“Ms. Noor, Ms. Noor!! I got an A on the subtraction quiz!”
I beam back at Isaiah, who has a sparkling ear-to-ear smile while tugging at my shirt. He can barely contain his excitement; it’s palpable and infectious.
“That’s awesome, throw it up!” He meets my raised hand with an excited high-five before skipping back around the second-grade class, rambunctiously awaiting after-school programming.
After eight long hours of instruction, the students at Malcolm X Elementary are bouncing off the walls, ecstatic to see the long day near a close. But that’s when I — along with some other college students participating in the Kid Power Inc. program — enter classes, assisting students with homework and holding lessons about gardening, nutrition, and the environment. In the spring and summer, Kid Power embarks upon hands-on gardening days to help kids cultivate a green thumb and broaden their exposure to fresh fruits and vegetables.
I was thrilled to begin working at Malcolm X Elementary because, the way I see it, children are the epitome of human potential. And I’ve always liked being around them for that very reason (along with the fact that they often can’t help but be brutally honest and sincerely themselves). Kid Power was my second foray into service since beginning university. Though I was only 18 when I took up a tutoring position with the organization, I had a firm grasp on the responsibility I shouldered when working with the children.
Those who sign up to be teachers, instructors, or counselors wield the consequential power to hinder or assist children on their journey to self-actualization.
When I was in school, I recall not only receiving unbounded encouragement but also practical guidance on how best to pursue my passions. I felt dearly cared for by the educators around me and hoped to pay it forward by creating a similar environment with my students. While working with youth, I’ve consistently noticed that many students struggle with issues of self-confidence.
When I first meet Isaiah, he’s seated at a desk with his head hung forlornly over a math worksheet. As a fellow victim of the perplexing clutches of math, I can detect a sense of premature defeat. So, I pull up a tiny chair next to him to assess the situation.
Mustering an upbeat tone, I propose we solve some problems together. A small smile creeps up on his face. Isaiah finally lifts his head to look at me. “Heck yeah! Here ya go!” He expectantly slides the paper in front of me.
I shift the “Double Digit Subtraction” worksheet back slowly and say “How ‘bout you tell me what you think the first step in solving number one is. 52 minus 10, let’s start there.”
The smile promptly drops from his face and he rests his head on his hand. “I don’t know. I’m no good at math” he utters flatly.
My heart sinks upon hearing this, even though I had voiced the same sentiments countless times before in my own life. My mind races back to my pre-calculus teacher in high school, who scared the living daylights out of me and wielded a dismal teaching style. Being told that I hadn’t mastered foundational algebra well enough to excel in class was hard to stomach back then and it was no more comfortable to remember now.
Determined not to let Isaiah travel down a similar path, I snapped out of this memory. With a newfound rigor, I insisted, “Why do you say that?? C’mon now, let’s just take this thing one step at a time.”
Though he lets out the biggest sigh I’ve ever heard a lil’ guy muster, we get busy breaking down the first problem into tiny steps. Isaiah is hesitant at first, constantly doubtful that his intuition is wrong. But after working through the first couple of problems together, he takes the reins and flies through the last half largely on his own.
“Oh oh, I know how to do this next one! Don’t tell me. 7 minus 2 is 5, and then 9 minus 4 is 5 sooooo…” The now upbeat boy scribbles away with his back hunched over and eyes only inches away from paper.
“97 minus 42 is 55! Right? Did I get it right??” Isaiah’s big brown eyes gleam while he impatiently shakes a single leg.
I chuckle “Yeah, you got it right, that’s perfect. I have no idea why you said you’re no good at math. You have to believe in yourself, look how well you’re doing!”
Twirling his pencil around he looks down and scribbles on the margins of his paper explaining “Well my friend Vincent sits next to me in Math, and he always gets A’s... and he finishes up math worksheets a whole lot quicker than me.”
Vincent is on the other side of the room, hastily sifting through the modest class library to fill up his time before dismissal.
Isaiah’s admission of his insecurities exposes my own youthful vulnerabilities, which had managed to stick around in the recesses of my mind. I too would feel disheartened by the speed at which my classmates knocked out problem after problem in math class. I too had deemed myself inadequate when comparing my performance to “naturally gifted” peers for whom math just seemed to “click.”
But when I really sat down to think about it, this feeling was entirely natural and more common than many of us care to realize. At university, I felt as though I was behind when I saw other students taking up impressive internships in only their first year of school. We see others excel at a certain skill or job and subconsciously count ourselves out, internalizing feelings of inferiority that prevent us from reaching our full potential and appreciating our own accomplishments.
Snapping out of my own thoughts and tapping into my earlier realizations, I remark “Sure, Vincent might finish his work quickly and get good grades but Isaiah, you should never compare yourself to others. It doesn’t get us anywhere. Look at all this work you just did, all on your own.”
Isaiah shrugs and peers down at his worksheet, unsuccessfully hiding a small grin of satisfaction.
I insist, “You can do math well, really. Even if you don’t love working with numbers, that doesn’t mean you can’t get good grades in math. And if you do what we did today, staying focused on each problem, working through it bit by bit, you’ll be able to go as far as you dream!”
Isaiah stands up and takes a little stretch and scratches his head before taking the worksheet and putting it in a folder. “Thanks Ms. Noor, I'm gonna keep at it. You helped me a bunch, this subtraction thing was easier than I thought! But ummmmm…” He looks off to the kids congregated by the rug, reading and chatting away. “Can I have some free time now?”
With a soft smile, I nod my head. As I watched him skip away to his friends, an amusing realization crept up on me. Somewhere in this hour, the lines between teacher and student had blurred beyond distinction.
- Kid Power Inc. is an organization that inspires youth leadership in the Washington, D.C. area by promoting academic advancement, physical and emotional wellness, and positive civic engagement. To support Kid Power or find out more about their work, check out their website here.
- If you are interested in volunteer tutoring but don't live in the D.C. Area, chances are there is an organization in your town which does similar work. For instance, School on Wheels, is a great organization in the Greater L.A. Area, SMART is an organization based in the Bay Area, or you can even volunteer online from anywhere in the world through organizations like UPchieve
About the Author
Noor Chaudhry is a Philadelphia native living in Washington DC working as a consultant for the Social Sector Accelerator - a nonprofit dedicated to creating powerful coalitions and building effective grant-maker practice.
She majored in Political Science and International Affairs at George Washin- gton University, leading a refugee and migrant advocacy group called No Lost Generation (NLG).
She hopes to utilize her skills as an organizer to lead a career dedicated to social good and lasting impact.
Check out Noor's writer's page for more of her work.