When I first met her, I thought Lena was a typical teen-age girl. She’s 19 years old and wears the wrong shade of lipstick. She wants to be an artist. She likes to talk about boys. She laughs when she’s nervous.
“Do you think I’m weird?” she asked me an hour into our first tutoring session. She was wrapping her bangs around her index finger, giggling as she shifted in her seat.
The question caught me off guard. “Should I think she’s weird?” I asked myself. When I was in high school, weird was bad. “Is this still the case?” I wondered. “Is weird good?” I searched her face for a clue. Her eyes told me weird is bad. Very bad.
“No, I don’t,” I told her, thankful I didn’t have to lie. “Why would I think you are weird?”
“The kids at school think I’m weird,” she said. “I don’t know … they don’t understand me. They don’t understand why I do the things I do.”
The things she does. Now that was weird. Because I had a creeping suspicion that Lena doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary.
But to them, she does.
Lena is from the Ukraine. Her family came to the United States five years ago. In that time, she has learned to speak English. She goes to school. After she graduates this spring, she wants to go to Portland Community College, like her older sister. But first, she needs to pass math.
That’s where I come into the equation.
It’s not that Lena doesn’t understand math. It’s just that phrases such as “the difference of” and “in addition to” and “lesser than” don’t make sense. I’m trying to help. And I’ll continue to help for the rest of the term. But after that, I’ll graduate. Then Lena and all the kids who come after her will have to rely on another volunteer to help make sense of the things that their teachers cannot, whether it’s algebra or life in a new country.
I do not blame the teachers. The teachers are doing the best that they can. But they need help.
Our schools, here in Portland and across the state, need money for after-school programs and to hire more teachers. They need money so students such as Lena can learn to divide the sum of x plus 6 by 2. They need money to teach her classmates tolerance.
That’s where you come into the equation.
Multnomah County ballot measure 26-48 goes to the polls Tuesday. The measure calls for a three-year, 1.25 percent income tax increase for Multnomah County schools, health and senior care, and public safety. If it passes, it will raise an estimated $135 million for services such as:
* More instructional days, programs and teachers for Multnomah County public schools
* Health care, including mental health care, for low-income people
* Prescription drug benefits for low-income seniors
* Restoration of housing and independent living assistance to disabled adults and the elderly
* Reduction in the early release of inmates
* Offender drug and alcohol treatment
I shudder to think of what will happen if it fails. But at least I know what I’ll tell Lena: “No, you are not weird. Your fellow Oregonians on the other hand …”