I ATTENDED A tutoring class in geometry last week, and by the time it was over I felt rather dumb but I sure felt better about the human condition.
Here's one of the questions I faced:
"A regular hexagonal mirror frame is to be built from strips of two-inch pine lattice. At what angle should the lattices be cut?"
I didn't have a clue.
But I watched as volunteer tutor Tim Malarkey patiently helped Ebony Murph, a sophomore at Overbrook High School, solve the problem. We were at the office of Philadelphia Futures (www.philadelphiafutures. org.), a wonderful nonprofit program that provides mentoring and support to neighborhood high school students so they can achieve their dream of a college education. (Full disclosure: I have previously served on their board, but no longer do so.)
When Malarkey, 39, was done explaining the solution, Ebony nodded her head to indicate she understood. I clasped my head in my hands to indicate I was beyond hope.
Several other students then approached Malarkey for help: Cameo Pritchett, an 11th-grader at William Penn High; Eric Watkins, a 10th-grader at Roxborough High; and Myrline Gillot, a sophomore at Northeast High, whose sister benefited last year from Malarkey's tutoring and is now a freshman at Gettysburg College.
I did no better with their problems than I did with Ebony's.
Fortunately, I wasn't there to brush up on geometry; I went to receive a shot of optimism. Tired of hearing about nearly one out of every two students dropping out of high school, nearly 17,000 students absent each day, and too many kids killing or being killed on our streets, I needed to see some students who are making an extra effort to help themselves.
Ebony, Cameo, Eric and Myrline are just a few of the 220 high school students enrolled at Futures. They are following in the footsteps of more than 200 former Futures students who are now enrolled in college. Another 221 have graduated from college or an institution of higher learning. Some are now in graduate school or in the workplace.
And tired of hearing adults talk about the problems of inner-city education, I needed to watch someone doing something about it - on his own time, and his own dime.
Enter Tim Malarkey, who has been doing just that for nearly the past five years. Every Monday at 4 p.m. he arrives at the Futures office to help whoever shows up for math tutoring.
He doesn't live or work in the city. He has three young children of his own and isn't even trained as a teacher. He majored in physics at Swarthmore College, lives in affluent Wallingford and makes his weekly Monday jaunts to Center City from Berwyn, where his 15-person insurance advisory firm is situated.
He believes he is simply paying back for the support he received throughout high school. "Although I was always near or at the top of my high school class, it really was only possible because of, and it required, a lot of help beyond my normal school day." He particularly credits his dad and two teachers.
He takes his inspiration today from many of the students he tutors. "They stay so positive . . . despite some incredibly tough circumstances," he said. "They are very inspiring."
Last year, the students repaid the compliment by presenting him with a "Hats Off to You Award" at Futures' annual graduation ceremony. As one of the students said, "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have the spark or interest in math that I now have."
Like many of the students he tutors, Malarkey has his own dreams for the future.
So he has taken preliminary steps to set up a nonprofit group - named The Wells Group, after one of the former teachers who spent time tutoring him and died shortly after Tim graduated from high school.
The long-term goal would be to raise money to lure the best and brightest college graduates at salaries commensurate with entry-level Wall Street salaries to tutor inner-city youth for several years.
"Real economic incentive could keep the brightest minds out of the options trading firms for at least a year or two to help some kids," he hopes.
I'm sure Malarkey will face a number of roadblocks that will stump him temporarily, just like he was stumped last week by one of the student's geometry problems.
But when I got home later that night, there was an e-mail waiting for me. Not surprisingly, he had figured out the solution and was e-mailing it to the student.
I was still clueless at what angles I should cut those lattices; nonetheless, I learned so much that day. *
Phil Goldsmith has served in senior positions in the private and public sectors, most recently as city managing director. You can read more about this article on his blog, www.philgoldsmith.blogspot.