“What about forty-seven million, seventy-nine thousand three hundred plus nine hundred fifty- two? Betcha can’t do that one!” challenges Thurgood.*
I furrow my eyebrows together in thought and he laughs.
“It is three million four thousand seventy-three!” he said. “Geesh, that one’s easy.”
And so it goes for thirty minutes every week as I do my part to shape the future by tutoring an elementary student in math.
During our last session, we were working with addition flashcards to prepare for an upcoming timed test. After a warm-up, I gave Thurgood one minute to see how many flashcards he could get right.
“Ready. Set. Go!” I started flipping through cards as fast as he got them right. After a minute, there were ten cards in the correct pile.
“Let’s do it again!” he said. One minute later, he had gotten 24 right.
“24! Dude, you doubled your score!” I congratulate. “You wanna try again?”
“Oh, yeah.” he said, pushing him crooked glasses up the bridge of his tiny, freckled nose.
He started strong but them “7+5” really tripped him up. I knew he knew the answer, but once he got it wrong, it just shook his confidence and he started grabbing any and every number that came to him. They were all wrong. I gave him an extra ten seconds and he still only got 21. He hung his head low.
“Should we try again?” I asked. “This time if you get stuck take a deep breath and try again. You are already know all the answers.”
“No – it’s your turn!” he shouted. “Seven hundred nineteen minus three hundred eighty- four?”
I do actually try every single problem he gives me, but he usually has moved on to a new problem before I can get to the answer. He’s pretty squirrelly, moving quickly from one thought to the next and constantly shifting in his seat. Its a challenge to get 10 minutes of good work out of our 30 minute sessions.
Only a few minutes left and I can’t let him go back to class defeated. Sure, he could bomb again, but somehow I know he can do even better than he had.
“Attention Ladies and Gentlemen.” I clear my throat. “Welcome to the World Champion Addition Flashcard Championship Minute.” He smiles a bit bigger each time I say champion so I indulge him. “Defending champion Thurgood Marshall is going again the clock to beat his own record. Are you ready, Champion Marhsall?”
Thurgood looks at me entirely serious and nods. He has a stillness I have never seen in him before. This is the face of focus.
“Ready. Set? Go!”
He begins rattling off correct answers. His lips move when he has to mentally count out the answer. Whenever a 4 appears in an equation, his eyes trace its line, counting the four corners of the square, a trick I remember using.
He gets stuck on “8+7” and frowns when I tell him 14 is wrong. But he takes a deep breath (bless his heart for listening), says “15,” and moves on to the next one.
When the minute is over, we count through the cards. When the tally is in, I make my announcement.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a new champion! With 28 cards right, let’s hear it for Mr. Thurgood Marshall.” I clap my cupped my hands over my mouth while blowing out audibly, imitating the sound of a roaring crowd.
As we walk back to his classroom, I tell Thurgood he probably has the record in his class.
“No,” he says. “Someone has fourty two thousand seven hundred nineteen.”
I am grateful for our ability, as humans, to improve our performance through practice and with focus.
*names have been changed to protect the Champion from unwanted media attention