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Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Part-Time Job

When I arrived at grad school, I was surprised to discover that everyone had a plan. I too had a plan, of course, naturally, sort of, not really—I had an idea, of what I wanted to do.  I wanted to write and I liked the idea of younger, less experienced people also belieiving that I could write and trusting me enough to train them how.  These two things seemed connected to me somehow and I had hoped grad school would invaritably cause them to crash together in some happy, academic collision.  Everything else was in the details.  That’s what my Graduate Director had told me upon my initial visit, or at least, it’s what I inferred from our fiftenn minute conversation.  I think it was in there somewhere. 

Floundering under the weight of deciding my professional and academic livlihood before Labor Day, I naturally took a part-time job tutoring two Korean high school students in English.  I had never tutored prior to grad school, but as part of my assistantship I had just spent five days training how to convince college freshman not to begin papers with “from the beginning of time” or end them with “in conclusion and summary”, so I felt qualified (enough) to accept the job. 

The first few weeks were rough.  All of our meetings were arranged by their mother who spoke less English than they did and I tried my best not to fall into the ethnocentric trappings of talking to an ESL speaker as an American who spoke only English.  I found my voice rising in volume every time I repeated myself .  By the foruth attempt, I was almost shouting.  I know I talk with my hands, but I caught myself attempting bastardized forms of sign language or maybe shadow puppet shows the longer conversations lasted.  Every time I felt I had offended her, she’d just smile and apologize for her confusion.  Some might have taken these shared moments of misunderstanding as a bridge to empathy, bringing us close together in a way, but I assumed she was cursing my ignorance beneath her tight smile.  I would if I was her.  Eventually, I began limiting the number of words per exchange to siphon out the extraneous adjectives and prepositions, which of course seemed offensive.  We managed.

The exact opposite of this, is the impression that I wanted to give.

 I met two days a week with John and Mary for an hour each.  That’s what their mother said their old tutor did.

“What did the old tutor do for two whole hours?”  I asked, “Were field trips involved?”  She didn’t know, but through another skinny smile told me she was confident that I’d know what to do.

I was sure I did not, but convincing myself that I was their best and possibly only option in central Missouri, I justified my ineptitude and decided I’d figure something out.

John was a fifteen-year-old sophomore who was studying for his TOIFL exam, which would test his grasp of English and determine his fate with every American university he applied to.  John mostly wanted to know about different American expressions and turns of phrase, many of which arose during our sessions. 

“It’s all good: what is it that is good?”

“Well, whatever it is that you’re talking about.”

“And all of it?”


“And what about all of these bridges in the future?”

“The what in the what?”

“You say we’ll cross some bridges when we come to them.”

“Oh, that’s just a way of avoiding something until you have to deal with it.”

“And a bridge helps?”

“No, you want to avoid the bridge, avoid the bridges.  You know, forget it.”

“And when you say rule of thumb—“

“—It just means a commonly accepted way of doing something.”

“But it’s on the thumb?”

“No, uh, have you ever seen Boondock Saints?”

“What’s that?”

“Nevermind  You know, it’s all good.”

Occasionally, we’d go through some flashcards or look at a paper he was writing for class.  One time he asked me to show him how to take history notes—“Don’t bother reading anything in those pastelle-colored boxes,” I told him, “That’s a fool’s game.” 

One time I brought a grammar worksheet that I had hastily printed off of some website.  After reading though it, we didn’t end up using it, but I think he was impressed that I brought it.  At least his mother would be.  I was impressed anyway.  Overall, John seemed content with our sessions and again, I figured he was learning more than he would have without me.

Mary was thirteen and a bit tougher assignment for my extensive college tutoring skills.  Mary didn’t want to talk about Twilight or cool American slang as I thought she might based on my experiences with John.  Mary wanted to go through drafts of school assignments and edit them for grammar. 

“You sure you don’t want to talk about which team you are?  I bet you’re Team Jacob.  You look like a Team Jacob.’

In our early goings, I found the most difficult part was trying to describe how Mary could revise her assignments without having her furiously scribble down an exact copy of my words.  I figured that her teacher might be able to tell the difference between a seventh grade ESL student and an English Masters student, or at least I hoped it.

I tried breaking down sentences.  I tried drawing little pictures to explain what the different parts of speech were.  I got it down to a series of explanations and questions that only partially annoyed Mary.

“So a preposition is a word that connects two nouns together, and like the picture shows, it’s anything that you can do if a boulder is in the middle of the road and you need to get past it.”

I had thought I had remembered seeing this played out on Sesame Street before and getting a kick out of it.  Therefore, I felt a thirteen-year-old should respond similarly.  I didn’t count on the grammar book she cracked open.

What's not to understand? 
“What about often?”

“Well, yeah sure, that’s a preposition too.”

“And until and always?”

“Yeah so prepositions can also do this thing with time, you know, they can show when something happens, I guess.”

“Could you be of the boulder?  Or within?  I don’t think you could.”

“So around, over, through, those are pretty good prepositions!  And I don’t know, maybe if you were like a ghost, you could be within the boulder.  Hey, do you know Shaddow Cat on X-Men?  She could be within the boulder.  Do you know Shaddow Cat?

Blank stare.

“Let’s move on.” 

Usually after each session, the mother would follow me out the door as I left to discuss next week’s session dates.  My assumption was that she felt it was rude to “talk shop” in front of her children, or maybe she just wanted to keep our meetings as surprises to them!  During one of these pow-wow, she explained that John and Mary were going to be particularly busy with extraciricular activities next week, which as I knew of course, looked great on college applications, and would have to take a week off from tutoring.  I said I understood and was somewhat relieved myself as I too was entering a busy stretch in the semester.

It later occurred to me that we never set up dates for when our tutoring would resume so I called her a few days later.  No answer.  I called her the next day and left another message.  About two weeks later I finally got a hold of her.

“So when do you think you’d like to pick up tutoring again?  I don’t want John and Mary to forget too much of what we’ve been working on.” 

Surely, John’s turns of phrase were getting a little rust and Mary might be getting clarity on prepositions from someone else by now.  I didn’t want her learning about these things on the street. 

“Oh, yes, actually we let you know.  Thanks, bye!”

I had gleaned that “actually” was used by the mother to preface a statement that politely opposed the previous statement.


“Would you like to pay me double for all subsequent tutoring sessions?”

“Actually, no.  I would not like to pay you double.”

It’s been over a month since that time and I’m beginning to really wonder just how busy those kids can be.  I mean, I was seriously considering using my graduate degree to become a professional tutor, but now actually, I’m not so sure.  

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