H e was a senior by the looks of him — tall and skinny with three weeks of want-a-beard scruff — all anxious about college and how to get there. He walked up to me in the West Philadelphia High School cafeteria and, looking somewhere off to the side, started asking me nervous, jerky questions. Where was I studying? What year? What major? How old was I? Did I know how to do fractions?
I said I knew how to do fractions.
Like how to subtract one-fourth from two-fourths?
Well, let me see. I thought about it, and worked the problem out on a piece of paper.
What about this one? He hit me with two different denominators.
Well, yes, I could add those fractions too.
He concentrated and tried to follow my steps. “You’re really good at this stuff, huh? It’s not hard for you?”
I wished so badly that I’d been able to wiggle out of telling him my age. He never met my eye, but I easily guessed that he was 18, too, and the fact was eating him. So I did my best. I emphasized that math was really “my thing.” I was a bit advanced for my age. Might even major in the subject.
It didn’t really work. I spent my last hour at West watching a senior fight back tears as he tried to learn fractions and then tackle the baffling quadratic equations in his homework.
CSSP’s after-school tutoring at West Philadelphia High school was carried out in the cafeteria — spacious, well-lit and clean. As I packed up to leave for the last time, I might have taken a little walk around this brand-new, $50 million high school where students do not know how to add fractions. I might have peeped into the classrooms with fancy electronic whiteboards. I might have slipped into a lab full of equipment that I’d never even hoped to handle during high school.
But even if I thought of doing so, I wouldn’t have wasted my time. West students (who were paid an hourly rate to attend after-school tutoring with me) had already settled that score. They gave a disgusted little shrug when my coworker tried to ask about how much nicer it must be at the “New West.” It’s not really any different from the old place. New building, yeah, but the people are all the same.
And by “the people,” they mostly meant their fellow students. The students I interacted with at West almost never complained about their teachers. The fact is, they had very little to complain about. The math teacher I worked with, a great boulder of a man with a time-worn face, was the most gentle, persistent teacher I’d ever met. In a classroom where approximately half the students were chatting, fighting or dazed — where students threatened to use their TI-84’s as projectiles — he kept right on doing his best to quiet the class and teach algebra.
I keenly felt the dissonance between the media hubbub last year about underfunding in Philadelphia public schools and the actual issue at hand. The school needed discipline, not tax dollars. Students needed to learn that “getting somewhere” correlates to hard work in the face of difficulty, not just having a privileged environment. The kids could succeed if they tried, but they’d have to fight an uphill battle against the culture established by their own classmates — the culture of not trying.
Now, it’s true that more funding never hurts. More professional counselors could be hired to try to turn around the culture. But first off, the School District of Philadelphia is about $3 billion in debt, and secondly, few kids trust someone that they know is drawing a salary to preach morality at them. Kids are doing poorly because their real relationships — the ones that extend beyond the metal detectors at the front gates of West — do not encourage them to stick it out and swim upstream.
I wonder sometimes, what might have happened if I had given that senior my friendship instead of summed up fractions. It would have taken a lot more effort. But maybe — as so many of Penn’s Big Brothers and Big Sisters might testify — it would have been worth it.
Jeremiah Keenan is a College sophomore from China. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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