I have decided to become a volunteer tutor, and see myself as an instant hit with my students, at-risk kids chosen by the Children’s Aid Society. I picture myself as their friend, like a Big Sister, only older, with them watching me in awe, soaking up every word I say, as if I am a celebrity, a reading and writing superhero. With my head swollen from grandiose ideals, I arrive at the home of my first three children, in a public housing project conveniently located beside train tracks and underneath hydro lines.
The mother, short with espresso-colored skin, greets me at the door with a blank look on her face. She is still in her nightie, the only clothing I’d see her wear during my months of tutoring. I introduce myself and she shuffles heavily to the living room, as if movement of any kind takes great effort. Cat feces litter the navy-blue carpet from the front door through the hall to the tiny room at the back of the townhouse, crammed with boxes, plastic plants, and dirty dishes.
Two boys and a girl, all taller than their mother, sit on the denim-blue corduroy sofa watching a cartoon on the television. Their mother introduces each child: Tom and Brian are in grades nine and twelve and Stephanie is in grade six. (I’ve changed their names for obvious reasons.) Stephanie has braces on both legs and her hair is intricately braided into rows. The younger boy, Tom, is overweight with a round face, a short-sleeved shirt that is too small, and baggy jeans. When the mother turns the television off and drops heavily into a ripped, faded armchair, the room seems smaller and gloomier. All three kids look at me with suspicion, gutting my confidence.
“Sorry to interrupt,” I say, forcing a smile. “I brought Boggle.” I hold up the word game that is my family’s go-to choice for travelling, thanks to its handy container which ensures no letter cubes fall out en route.
Six eyes roam from me to the game and back to me with a total lack of comprehension.
“You shake the container and make words from the letters?”
Still no hint of recognition.
I rummage through my bag for some paper and pencils, crouch down in front of them and demonstrate on the glass coffee table, making the words “boat,” “cot,” and “little.”
Stephanie raises her eyebrows with interest. I tell her that she and Tom can play to see who gets the most words while I work with Brian. Close up, I see that Brian looks older than eighteen, like he should have finished high school years ago. His skin is darker than his mother’s and his stubbly face is nicked with scars. Sleek muscles define his arms and his dark eyes bore through me like lasers.
“I failed the literacy test twice,” he tells me in a growly voice as we sit at the table situated between the living room and galley kitchen. The surface is covered in crumbs and a disturbing sticky substance. “I should’ve graduated last year but I can’t get my diploma until I pass the test.”
I am not sure how to respond to this information, or how I’m going to be able to help him if actual, qualified teachers have not succeeded. I’m just a writer with good intentions. From the corner of my eye, I see Stephanie and Tom staring at the Boggle letters as if they’re waiting for them to pop. Their mother is leaning back on the chair with her eyes closed. Later, I find out that she is over-medicated for depression which accounts for her almost comatose condition.
“So, what are you into?” I ask Brian.
“Sports,” he answers without looking at me. He is jumpy and agitated in my presence. I can’t imagine him looking at anyone in awe, especially me.
I tell him I’m obsessed with the TV show “Friday Night Lights, and a smile edges across his face.
“Me, too,” he says. “I play football.”
Finally, common ground. Now maybe I’ll get somewhere. I pull the newspaper out of my bag and lay the sports section on the table.
“Why don’t you read one of these articles to give me an idea of your level?” I ask him.
Brian’s smile disintegrates. It takes at least five minutes for him to choose a short article about football. And when he begins reading, it takes every ounce of strength I have to keep from gasping in shock. My grade four son is a better reader than Brian, who stumbles over easy words and seems oblivious to periods and commas.
“Okay,” I say in a shaky voice when he finishes. What do I do now? I can’t make him continue. Reading out loud is as painful for him as it is for me to listen. More than anything, I want to be able to wave a magic wand and make him a good reader. Instead, I ask him to write a couple of sentences about why he likes “Friday Night Lights.”
The fear in his eyes should have been my first clue that this might be a bad decision. Yet I plod on, providing lined paper and a pen when none can be found in the house. Not one sheet of paper in a house with three children. Brian looks at the paper as if it’s going to bite him. He holds the pen awkwardly above the paper and begins, slowly. After every word he stops for a second, then continues. It takes him almost ten long minutes to write three sentences, which are more like fragments than sentences, a jumble of words that are missing basic connectors such as “the,” “and,” “because.”
I feel the heat of his frustration as he watches me read his work. My eyes are riveted on the paper while I try to think of what to say, how to sound positive.
