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Challenge: Back to School

Explain This Tutoring Thing To Me, Please

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I sit at the kitchen table, charged with the job of getting a math tutor for my twin daughters, which after one week of high school (their first week, mind you), they both determined they needed. I feel like offing myself. Not because I’ve lost perspective. But because I fear our society has. And because it seems all of the tutors are already booked.

I’ve already contacted five or six folks, some of whom were referred to me by friends, others by the tutors themselves, after they delivered the bad news that their schedules were already full. One woman may have an opening at 7:00 on Sunday morning but, she says, she’s going to have to get back to me.

“How can they all be booked this early in the year?” I ask my husband, who will serve as the math tutor until one that can charge us for her services is secured. “All of these kids anticipated not being able to do the math?”


According to my daughter, a lot of the kids in her class already have tutors. One student was supposedly tutored before homework was even given. Before an assignment, a quiz—any measure of whether one understood the work or not—had been popped.

Is there anyone else out there who finds this situation counter-intuitive? Why do so many kids have tutors? Are the classes that hard or the placement requirements that lax? Or is everyone simply trying to get a leg up? What about the students who can’t afford tutors? What do they do instead of paying $100 an hour?

“Whoever heard of hiring a tutor in advance? That’s like making a doctor’s appointment in case you get sick,” I told my daughter.

This conversation took place at about 10:45 last night, while one of my girls was having a panic attack because she couldn’t understand problem number six and my other daughter was yelling at her sister for confusing her.

“If it’s that hard, why don’t you guys just drop a level?” I suggested. A seemingly logical approach. I dropped down when I could no longer understand what my own Accelerated Geometry teacher was saying. Then, after I couldn’t understand what the regular level Geometry teacher was saying either, I went to office hours. Only when the teacher didn’t have enough office hours in the day did I get a tutor. The tutor was an avenue of last resort, brought in to keep me from failing. Not to keep me from getting a B or C.

I explain this to my children, but like so many things, what I did and what kids do now are not one and the same. For them, it seems, tutoring is now the norm for all aspects of school work, to sustain good grades as much as to achieve them. It’s not simply something reserved for those students who desperately need it.

“Why would I drop a level?” my daughter asked as if she wasn’t on hour three of problem six.

“Everyone says it’s fine once you get a tutor,” her sister assured me.

“Prove to me you can get a D,” I say, “then you can have a tutor.”

My daughter tells me I’m not funny, I’m not fair, if she gets a D, she won’t get into college.

And there it is. The dreaded C word. The great destroyer of perspective—rearing its ugly, warped head. Despite the fact that my kids don’t yet know their way around the high school. Despite the reassurances that freshman year isn’t supposed to be about college, but about acclimating and adjusting. Week one, and already, we are fixated on what’s going to happen four years from now.

I can see it’s going to be a battle to keep the culture from clouding what I know to be true, that where you go to college doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of life. Just read Frank Bruni’s book, Where You Go to College is Not Who You’ll Be. Case in point: me. I went to a great college and a great law school, and yet here I am, back where I started, sitting in my kitchen worried about surviving high school.

Framed this way, as a survival story, I can see where the tutor makes total sense. She’s not for my kids, she’s for me. Who cares about the math the tutor will teach, it’s about the peace she’ll bring. Suddenly, I see why there are none available.

The absurdity of the situation brings to mind something my girlfriend said to me after she’d attended her high school reunion. “The women looked really good,” she told me, “but wouldn’t it be easier if we all agreed to just let ourselves go natural?” Maybe hiring people to do our children’s homework with them is the high school equivalent of anti-aging nipping and tucking.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we agreed to collectively let kids fall back on their God-given brains and their own work product? And not push them to the next level, where they need consistent outside help to get by? If we did that, everyone would end up in the appropriate math class, plus we’d all get to sleep before midnight.

Not that I didn’t know what kind of ride we were in for. I’ve listened to friends; I also spend time working as a college essay coach. So I’ve seen first hand the stress high schoolers carry. Though it strikes me only now, however, that I am in fact perpetuating the problem by attempting to shape these kids into shiny versions of themselves. In light of my plea above to let our children be in charge of their own school work, I realize this makes me a bit of a hypocrite. I suppose I should put my money where my mouth is. Only I need that money to pay for the tutor.

This piece was published originally at Motherwell Magazine.


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