LEARNING CURVE

Leona Mackler has parlayed a lifetime of education and experience into a lucrative practice helping the children of St. Louis' elite achieve their (and their parents') dreams

At the opposite end sit privileged kids with mediocre records, kids who haven't yet learned to work hard and care. "Why should I bother?" they whine, and Mackler promptly agrees: ""Why should you bother — why not just be like everybody else?' And then I'll grab their hand and compliment their ring and say, "You plan on buying any more of those?' Or I might say, "One day you're gonna meet a boyfriend, and he's going to ask where you went to school.' Or, "So what do you play, buddy? No. 2 guard? No kidding. You're not the point guard? Oh, I get it — you don't want the responsibility of leading."

Word of Mackler's bluntly successful approach has spread: Parents are flying their kids in from Chicago, California, Long Island. "One man called, mentioning schools we'd never heard of," she recalls, "and it turned out he was calling from Houston. He said his son was an underachiever; he was going to fly him in for three weeks; he'd be at the Breckenridge."

Mackler found him a family to stay with instead and started figuring out why the boy wasn't motivated. "One of their major problems is priority-setting. They've just got too much going on." One student moved up his tutoring session so he could fly to New York to meet his parents for a show and dinner. Another student's parents stressed his need to attend Wimbledon, telling Mackler that as a former Olympic athlete (Olympic point guard in basketball, Olympic shortstop in softball and world-class pingpong player to boot) she should understand.

Leona Mackler
Jennifer Silverberg
Leona Mackler
John-David Graziano, a junior at Whitfield Academy, says of Mackler: "She taught me to use what I have, and I started to excel."
Jennifer Silverberg
John-David Graziano, a junior at Whitfield Academy, says of Mackler: "She taught me to use what I have, and I started to excel."

"I'm a musician, too," she retorted, "but that doesn't mean he can spend his time at Grateful Dead concerts."

"Sixth-graders are telling me, "I'll pencil it in,'" she sighs. "Many kids don't sit down to a meal with their parents even once a week. They're out at restaurants, whipping out the plastic. Over the summer, they swam in the Red Sea, they sailed in — " she gropes for the destination. "Not Bermuda; that's nothing anymore."

Sometimes all this cultural and international exposure deepens and matures a child. Other times, the glitz hides deep misery. Mackler has uncovered three borderline suicides with her "backdoor therapy." "A lot of times the kids just want to talk," she says, "and we'll push everything aside (she slides a book across the table to demonstrate) and talk. And then we will come back to it."

With parents, she's less gentle: She told one divorced couple, "I don't care if you two kill each other when you get out of here — you will do this together." And when a wife fluttered that her husband wouldn't be able to come because he was "a very important man," Mackler dryly remarked that she'd chosen the wrong adjective. The father was there the next week.

Listening to Mackler's down-to-earth observations, you wonder whether she'd secretly like to extend her client base a little, stretch it, say, to the North Side. Turns out she taught for years in the city schools, "where you'd better know what you're doing." At one point, she was chosen to teach in a special program for kids who'd never made much headway. "We even had a second-degree murderer in the class," she recalls cheerfully. "I spent that whole summer working on a literature syllabus. Then I walked in and they were sitting there, arms crossed, looking at me with shades on. I handed out the syllabi, and they tore them up in front of me. So I said, real slow, "Well, now, we've got a little problem, because you don't know what to do, and how will I assess you?' I told them they had 15 minutes to think and walked out of the classroom" (calmly breaking school rules for the effect). When she returned, their spokesperson said, ""Hey, you got any more copies of that thing you gave us?" Mackler looked contrite. "Aw, I'm real sorry, but I don't have any extra copies," she lied. "They got down on their hands and knees and started picking up the pieces."

Nostalgia is pouring into her voice like syrup of Coke — why'd she leave? "When you're the deputy superintendent, there's no place to go," she shrugs. "I would've wanted to be a principal forever, I thought that's where you could make a difference. Wrong. At least here, we have the gratification of seeing changes."

To many families, the $5,000 bill for those changes is prohibitively expensive. But for the service rendered, Mackler says it's actually quite low. "What do you charge for helping kids become doctors or lawyers and make half-a-million a year?" she counters, turning the question rhetorical. "I think that is the frustration teachers feel: When those kids come back and say that without that teacher it would never have happened, the teacher's still making $24,000 a year."

When John-David Graziano started at Mackler & Associates, back in sixth grade, "he was not even achieving B's and C's comfortably," recalls his mom, Susan Erker. "The school was telling me he was a slow learner; he needed glasses; they even blamed my divorce. But I knew he was capable — his father was a straight-A student." To this day, Graziano's dad only needs to read something once to grasp it forever. Drives his son crazy. All through grade school, Graziano had trouble just reading, let alone comprehending. By the sixth grade, he'd convinced himself that schoolwork didn't matter, and he spent all his energy "playing soccer, hanging around and going to recess."

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