Asking the Right Question

Let’s call her Alice, a chunky woman (chunky by her own definition) who sometimes comes into class with makeup I wouldn’t begin to know how to apply—thick penciled eyebrows, heavy eyeliner, multiple shades of eye shadow, mascara that makes her eyelashes look like caterpillar fur. Other times she just looks like the worn out single mom that she is, doing good just to get up and get her kid off to school, living with the reality of being an ex-offender on probation, and eating a big slice of humble pie by coming to the Center for Adult Learning to study for her high school equivalency. On her diagnostic entrance test, she scored only about 9th grade level in reading and writing skills, but we both have theories about that. As her teacher, my theory is what I call the rust factor: being out of school for a while can set up perfect conditions to rust the machinery of the brain, and it simply takes time to wear it away. I joke that I’ve got a can of WD-40 in my backpack just in case. Alice’s theory is that her reading and writing skills have atrophied because of texting on her cell phone. I think we’re both right.

I’m very interested in why adult basic education students couldn’t/wouldn’t/didn’t make it through public school, and I’m working on another theory: public school doesn’t cater to kinesthetic learners, those students who can’t quite absorb information or gain understanding if they can’t experience it tactilely in their bodies. Since public school is overwhelmingly geared towards visual and audial learners, kinesthetic learners get left by the wayside. A big factor is controllability. Visual and audial learners are much more likely to be content sitting still; meanwhile, kinesthetic learners are so frustrated that they’re acting like they’ve got ants in their pants, and not surprisingly get targeted as troublemakers or daydreamers who are not able to focus their over-active attention. Maybe public schools have caught on to this fact and achieved a better balance of teaching to different learning styles, but until they do, our little learning center will be packed with disgruntled, shamed, over-active, stymied, and self-doubting kinesthetic learners.

Alice is a self-doubter; we stumbled upon this discovery because I noticed that when I gave her a second chance to answer those questions that she missed on any given test, she did quite well, and she would say “Shoot, that’s the answer I put down first, but I didn’t think it could be right, so I changed it.” I hear that a lot. Students’ first instincts are often right, but they don’t trust them. So I asked her, “Do you doubt yourself often?”

“All the time.”

“When did you first learn to doubt yourself?”

She looked at me with her beautifully flecked amber eyes and when I saw them tear up, I knew I had stumbled on the right question, because the answer was right there, crowning, ready to be born. I suggested that she write a narrative beginning with the phrase “I first learned to doubt myself when…” She nodded, took paper and pen, bent her head and began to write.

The next time she came to class, she had typed her narrative into four pages that detailed how she had been sexually molested by her uncle when she was a tween. When she told her mother about it, her mother had believed her, but her father, an intimidating drunk, had not, and neither had anyone else in her family. In fact they were so angry that she would make such an accusation, they shamed her. I’m not sure what the mother’s response was; Alice was vague on that point. But her paper was very clear on the anguish of realizing that maybe she had gotten it wrong. Maybe she had misunderstood what had happened between her uncle and her. Maybe her perceptions weren’t right. Maybe she couldn’t trust herself. Maybe it would be safer to hang back in self-doubt.

I suspect that that’s how Alice became a bad girl, failing high school, seduced by the wrong road, and eventually landing in jail. Now she is sitting across the table from me, amber eyes open and sparkling with tears as she gladly hands me the brutal facts of her life because I happen to be the first teacher so far to ask the right question.

2 comments on “Asking the Right Question
  1. Wow! Makes me tear up too !

  2. Esteem if this gets to FB!

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