By Ray Downs
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By Allison Babka
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For centuries, children of wealth learned about the world from kindly private tutors who, soon realizing their pupils' individual gifts and dreads, tactfully adjusted the parents' expectations to match.
Today, Mackler & Associates provides the same service.
It is, by definition, an elitist endeavor tutoring and counseling the progeny of St. Louis' best families, "sophisticating their skills," networking and strategizing to make sure they're accepted by the right schools. The typical customized plan costs $5,000 minimum, paid up-front, no installments. Names of Civic Progress members lace the parent-endorsement list. You walk into the Olive and Mason office suite prepared for Brooks Bros. tailoring and Masterpiece Theatre inflections.
You find a booming-voiced woman in beige slacks, short-sleeved beige print blouse hanging above them, hair short and indifferently styled. The only color comes from her lipstick, obviously a concession, and her words which make no concessions whatsoever.
Leona Mackler won't accept any student she thinks she can't help. "Bad press can kill you," she explains. "And I don't want to waste their time. I'll see this kid as he's driving up in his Porsche and know he isn't going to do a damn thing. He's been too many places, hasn't gotten it done. The parents will be saying, "Isn't Dr. Mackler wonderful?' and the kid's looking at me and I'm looking at him" she bends over, chin on hands, staring straight ahead with glinting eyes "and he's laughing."
She won't take him, any more than she'll take parents' bribe money. "I've had parents put down blank checks and say, "Write one for Stanford.' I've had them add a zero. Or they'll walk in and say, "He will go to Harvard.' And I'll say, "No. This kid can't handle pressure.' Or he doesn't have the skills. Or it's not his goal, so what's the point? I will not buy into this crap of, "He must go to Harvard.'"
She's catapulted many kids into the schools of their (or their parents') dreams. But she's also gotten several transferred from elite private schools to larger, less ruthless public schools, or headed down a career track their parents never contemplated. "There's a little ego-massaging, but we get through it," she shrugs. "The kids are the clients."
Asim Raza, for example, is now a lawyer for the St. Louis branch of a large Chicago firm. The earth has not opened to swallow him. But back in high school despite his frank hatred of biology and chemistry his parents were determined that he would become a doctor. He was reluctantly moving in that direction, until Mackler did an evaluation and suggested law instead. "My parents' vision of a lawyer was what they remembered from a different country," explains Raza. "Nobody in our family was a lawyer." Mackler patiently explained the profession and won Asim his parents' blessing. "She's pretty much the reason I'm practicing law today," he says, then chuckles. "There are times I curse her for it!"
Lee Mackler avoids handing out her own curriculum vitae, which pried from her assistant includes a doctorate in "organizational analysis-corporate culture" from Stanford; a master's from Washington University focusing on research into learning styles; 25 years' experience in teaching and administration; and co-authorship of a program that trains teachers to diagnose reading problems. But she's long past wanting to prove herself, and she's adamant about not making the firm into a cult of her own credentials.
She does, however, meet all hints of snobbery head-on, conceding readily, "We've been very fortunate, in terms of clientele. They come from the finest homes; they have the best resources in the world.
"We have also been fortunate that the product does what it says it does," she adds pointedly, "because if it weren't productive, it would be just gloss and fire."
Mackler started with the idea of helping teenagers prepare for standardized tests, because "that Saturday in May or November knocks too many kids out of potential careers." When she tried to show students that, strategically, the right answer to a this-is-to-that analogy question, would be the same part of speech, she found out they didn't know what adjectives and adverbs were in the first place. So she started tutoring, filling in the gaps. "We weren't getting to know them enough, though," she recalls. "It kept gnawing at me." Five years ago, she moved away from formal coursework to develop an individual plan for each student.
Some have what she calls "special needs," refusing to label any further. "They've been to too many Ladue specialists, with no coherent plan," she says crisply. "All I hear is what they can't do." Once she adjusts the focus, building on the ways they do learn, she turns to the Homework Doers: nice kids who "spit it back out and forget it the next day. Can't apply it, never integrate it. For their teachers, it makes for a nice day. So they give inflated grades. Then the standardized-test results come back, and the parents are saying, "Wait a minute he got all A's in school!'"
A third set of clients are already earning top grades and test scores. Brilliant and driven, they're eager to polish their analytical skills, strategize college or grad-school admissions, or hike their scores even higher into the ether. The pressure doesn't always flow from their parents, either. "Quite candidly, we're getting a new model," remarks Mackler. "The kids are putting pressure on themselves, because society is demanding it. They'd come here at 7 in the morning if I let them. They'll say, "Doc, is it OK if I eat while we work?' I say, "Eat!' But soon they shove the hamburger or taco to the side, and they're at it."