It is vastly more difficult to find a volunteer opportunity every single day in this city than one would think, so in spite of my better efforts to write about something besides tutoring, I somehow committed myself to doing just that for the better part of spring.
The kids I signed up to work with were college bound, and needed help with their writing skills for the college entrance exams, so I consoled myself with the thought that I would not be a glorified babysitter, as was the case last time I set foot in a school (see Race to the Top of the Stairs).
The halls and classrooms of Brandeis High were a drab off-beige, and had the generic look of a school that is neither loved nor appreciated. A half dozen pairs of tutors and tutees were scattered around the first classroom, so I marched up to the teacher’s desk and announced myself to the supervisor. With a sideways glance at the dark-haired little girl wiggling around at his side, he casually suggested that I work with her, as my student would not be putting in an appearance.
The girl, Marisol, had a smile so wide it swallowed her face. She seemed harmless enough, so I unhesitatingly agreed to work with her. Had I been sharper, I would not have mistaken the mischief in her eyes for liveliness.
Marisol wheeled her backpack – yes, they have wheels now – over to my desk, and rooted around through piles of crumpled paper for her homework assignment. We decided to tackle the math first, and when I saw the worksheet lined with rows of clock faces, I felt confident that we could breeze through the task in five minutes or less. The work looked far too easy for a third grader.
We encountered our first snag at the clock set to 1:45, and at the point, I knew we were in for a bumpy evening. Thirty minutes later, the time on the nine clocks had been duly told. I was certain Marisol was no closer to understanding how to tell time.
Not everyone is good with numbers, so I watched hopefully as Marisol pulled a slim book about fairy witches out of her bag with slightly more enthusiasm. When she dove back into her bag and unearthed a baggie full of Dorito’s, my hope gave out. I opened the book and tried to catch her attention by feigning interest in the parts she had read so far. She wriggled her head madly, like a puppy trying to find its mother’s milk, and began kicking her legs back and forth.
Then I made a critical mistake. Marisol had been mostly quiet up until that point, although I had attracted some odd stares from the other tutors when she began writhing around. Since the book was dialogue-heavy, I suggested trading off characters so we could read it like a play. Marisol took to the idea immediately, and before I had a chance to stop her, jumped up and shrieked her lines aloud.
After some convincing, she agreed to bring the volume down a notch. At her next turn to read, she whispered the words so forcefully, Dorito crumbs spewed from her mouth onto my sleeve. I tried not to recoil, and cast a miserable look at the study hall monitor, who studiously ignored me.
Sixteen hours later, we shut the book in relief. Marisol flopped her hand in my direction and headed for the door, papers flying out of her backpack like the character with the dirty blanket in Peanuts.
I put my headphones on and blasted music as loudly as I could take it as I practically ran to the subway. While I was staring anxiously into the blackness for a sign of subway lights, someone tapped on my shoulder. I turned to find my boss staring at me in surprise. Neither of us live on the Upper West Side, and it didn’t take long to figure out that we had been at the same activity.
We traded stories all the way to Times Square, and with a sense of relief, I realized that I hadn’t been the only ineffective tutor there that night.