I do not have what it takes to teach children. I do love tutoring adult students one on one. I like backtracking with an adult student to find that moment when they first knew that they didn’t know everything. Sadly, at times I must also help them find the moment where they begin to believe they don’t know anything. Post high school education is still designed for high school students. Life experience, more often than not complicates the learning process. If they gave diplomas for trial, error and survival to adulthood then a lot more adults would go to college, heck, academic courses would be electives.
I tutored at a community college for two years (’06 – ’08) and today I ran into one of my former students. She is also one of my most inspiring teachers. CB dropped out of high school at fifteen, had her first child at sixteen, lost her husband and earned her GED at thirty-six. When she was forty-two, her youngest child told her he would only enroll in college if she went with him. Pretty smart kid.
At twenty-seven I didn’t think that I had the right to tell this woman anything. I was so in awe of her strength and determination. I was intimidated… I never get intimidated.
CB had enrolled in a not-for-credit refresher English course. By the third week she had fallen behind her classmates. When I met her she had convinced herself that she had made a mistake, that she was too old to learn, that she wasn’t that smart to begin with.
Our first session was rather awkward. She was defensive and I feared that I would say the wrong thing. I am rather blunt at times, not purposefully rude – I just don’t like wasting time. After about twenty minutes of tip-toeing around her assignments, reading over the syllabus (which was vague and obviously a cut-and paste job) my patience ran out. I grabbed a literature book, opened it to Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and told her to read it while I tracked down her teacher. In truth, I was pissed-off and I issued an order – surprisingly, she obeyed (guess I picked up a few things in the military).
Half an hour later – just ten minutes left in our session – I returned to find that she had taken notes on the story. My heart warmed for I had taken notes on her syllabus and (insert stage bow) negotiated with her teacher to allow her to make-up some missed work. When I told her this news she let go of so much tension I thought I would fall over. She did not want to disappoint her son, my heart broke. I swore to myself that I would do all I could to not only help her pass, but also to help her believe that she could excel. I wanted her to love the written word as much as I do.
Luckily, she liked The Lottery. As it is one of my favorite stories of all time, I knew it inside out. Breaking down that story helped us build a working rapport and a partnership of trust. I did not have as much confidence when it came to the assignments for her class. She was learning material that I shamefully took for granted. Not wanting to let her down, I relived my entire educational experience with the English Language (when does one find an occasion to explain auxiliary verbs) – I followed that syllabus and tried to stay a step ahead of her class. That was one of the most valuable lessons of my life:
Don’t assume that you know something. You only know ‘it’ when you can clearly and confidently explain ‘it’ to another.
I was really happy when I saw her in the grocery store today. There was no hallmark moment, neither of us cried or caused a scene. We are ‘tough’ women of the world – we don’t do that. We didn’t really have much to say to each other. So much time has passed since we last saw each other. We had not socialized beyond our four hours a week, we always stayed on task during that time. We both learned from each other.
I will say that she is still in school part-time and plans on continuing to a four-year school – her son compromised, he told her that for his graduation present he wanted her to go for a BA – he is a senior and will graduate in June. I love that kid.