I tutor once a week in a GED program in the Kinsman neighborhood of Cleveland, where my church used to be. I’ve been touched, the last two weeks, by my interactions with students. Touched, infuriated, sobered, and enlightened.
Last week, a young man showed me a problem he had missed on a worksheet: 3 feet = _____ inches. He’d written some crazy number in the blank. I said, “First, how many inches are in a foot?” He looked at me and said pointedly, “I don’t know. That’s why I missed it.”
I told him how many inches are in a foot. Then I got out a ruler. I showed him three rulers, in fact. I’ve been working at this program for years and assumed I had no illusions about the sorry education these folks had received before they dropped out of school. This incident, however, got to me. How do you get to be a young adult in America and not know how many inches are in a foot? This is a bright kid, with no evident learning disabilities.
Yesterday, I worked on science with another young man. We were reading a passage about Gleevec, a cancer drug. He stopped to ask me if I smoked and then told me he was thinking about quitting since seeing those especially grisly and effective TV messages currently airing, showing people recovering from cancer and chemo.
He asked me a bunch about cancer. I realized as we talked that he has no concept of what the disease really is and probably lacks a concept of the cell, which, if you ever try to explain cancer to someone, you realize is pretty important to the whole matter. It reminded me of the excellent The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. In that book, the relatives of the woman whose cells have contributed to treatments for all kinds of diseases have no idea what a cell is. They’re lacking the basic knowledge that would help them understand how to deal with the medical establishment.
No surprise that life is unfair. Sometimes, though, injustice smacks you in the face. My GED students know a lot that I don’t know, it’s true. Many of them are, no doubt, blessed with more native intelligence. But my middle-class background dumped a huge heap of privilege in my lap–easy access to knowledge, good reading skills, basic math intelligence–that I did nothing to earn or deserve.