Tutoring Math

“Hey, do you have a background in education?”
~Teacher at the SEED School of Baltimore

I finished my last few days teaching and tutoring. Over the past 5 months I taught mathematics at a predominantly white, upper-class high school in Towson and tutored at a predominantly black, public boarding school deep past West Baltimore. It has been a long time since I have had to face diametrically opposed ends of the same spectrum, namely the education spectrum. First of all, the Towson high school was more conservative than other high schools because of its Catholic identity and many of the donors come from traditionally conservative families. I didn’t realize it when I used to be a student there 10 years ago, but as a teacher I would hear my students say:

“Yeah, well it’s fine because I need to miss a few days of school to go on a ski trip.”
“I’m not going into Baltimore because it’s too ghetto for me.”
“Why do black people always have to say…”
“I mean, yeah my parents got me a car for my birthday but only three out of the four tvs work inside of it.”

As much respect that I hold for the faculty and institution itself, some of the students made it difficult for me to respect them due to their privilege. The students whom I held in high regard were the hard workers, the commuters, and the minority students who saw their time at the school as a means to obtain a good education and get a step up on the socioeconomic ladder.

At the SEED school I saw the opposite. Many of the students came from disenfranchised minority neighborhoods in Baltimore, and were fortunate enough to be chosen to attend this public boarding school. I would have to drive through West Baltimore, then pass a manned security gate near the Gwynns Falls Park, and then obtain a visitor’s pass from another security guard before I could even begin tutoring students. Whereas the students from the Towson school spoke gentrified, upper-class English, the students at SEED spoke in ebonics with more city-speak than suburban-speak:

“Yo Mr. Marvin, so when I put pi into sine what’s that gon’ be?”
"Man, Ms. Martha be throwin’ shade when we don’t get that quadratic formula memorized.”
“Oh, see I put that monomial in the parenthesis and then I factor. I gotchu fam.”

I got such a kick out of tutoring Algebra II and Precalculus to students who spoke in their own dialect, and were more eager to learn the material because they knew that they had to do so. At one point, one of my tutorees stated that she didn’t want to go into college because she hated math and would just start her own beauty salon. Another one of my tutorees told her that he hated math too, but knew that a college degree in his family was the end goal for him and that she should still consider at least an Associate’s degree.

The chasm of street smarts versus the level of book smarts between the two schools was vast. The age levels were practically the same, but the experiences of the students, teachers, and beneficiaries involved could not have been more different. Whereas the drive to Towson brings you past gloriously manicured lawns and historical mansions with quiet sidewalks, the drive to SEED brings you past abandoned row homes, at least four patrolling police vehicles, and lake trout corner shops adjacent to liquor stores equipped with bulletproof glass.

The educational divide in this city is real, and the students are the ones who suffer. Especially in high school, so many students only know the worlds in which they live without the broader view of other lifestyles only of colleagues only thirty minutes away. I have come to learn that the biggest focus and emphasis to helping bridge the economic divide among neighborhoods is to properly fund schools in the suffering neighborhood and supply them with passionate teachers who will stay. Otherwise, we are only breeding another generation that will never be able to understand why or how the other half lives.