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Learning through living

I would never expect to learn so much from eighth graders. Duke professors, yes. Duke students, of course. But from scrawny, gossiping pre-teens?

It’s true; I attribute the most indelible learning experiences this year to my eight eighth-grade tutees, who never fail to make me burst out laughing even when I try my hardest to focus them on math. Their humor and personalities are unmatched, and my time with them is an enjoyable outlet to the somewhat-suffocating Duke bubble. They are brutally honest with me, knowing full well when I’ve had late nights, and they never hesitate to give me advice, including suggestions on how to succeed at Duke (seek out J.J. or Shelden, date and then marry them when they are in the NBA and live richly ever after). Since the beginning, they show a loyalty to me like I am their older sister, a role I am honored to have.

Yet, while I initially viewed them as a few students who just needed a little more attention in the classrooms, the teachers and administrators knew otherwise and warned me so, in hopes of preparing me for what may lie ahead. These are the “special” students, the end-of-grade failures, the likely drop-outs and the future gang leaders. One administrator continued to remind me my first week of tutoring in October, “Please, don’t be scared, and don’t take anything personally what these kids might say to you.”

So, like any overachieving Duke student, I assumed I would be able to make a difference. I confirmed my hopes when the students unexpectedly warmed up to me after they found out I was their new tutor and teacher’s aid. My height, my youthful appearance and my ties to Duke, the better basketball school, automatically made me “cool.” I, too, was pleasantly surprised with them; these students are just as skinny and awkward as I was in the eighth grade. If anything, they are still cute.

But, as our friendships grew stronger over the course of five months, the real problems began to surface, like their unstable home lives, their interests in gangs and their low self-esteems. Once, one of my tutees flat out told me very adamantly that she would never make the honor roll because she is black, and “only the white kids make honor roll.” As much as I always try to have something to say to these students in terms of advice and encouragement, she left me absolutely speechless. And I can’t even count how many other times I—smart, all-knowing Duke mentor—have struggled to find the right words. I can’t blame them either; even as a college student, I have yet to deal with half of what they face on a daily basis.

You simply don’t experience this in a classroom, not even at Duke.

Often I find myself venting with their burnt-out teachers, ranting to my friends and seeking the advice of my education professors. These students! How can a school and teachers best help them? Is there even a solution? Every tutoring session, I leave with more questions than answers.

Through these experiences though, my personal philosophy of teaching has undergone its own transformation, a type of learning only made possible through these tutees and my research service-learning course. Recruiting “better” teachers and implementing national policies to address the “at-risk” does not work…or at least, not enough to make a difference. The teachers here will flat-out tell you, the achievement gap isn’t closing, even in my tutees’ school that boasts a well-respected reputation here in our community.

And, as the last days of our school year unwinds, when many Dukies like me prefer to throw away notes and to forget a semester’s worth of materials, I cannot and will not stop thinking about these “special” eight. I don’t know how many of them will return next year. I honestly don’t know where they will be in four years, when most of their classmates will be college-bound high school seniors. And I don’t even know how much I have helped them.

But what I do know is that I can only hope by doing…by discere vivendo, learning through living.

Miho Kubagawa is a Trinity sophomore. Her column appears every other Friday.

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