One of my favorite careers, second only to being a mom, was as an educational therapist. I had bought a successful learning center (Educational Resources) in San Marino, California. (I sold it after ten years and it still flourishes.) In the summers I had only six tutors, but winters had about a dozen. They were retired teachers and master/PhD students from Cal Tech (California Institute of Technology) and Fuller Seminary. “No analyzing, no psychology,” I told them. “Just straight tutoring.” They enjoyed the work as it gave them an opportunity to work one-on-one with a real live child.
I did the testing, conferencing, and wrote the prescriptive course, but the tutors and kids did the rest, and they were inventive. I worked with the more difficult cases. I loved it for I was constantly challenged.
Scott was one of those challenges. Referred by his teacher, he was a puzzle. His learning disability was not severe. He was an intelligent, strong, handsome nine-year-old who was successful on the sports field. And yet, he was failing in school. I decided I would be his tutor.
When he arrived for our first session, Scott could have slid under the door his self-esteem was so low.
“Scott,” I said. “Why do you think you’re coming here?” (I always asked that question and usually got frank answers. The kids were actually relieved to find someone who might help.)
“I’m a failure in life,” was his answer.
I was stunned. “But, Scott, you’re good at sports.”
“And your parents love you.”
He sighed. “They have to.”
“And you believe you’re a failure?”
Here is a boy who is drowning and I’ve got to rescue him, but how? I gave him something to work on while I frantically thought about what to do. A failure in life. How do you deal with that? And then I got an idea. I took a piece of paper and laid it lengthwise on the table between us. I started on the left side and drew a line from top to bottom. I wrote the word "soccer" in the space. “Are you a failure in soccer?” I asked.
He shook his head.
I scribbled over the area. One by one I drew a line and labeled the spaces: at home, recess, lunch time, walking to and from school, math, social studies, and at each he said "no." Finally there’s only a slice of space left and I wrote in “language arts.” He sighed and said, “Yes.”
I sat back and studied the paper. Then I looked him squarely in the eye. “You’ve been lying to me,” I said.
He looked surprised.
“You told me you’re a failure in life. Well,” I held up the paper. “Here’s your life and you’re only a failure in this one tiny place. That’s not your whole life. You’ve come to the right place, for I’m the Olympic coach of language arts. Do you think I’ll be easy on you?”
He shook his head. “No-o-o.”
“You’re right about that. Now let’s begin.”
And so we began.
Scott’s parents and teachers had been generous in their praise, so much so that I saw he no longer trusted the happy faces or “good work” I put on the work pages. We had to restore his esteem of himself and only he could do that. Scott needed to learn how to honestly evaluate his own work. I designed a graph, dates on the bottom, percentages on the left side from 0 to 100. Every piece of work was given a numerical grade in percentage. (Ten problems with five wrong was a score of 50%, etc.) I stopped making comments about his work or making happy faces. I had him record every percentage on the graph.
After several weeks, I asked if he thought he was getting better. He shrugged. So I put the graphed chart on the table between us and laid a ruler along the tops of the lines. Then I drew a line along the ruler. I asked Scott what he saw. He studied the chart and then looked at me, his eyes wide.
“It’s going up.
“Yes and you did that.”
“Yes and you did that.”
The very next session he added a GOOD at the top of the page and eventually happy faces showed up. I knew we had been successful on the day when he did a difficult page and got only a 60%. He looked at me seriously. “That’s not too bad. That was a hard page.”
I knew my work was done. We had two more sessions and then said our goodbyes. At the end of the school year, I got a note. “I did good and got good grades. Cood I come on summer as next year we are doing hard gramer. Your friend, Scott.”
We welcomed him and added spelling to his prescription.