Makes sense. Okay, that’s one.” I held up one finger. “What else?”
“Because I don’t need help with my math.” Kevin’s voice trembled, and his eyes started to water. He put his elbow on the desk and shielded his face from me. “My mom thinks I do, but I don’t. I understand it. The only reason I got a bad grade was because I made careless mistakes.”
He wiped away the tear that was rolling down his soft, middle-school-boy cheek, and the annoyance I’d felt for him melted into affection. All his sullen “nos” and “I don’t cares” had been a tough guy act to mask his frustration and a bruised ego.
“So you really do understand the math you just made careless mistakes?” I asked. (The old repeat-back psychology method.)
“Yeah.” He sniffed, and I dug into my purse for a tissue, passing it to him silently.
“That does suck. You must feel really frustrated,” I said. “What would you rather be doing right now?”
“Hanging out with my friends.”
“Yep. That’s more fun that tutoring. What else?”
“Oh yeah? What position do you play?”
I knew if someone walked into the classroom at that moment it would seem like I wasn’t doing a very good job tutoring. It would seem like I was wasting time, talking about soccer when we could be going over math problems. But if I was going to get anywhere with Kevin, we needed to first build some trust.
“So look,” I said after we’d chatted for a while about soccer and baseball, “let’s just relax for a minute, go to the bathroom, get some water. When you’re ready, you can show me some of the math that’s going to be on the test. Show me what you know so I can tell your mom that you really did understand it, you just made careless errors. And then we can talk about strategies for helping catch careless mistakes on the re-test. How does that sound?”
Kevin shrugged, but when he got back from the bathroom, he sat down and we did a few problems together, and I showed him a strategy for organizing his scratch work. We didn’t have time to do a ton of math, but in the end I was pleased with how things had turned out.
Recently I came across an anecdote from The World’s Religions by Huston Smith:
At one point the art department of Arizona State University decided to offer a course in basket weaving, and approached a neighboring Indian reservation for an instructor. The tribe proposed its masterweaver, an old woman, for the position. The entire course turned out to consist of trips to the plants that provided the fibers for her baskets, where myths involving the plants were recounted and supplicating songs and prayers were memorized. There was no weaving.
I love this anecdote, not only for the ironic punchline, but because this is something we often forget in our fast-paced world of get-it-done: that sometimes you should postpone the thing that needs to get done while you lay a foundation and gain a deeper understanding.
My tutoring session with Kevin was just that. We had to postpone the math in order to establish and connection and an understanding that will hopefully make our future tutoring sessions more fruitful.
And I think the basketweaving anecdote is an important one for me to remember in my writing life as well. Some days, there is no writing. But I am reading, I am observing, I am learning about writing, or simply learning about life. These rituals may not result in novels right away, but I am laying a foundation for my future writing. What we do before we do the thing that needs doing — these trips and talks and prayers and thoughts — are perhaps as important as the weaving itself, whether we’re talking about creating a basket, a story, or a relationship between a teacher and her student.