Do dumb people really exist?

April 7, 2009          Comments (2)

When I was in a junior in High School I had my first taste of tutoring. I was in the National Honor Society and because of that I was able to put my name down on a list to become a tutor for kids in the district.

I was asked to pick which subjects I felt comfortable in. I chose them all. Simply because I didn’t want to limit my opportunities by only choosing my favorite subjects. We were told we could charge $20 per hour. I had just gotten my car and it seemed like a perfect after school gig.

My first student was Ethan. He was an 8th grader who was failing social studies, science and math.

He loved sports. He loved hanging out with his friends. He liked cool cars. He liked all of the typical teenage boy stuff, really.

His parents were divorced and his mom was always incredibly grateful and appreciative for my coming over even though she was paying me.

Immediately, I could tell Ethan was hanging out with the wrong kids. His friends – from what I gathered – didn’t think doing well in school was cool. So unfortunately he didn’t think doing well in school was cool.

I met with Ethan twice per week for an hour. Usually in middle school you have a test about every 3-4 weeks. So most of the time, I’d watch him do his homework and then we’d review it. And before exams we’d go over the outline for the tests and review.

But before we did any of that we’d spend at least 5 minutes talking. 5 minutes seems like nothing. But talking about ‘life’ with an 8th grader for 5 minutes is more meaningful conversation than most kids get.*

When I was done with Ethan he was a confident 8th grader getting only A’s and B’s.

Did I make him smarter? Of course not. He made himself smarter. He’s the one that put forth the effort. Not me.

I got more out of it than he did. Ethan helped me realize how powerful inspiration and coaching could be. He also made me believe that ‘dumb’ people don’t exist. Just people who don’t care.

I started to believe most learning disabilities were a joke because his mother had told me that Ethan’s teachers felt he had one.

I also started to wonder what would’ve happened to Ethan if the National Honor Society didn’t offer peer tutoring for $20 per hour.

Clearly he didn’t have a learning disability. He had a caring disability. And I believe most kids who are classified as learning disabled have just that. Either you give a shit. Or you don’t. It’s that simple. Whether you come from a beautiful family or a broken one – how much you care in school – is what will determine whether you’re ‘dumb’ or not.

I know several people who have learning disabilities along with ADD yet they can watch hours of TV or even read books for hours on subjects that interest them. Subjects that they care about!

I’ve read countless case studies of people who were labeled as ‘dumb’ or a ‘failure’ but wound up making it big once they found what really got them going. But what if these people didn’t have the opportunity to find out what they cared about? What if Ethan didn’t have the opportunity to have me show him why he should care in the first place?

Interestingly enough, I’ve had this post written for over a year and I just finished Outliers: The story of success by Malcolm Gladwell. Although effort and skill are hugely important, Gladwell argues that opportunity is even more important.

*According to Donald E. Wetmore the average working person spends less than 30 seconds a day in meaningful communication with their children.

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to the RSS Feed!


  1. Great post Gilbert. I agree with most of what you say regarding the necessity for ‘Caring’ and ‘Interest’ in someone in order for them to learn. I also believe that each of us are indeed capable of much more than we actually ‘do’ due to a lack of effort towards the given goal. However, to say that “dumb people don’t exist” is a BOLD statement. There are surely a plethora of ‘Bio-Psychologists’ who would certainly disagree. I don’t mean to get into a Nature-Nurture debate, but there are countless examples from my 26 years of experience that suggests that there is a definate link between the magnitude of intelect (i.e. smart or dumb) and the genes that have been passed from parents. Please elaborate what you mean when you say that “Dumb people don’t exist. If true, does that mean that Smart peole don’t exist either?

    Please note that this is merely a friendly objection. You have a great blog going and, though new to Blogging, I enjoy reading. I especially liked the Tiger Woods Snooze Story, which is how I found your Blog via Google.

    – 1000 Filanges

    Comment by 1000 Filanges — April 13, 2009 @ 8:57 am

  2. Like the previous poster, I don’t agree completely, but I do agree to a large extent.

    I have seen kids in my classroom completely turn around when something lit them on fire.

    I have kids in my classes who are great kids for me who are disasters for everyone else.

    If we are honest with ourselves, we are the same way.

    Yes, there are kids who learn faster or slower, and yes, I think the abundance of ADHD diagnoses is ridiculous, but they can all learn — if they want to.

    Comment by Heather — December 31, 2009 @ 11:51 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment