I had been volunteering at the youth center in South Central L.A. for about a year and a half when I met Carlotta.
Carlotta had dropped out of high school at the age of 17, and at 19 had decided she needed to complete her high school equivalency if she was ever going to get anywhere in life. I was in her corner cheering for her from the get-go.
She came to me for help with Algebra because it was a required course for graduation, but she was having a very difficult time with it. She had been getting D's and F's on her tests, and was in danger of failing the class and not getting her high school equivalency certificate. I asked her if she could tell me what things she was having difficulty with, but she couldn't. She kept saying over and over again that she was stupid and would never get it. I was shocked (and very angry) that someone had convinced this bright, motivated young woman that she was not capable of understanding Algebra. So I said "Let's take a look at your current homework assignment."
The first problem on her homework said to use the Quadratic Equation to find the solutions to several polynomial equations. I asked Carlotta if she understood what they wanted her to do. She said no (and repeated over and over again "I'm so stupid!") I asked her if she knew what the Quadratic Equation was. She said no again. So I showed her how to look it up in the index in the back of the book. When we turned to the page that showed the Quadratic Equation, her face lit up and she said "I know that!" So she proceeded to chug through the solution of the first few problems. She made a few simple arithmetic mistakes, but other than that she *got* it. I told her that I had tutored upwards of a hundred students in Algebra at that time, and that she was most definitely NOT stupid, and was in fact one of the faster learners I had ever taught. I showed her how to work out the problems step-by-step so she would be less likely to make arithmetic mistakes, and encouraged her to look it up in the glossary or index if she came across a math term she did not understand.
I was only able to meet with Carlotta for three tutoring sessions, as I was six months pregnant with my first child at the time and the commute to and from South Central L.A. after the demands of my day job were getting to be too much for me. But I heard a couple of weeks later that she had gotten a B on her very next test, and went on to pass Algebra and obtain her high school equivalency certificate.
It is students like Carlotta -- who are so intelligent and have so much potential, but who for some reason have been convinced they can't do math -- who make me so passionate about tutoring. EVERYONE CAN DO MATH!