The year my oldest daughter went away to university, I decided to become a volunteer tutor for at-risk kids, with the Halton Children’s Aid Society. As a writer and mother of three well-read children, I saw myself as a natural, reaching new heights in tutoring, my students surpassing expectations while developing a love of reading along the way. My head swelling with visions of me as a tutoring superhero (in a book-shaped cape), I drove to my first session at a townhome in a public housing project, conveniently located beside train tracks and underneath hydro lines.
Kathy, short and bulky, with espresso-colored skin, greeted me at the door with watery brown eyes. She was still in her pale beige nightie, the only clothing I’d ever see her wear during the year I tutored her children. Although we’d confirmed the date and time over e-mail, Kathy’s eyebrows lifted in surprise when she saw me. She shuffled past the staircase, down the narrow hall; cat feces littered the navy-blue carpet that led to the living area at the back, crammed with boxes, plastic plants, and dirty dishes.
In a fragile voice, with a hint of a Jamaican accent, Kathy introduced me to her children—
two boys and a girl, all taller than their mother. They sat on the denim-blue corduroy sofa watching a television cartoon. Tom and Brian were in grades nine and twelve and Stephanie, with braces on both legs, and hair braided into tidy, thin rows, was in grade six. The younger boy, Tom, was overweight with a round face, a short-sleeved shirt that pulled at the shoulder seams, and baggy jeans. Brian had a muscular build, a shaved head, and a mouth that looked too large for his face. Kathy turned the television off and dropped heavily onto a ripped, faded grey armchair. Without the brightness from the TV, the room seemed to shrink.
“Sorry to interrupt.” I held up Boggle, one of my children’s favourite games.
Four pairs of blank eyes roamed from me to the game and back to me.
“You shake the container and make words from the letters?”
I rummaged through my bag for some paper and pencils, crouched down in front of the children, and demonstrated on the glass coffee table, making the words “boat,” “cot,” and “kit.”
Stephanie’s delicate eyebrows shot up. I told her and Tom to play, to see who got the most words while I worked with Brian. Close up, I saw that Brian looked older than eighteen. His skin was darker than his mother’s and his stubbly face was nicked with scars.
“I failed the literacy test twice,” he told me in a rumbling, indignant voice as we sat at a pine table situated between the living room and galley kitchen. The surface was covered in crumbs and an indefinable, sticky substance. “I should’ve graduated last year but can’t get my diploma until I pass the test.”
If Brian failed the literacy test twice, how did he pass grade twelve English? And how could I help him, if qualified teachers had failed? From the corner of my eye, I saw Stephanie and Tom staring at the Boggle letters as if they were waiting for them to pop. Their mother was leaning back on the chair, her eyes closed. Later, I found out that she was over-medicated for depression.
Brian’s eyes were glued on me.
I tugged my turtleneck which seemed tighter than it had when I arrived. “So, what do you do for fun?” I asked him.
“Sports.” His foot tapped the floor and his broad shoulders were hunched forward.
“I’m obsessed with Friday Night Lights,” I told him, referring to a show about a gritty football team in Texas.
A smile edged across his face. “Me, too. I play football.”
I pulled the newspaper out of my bag and lay the sports section on the table. “Why don’t you read something to give me an idea of your level?”
Brian’s smile disintegrated. It took at least five minutes for him to choose a short article about football. And when he began reading, it took every ounce of strength I had to keep from gasping. My grade four son was a better reader than Brian, who stumbled over easy words and seemed oblivious to periods and commas.
“Okay,” I said in a shaky voice when he finished a paragraph. I asked him to write a couple of sentences about why he liked Friday Night Lights, and provided lined paper and a pen when none could be found. Not one sheet of paper or a pen in a house with three children. Brian looked at the paper as if it were going to bite him. He held the pen awkwardly above the top line and began. After each word he stopped for a second, then continued. It took almost ten long minutes to write three sentences, which were more like fragments than sentences, a jumble of words, missing basic connectors such as “the,” “and,” “because.”
I feel the heat of his frustration as he watched me read his work.
“I should know how to do this,” he said, his voice rising with anger. “It’s supposed to be easy. Why is it so hard for me?”