“I should know how to do this,” he says, his voice swollen with anger. “It’s supposed to be easy. Why is it so hard for me?”
I swallow and clear my throat. “This isn’t your fault. You should have had help when you were younger.” I see Brian’s mother, slumped on the sofa, and want to wring her neck for not reading to him, for not making books a priority over television, for not knowing about games like Boggle. Then I wonder if she can read, if she ever tried to get extra help from the school, if she has the ability or strength to impart the joy of reading on her children. Probably not.
Brian crumples the piece of paper, throws it in the hallway and stomps out of the house, slamming the door behind him. I want to run after him, to jump in my car and drive as fast as I can as far away as possible. But there are two more children, younger children, looking at me with skeptical eyes. Their mother is asleep.
I look over the words they’ve made with Boggle. Stephanie has written five short words, one of which is misspelled, and Tom has eight. I think about how my children routinely make twenty words each in a shorter time period and feel sad and hollow inside. I fake a smile at Tom and open my mouth to tell him he’s next but he is quicker than I am, telling me he has a school project to work on in his room.
“Can I help?” I ask him.
He shrugs his broad shoulders and says no.
I glance at his mother, hoping she’ll encourage him to work with me, but she’s still listless on the sofa, her eyelids pasted shut.
“Next week, then,” I call out as he disappears up the stairs.
No response from him but his mother’s eyes flutter open. I sit down beside Stephanie and feel tired, as if I’ve been on my feet for hours.
“I brought a few of my daughters’ favorite books for you to read.” I pull out Matilda, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Diary of Anne Frank and regret my choices immediately. These are probably too advanced and will put her off reading entirely. I officially suck as a tutor.
Stephanie looks at each cover, shakes her head, and discards the books like garbage.
“Are you reading something for school?” I ask her.
She shakes her head and reaches behind her, for a magazine which she holds up proudly, as if she’d written it herself. It’s a teen magazine, with a large photo of Justin Bieber on the cover.
“I bought it for her the last time she was in the hospital,” offers her mother in a soft, monotone voice. “She’s had four operations on her legs.”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“It’s not so bad,” says Stephanie. “I get to miss school.”
I manage a smile but am boiling inside. The last thing anybody in this family needs is to miss school. Why do such bad things happen to the most vulnerable people? The unfairness of life hits me like a cramp in my side.
“Choose an article in your magazine and read it to me,” I say to Stephanie, bracing myself for the worst.
She flips through the pages and settles on one about what Justin Bieber looks for in a girl. Not a gripping piece of literature but she’s reading.
Stephanie begins in a tentative voice, watching her mother for approval as she continues. I am moved by their close mother-daughter bond, and am relieved when I hear Stephanie reading at a higher level than Brian. Still, she is not up to her grade and has difficulty with simple words that should be embedded in her vocabulary. It strikes me that Stephanie and her brothers have likely missed out on the opportunities my children have benefitted from—trips to museums and art galleries, travel, even dinner conversations about daily news events—that have helped expand vocabularies and stirred curiosity. I think about the rows of townhomes in this project, one of many in this city, and am overwhelmed by the countless children like Stephanie, Tom and Brian who face similar challenges and have limited exposure to enrichment experiences. Even if I am able to help them, which seems impossible at this moment, I will only be scratching the surface of this literacy problem.
“I have a headache,” says Stephanie, after reading for a total of five minutes. “I always get headaches when I read.”
“Reading will get easier, the more you do it,” I say. “Try to keep going. You’re doing so well.”
She reads a couple more sentences, about Justin Bieber liking girls who are natural, without a lot of makeup, and stops.
“I think she’s done enough today,” says Stephanie’s mother.
“We’ve only been reading a few minutes,” I say. “And I’d like to do a few writing exercises with her.”
Stephanie rubs her head but I can tell she’s pretending. What I can’t figure out is why her mother is letting her quit.
Her mother rises unsteadily on her feet. “Stephanie needs a break. It’s too much for her.”
Too much? How does she make it through a day at school, I want to ask. But I say nothing, sensing that the more I push, the more this mother will resist. I say goodbye to Stephanie and tell her I’ll see her next Saturday. She watches me with uncertainty, as if she doesn’t believe me and I know that before being able to help her read, I need to gain her trust. In fact, I think, as I drive away, trust is what I need to focus on for the moment. Just showing up every week, letting these kids see that I care and am committed to helping them, will be the first step towards making progress as their tutor. Gone are my ridiculous, inflated images of myself as their friend, as a brilliant tutor. Instead, I drive home feeling small, unqualified, and more than a little embarrassed for ever thinking that I know more than they do.