As a volunteer at a San Jose charter school, I spent a lot of time trying to help Selma, a petite ninth-grader with mascara-blackened eyelashes, blue eyelids, rouged cheeks, and maroon lips.
Whenever the class was given an assignment, her hand flew up and I rushed to her side.
Someone wanted me!
"What do I do here?" she'd say. "I don't get it."
I'd explain. She'd look blank. I'd explain some more. "What do I do?" she'd ask in a dull, doomed tone of voice.
Finally, I'd show her. "You could write something like this." I'd write a sentence. She'd look blank. I'd write another sentence.
She'd sit there like an exotic doll.
For weeks, I thought Selma was completely clueless. Finally, I realized that helplessness was her strategy: All her intelligence was devoted to getting me to do her work. I tried to resist, but Selma knew how to play me. She had trouble understanding the reading - or so she claimed - but she understood me very well.
Of course, she was getting terrible grades. Her helpless-doll strategy wasn't that effective. But it was all she had.
Then one day, Selma asked me a question, listened to the answer, and set to work. No more questions. No more helpless act.
And, I noticed, less makeup. (The use of makeup among ninth-grade girls is inversely correlated to their dedication to schoolwork.)
Something had happened. From that day forward, Selma did her own work. She was a student.
Selma's school, Downtown College Prep, targets underachievers with lower than a C average, plus students who will be the first in their family to go to college. More than 85 percent are Mexican-American; a majority speak English as a second language. The average ninth- grader enters reading at the fifth-grade level.