By Ross T. Ewing
Four years ago, I made an impulsive decision that changed my life. I volunteered to tutor math at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.
I did so with stunningly ignorant preconceptions. I assumed the students would be juvenile delinquents or from broken homes with absent parents. I imagined kids unmotivated in school or, worse, just plain lazy.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. The center matched me with Arabia, a high-school sophomore struggling with geometry. Arabia was a terrific kid. She worked hard on her homework, played several sports and was involved in her church community.
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She was unceasingly polite and respectful, even referring to adults as "Mr." or "Ms." Arabia had a stable family and parents who loved and cared for her. She was an excellent role model for her sister and the young women around her. She just had a hard time in math classes.
Geometry had been my favorite subject, but I had no prior teaching experience. The Carnegie Center's tutoring coordinator equipped me for the task, and all of the center's resources — books, educational games, computers, etc. — were placed at my disposal. We were off and running in no time.
Arabia and I calculated the area of construction-paper triangles, imagined X and Y axes across Gratz Park, and spent long hours hunched over her notebooks, working out "proofs" of things that seemed perfectly obvious.
Ultimately, Arabia passed geometry. She didn't ace it or join the math team, but she didn't need or want that. She needed to explore the concepts in a different way, and she wanted to succeed. With help from the Carnegie Center and a dedicated hour each week with me, she was able to do so.
There was nothing magical or secret about Arabia's success. I did not devise some brilliant new approach to teaching mathematics or stimulate a dormant motivation buried inside my student. We worked hard. The Carnegie Center staff helped maximize the value of our weekly sessions, and Arabia put in countless hours of studying and homework.
At the end of the school year, we renewed our tutoring relationship for two more years, concluding only when Arabia graduated from high school. She is now a first-generation college student, and she hopes to become a school counselor or social worker.
I could not be prouder of Arabia. And I am certain that I got the better end of the deal. Working with Arabia enriched my life in ways I never expected. She challenged all of my prior assumptions about "struggling students," their families and the causes of academic difficulties. Her dedication and commitment to our common task inspired me to become the best tutor I could be. For one hour each week, my life was larger and more interesting as we worked together towards our common goal — pass math class.
This fall, the Carnegie Center is registering 200 students for the after-school tutoring program. Most are from Fayette County, and many receive free or reduced lunch. The families pay a nominal fee for tutoring if they are able, and no one has ever been turned away due to inability to pay. The tutoring pairs meet for one hour each week, after work, or on Saturdays. The center provides training and excellent resources for its tutors.
You do not need an education degree or prior experience to be a tutor — just willingness, dedication and a little patience. With those and a small block of your time, you can make a tangible difference in a student's life, and your own.
Ross T. Ewing is a Lexington attorney and was recently appointed to the Carnegie Center Board of Trustees.