I swallowed and cleared my throat. “This isn’t your fault. You should have had help when you were younger.” My gaze slid to Brian’s mother, slumped on the sofa. I wanted 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 wondered if she could read, if she’d ever tried to get extra help from the school, if she even had the ability or strength to impart the joy of reading on her children.
Brian crumpled the piece of paper, threw it in the hallway, and stomped upstairs. Tom and Stephanie looked up at me expectantly. No time to worry about Brian. I reviewed the words they’d created with Boggle; Tom made eight and Stephanie had five, one of which was misspelled. Tom jumped up and said he had a school project to work on in his room.
“Can I help?” I asked.
He shook his head. “No.”
I glanced at his mother, hoping she’d encourage him to work with me, but her eyes were shut.
“Next week,” I called out as Tom disappeared up the stairs.
I sat down on the floor beside Stephanie. “I brought two of my daughters’ favorite books for you to read.” I pulled out MatildaandA Wrinkle in Time.Stephanie studied each cover and shoved the books to the side.
“Are you reading something for school?” I asked.
She grabbedTeenmagazine from the floor. It had a large photo of Justin Bieber on the cover.
“I bought it for her the last time she was in the hospital,” Kathy said. “She’s had four operations on her legs.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s not so bad.” Stephanie grinned. “I get to miss school.”
I managed a smile but was boiling inside. The last thing anybody in this family needed was to miss school. Why did such bad things happen to the most vulnerable people? The unfairness of life struck me like a cramp in my side.
“Choose an article and read it to me,” I said to Stephanie.
She flipped through the pages and began, in a tentative voice: ‘What Justin Bieber looks for in a girl’. My shoulders loosened when I heard Stephanie reading at a higher level than Brian. Still, she was not up to her grade level, and had difficulty with simple words that should have been embedded in her vocabulary.
As I sat in that oppressive, cluttered room, I realized that Stephanie and her brothers had likely missed out on extra-curricular opportunities—trips to museums and art galleries, travel, even dinner conversations about daily news events—that helped expand children’s vocabularies and stirred curiosity. I considered the rows of townhomes in this project, and was overwhelmed by the thought of countless children like Stephanie, Tom and Brian living there, who likely faced similar academic challenges. Tutors like myself would only be able to scratch the surface of their literacy deficiencies.
“I have a headache,” Stephanie said, after reading for a total of five minutes. “I always get headaches when I read.”
“It will get easier,” I said. “Keep going. You’re doing so well.”
She groaned, read a couple more sentences, and stopped.
“I think she’s done enough today,” said Kathy.
“We’ve only been reading a few minutes. And I’d like to do a few writing exercises with her.”
Stephanie rubbed her head but I knew she was pretending.
Her mother rose, grunted, and dropped back onto the sofa. “Stephanie needs a break. It’s too much for her.”
Too much? I opened my mouth to object, but changed my mind when I saw Stephanie give her mother a grateful smile. Stephanie watched me leave with skeptical eyes, and I knew that I needed to gain her trust before I’d be able to help her read.
Over the next few months, I tutored Kathy’s children every Saturday morning, eventually connecting with Stephanie through Justin Bieber articles and Boggle, which she grew to love. Tom warmed up to me as well, giving me homework assignments to review, and asking for help with essays. He was bright, especially at math, but his eyes were heavy with the angst of someone who had seen too many bad things in a short time. I didn’t get far with Brian; like many of the children I tutored over the next five years, he had multiple gaps in knowledge and ability, a source of frustration that often bubbled over into manic outbursts.
As time passed, Brian’s frustration escalated to the point where he disappeared, not just from tutoring, but from his family as well. Tom and Stephanie shrugged and said it had happened before; Kathy, who’d spiralled downhill for weeks (not getting out of bed and neglecting to buy food), was the reason my visits ended. Three Saturdays in a row, she turned me away when I arrived, saying she’d forgotten I was coming, and that her children didn’t need help. Always in her nightie. Always with glassy, dilated pupils.
My naive, overblown images of myself as a tutoring guru were long gone. Knowing I had to give up helping Tom and Stephanie, I drove home that day feeling small, unqualified, and more than a little embarrassed for thinking that I ever knew more than Kathy’s children. I was just a writer with good intentions, a rookie without superhero powers or a cape.