As a volunteer at a San Jose charter school, I spent a lot of time trying to help Selma, a petite ninth-grader with mascara-blackened eyelashes, blue eyelids, rouged cheeks, and maroon lips.
Whenever the class was given an assignment, her hand flew up and I rushed to her side.
Someone wanted me!
"What do I do here?" she'd say. "I don't get it."
I'd explain. She'd look blank. I'd explain some more. "What do I do?" she'd ask in a dull, doomed tone of voice.
Finally, I'd show her. "You could write something like this." I'd write a sentence. She'd look blank. I'd write another sentence.
She'd sit there like an exotic doll.
For weeks, I thought Selma was completely clueless. Finally, I realized that helplessness was her strategy: All her intelligence was devoted to getting me to do her work. I tried to resist, but Selma knew how to play me. She had trouble understanding the reading - or so she claimed - but she understood me very well.
Of course, she was getting terrible grades. Her helpless-doll strategy wasn't that effective. But it was all she had.
Then one day, Selma asked me a question, listened to the answer, and set to work. No more questions. No more helpless act.
And, I noticed, less makeup. (The use of makeup among ninth-grade girls is inversely correlated to their dedication to schoolwork.)
Something had happened. From that day forward, Selma did her own work. She was a student.
Selma's school, Downtown College Prep, targets underachievers with lower than a C average, plus students who will be the first in their family to go to college. More than 85 percent are Mexican-American; a majority speak English as a second language. The average ninth- grader enters reading at the fifth-grade level.
Few are in the habit of doing homework or reading for pleasure.
Most are not on track to earn a high school diploma, much less to fulfill the school's mission: Every graduate will be prepared to succeed at a four-year college.
Now in its fourth year, DCP operates on what I call the work-your-tail-off philosophy. Students are pushed relentlessly to do daily homework, to challenge themselves in class, and to plan for college.
As with Selma, it takes time for the message to sink in. But those who stick with it, start doing the work. And, like Selma, they improve.
In 10th grade, Selma shot up to a C average. Competence became a habit. By 11th grade, she was earning mostly Bs.
Last week, Selma, now a 12th-grader, met with a counselor from California State University at Monterey Bay. Monterey Bay offers on-site admission - an instant decision - to high school seniors with a 3.0 grade point average in academic courses, or a lower average with compensating test scores.
For CSU purposes, Selma has a 2.92 grade point average. The counselor checked to see if her ACT scores would put her over the top.
"You're in," he said. He wrote her name on a formal offer of admission. As long as Selma keeps up her grades during her senior year, she has a guaranteed spot in college. Selma's first choice is a small Catholic college, Mount St. Mary's, which she toured on DCP's southern California college trip.
"It has a good nursing program, but I'm worried about the financial aid," she said.
Selma asked the Monterey counselor how to fill out the aid application. Did her stepfather's income count? She listened to his answer and set to work.
The doll look is gone.
• Joanne Jacobs is writing a book about Downtown College Prep, a start-up charter high school.