YourWords STL

When Students Don’t Want to Be Taught

Feature Blog by Program Director, Anna Ojascastro Guzon


This week, I was able to arrive early to Marygrove’s 44-acre campus, which is surrounded by wooded hills, and overlooks the Missouri River. The sky was blue, a few kids were playing basketball, and I had a fleeting thought of holding that day’s tutoring session outside.  Throughout St. Louis, people seemed renewed by the arrival of the fall weather, replacing the thick, hot air of this past summer. When I approached one of the students, I was almost annoyingly buoyant. “Your tutor wishes she could be here, but she couldn’t make it today…”

“I know. I can see that. I can see that the chair’s empty. So obviously, she’s not here.”

The student had a furrowed brow, raised voice, sharp gestures. So I paused, abruptly, as if he had a remote control. I pressed unpause, and responded as if he hadn’t just chewed me out. “Well, sometimes she’s late. But today she can’t make it so I’ll be your tutor.”

A week ago, this same student, was freely initiating conversation with me, offering comments like “Isn’t it interesting how the brain works,” while working on the writing assignment, without a complaint. And I started thinking that this student had finally given up his resistance to writing.

The plans for that day’s session included homework help, tutor and student assessments, and a short writing assignment.  The ratings from most of the students showed that they “strongly agree” that the tutors have been respectful and helpful. They enjoy the sessions,  “wouldn’t change a thing,” and “want more of the same.”  And they wanted more writing assignments.  With such a small number of students, I don’t feel the need to create a pie chart. However, the fact that high schoolers want to write more, after a full day of school, let’s us know that we’re doing something worthwhile.

One student, on the other hand, stated in his assessment that he did not want help with his homework, and he did not enjoy the sessions.  When asked which writing assignment was his favorite he added a “none of the above” option. Although the assessments were anonymous, I somehow knew who gave us the “1” ratings (1 being the worst).  I decided to sit next to this student, and I asked him to let me know if he needed help with anything.  I was happy to receive his response, “Ok.”

As I sat, I thought of former patients who didn’t want to be in the hospital and students who didn’t want to be in school.  And I thought of myself as a teenager, seething, at everyone, especially at authority figures.  I thought of my young sons who are polite all day until the sight of me triggers a  release mechanism.  When there’s no one else, boys can always lash out at their mothers.  But the children at Marygrove don’t have mothers to whom they can cry and with whom they become angry for all their problems.  

In trying to decide if I should get the student to participate in the writing assignment, I also thought, “What did I want as an angry teenager?” I wanted people to understand somehow.  I wanted just to be angry for a while.  I didn’t want anyone to ask me to do anything.  So I continued to sit next to him. I didn’t take his anger personally or let his negativity affect my mood.  This minor feat is so much easier with students and patients than with blood relations.

After several minutes, the student was willing to converse with me. His answers were perfectly benign but terse, still with an irritated tone. “I like reading about things that I’m interested in” had the same intonation as, “I am fed up with the entire world.” But I was satisfied that he was at least speaking to me. I opted for not urging him to participate in the week’s writing assignment, but I offered him something to read on his own. “It’s a poem, but it’s also a story. And it’s pretty funny so you might like it. It’s called ‘Treason.'” I slid the James Tate prose poem across his desk. He took it in his hand, said thanks, and put it in his folder.




by James Tate

       The man that was following me looked like a government

agent, so I turned around and walked up to him and said, “Why

are you following me?” He said, “I’m not following you. I’m

an insurance agent walking to work.” “Well, pardon me, my

mistake,” I said. “Have you done something wrong, unpatriotic,

or are you just paranoid?” he said. “I’ve done nothing wrong,

certainly not unpatriotic, and I’m not paranoid,” I said.

“Well, nobody’s ever mistaken me for a government agent before,”

he said. “I’m sorry,” I said. “You have something weighing

down on your conscience, don’t you?” he said. “No, I don’t.

I’m just vigilant,” I said. “Like a good criminal,” he said.

“Would you stop talking to me like that,” I said. “I don’t want

to have anything to do with you.” “You’ve committed some kind of

treason and they’re going to get you,” he said. “You’re out

of your mind,” I said. “Benedict Arnold, that’s who you are,”

he said. “I’m going to a peace rally if that’s okay with you,”

I said. “Oh, a peacenik. That’s the same as treason,” he said.

“No, it isn’t,” I said. “Yes it is,” he said. “No.” “Yes.”

“No.” “Yes.” We reached his office door. “I really hate to

say good-bye to you. Would you like to have lunch tomorrow?”

he said. “I’d be delighted,” I said. “Good. Then Sadie’s

Café at noon,” he said. “Noon at Sadie’s,” I said.

“Treason” by James Tate from The Ghost Soldiers. © HarperCollins, 2008. Reprinted with permission.



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