January 19, 2016

Leveling the Playing Field

by Nick Stern '18

Nick is an ardent proponent of improving education as a medium through which to better the community at large. Together with Heba Haleem he is coordinating Brown's SAT Prep Program, which aims to prepare students from low-income backgrounds to take the notorious standardized test.

On a breezy fall day in early October of this past year, as I was gracefully tracing “BSAT Prep” in elegant, sprawling chalk over a freshly washed board, a Brown student passing by poked their head in the door and asked what I was up to. With a smile on my face I dropped the chalk and began the spiel I had practiced over and over in preparation for the informational meeting I was to lead in fifteen minutes’ time.

“Wait a second,” the student cut me off. “You don’t do this for money?”

I kind of gave him a puzzling look before slowly shaking my head. “These kids are coming from low income backgrounds,” I tried to explain. “They don’t have access to the standard materials that a lot of Brown students did when studying for the test.”

The student nodded their head as if to say they understood, yet I knew what they were really thinking. They were acknowledging that the work our tutors do is important for the community, but they didn’t understand how important BSAT Prep is for the tutors as well. They didn’t truly understand why we do what we do.

How could I blame them? When I joined the program it was simply my way of giving back the education I knew I was lucky to be receiving. But over the past year my ideology has completely transformed.

As an SAT tutor last year I was matched with Amir, an inquisitive, attentive high school junior with a twinkle in his eye that betrayed his inner drive to make a life for himself. And there I was, on the other side of the SAT diagnostic test on the first day, listening to Amir’s plans to join the air force. Each time we met, I would ask him how his week was. He would always have a story for me about how he rode on a high-speed fighter plane, went through a training regimen, or went on a trip to a military base as a part of his ROTC program. His dreams provoked something within me: an effervescent desire to help him accomplish what he told me about.

It’s time to even the playing field. There are too many bright souls that fall off of the tracks toward their hopes and goals just because they don’t know what the word “magnanimous” means, as English is their second, or even third language. Intelligence is so multi-faceted. It doesn’t fit a set definition. It comes in more colors than there are in a Van Gogh painting.

The SAT is the troll under the bridge for high schoolers, and to arm them with the mental weapons they need to take down the beast is the metaphorical goal of the program. Words are potent, and to pass on the power of speech to those who aren’t heard answers the question of why we tutor.

Amir has not returned my messages since this summer, but given his determination, I am sure he is off on a path to progress, and I can only hope that I helped him a little on the way.

At least he can factor a quadratic.

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