On January 1st, 2020, I was in a teacher’s training program to become an elementary school teacher. Today, December 31st, I don’t know if I ever want to work in a school again. That transformation needs its own essay. But I want to try to end 2020 with a good memory, so here’s my favorite story from my many years of working as a tutor/teacher.
I worked at a middle school as a reading tutor. What that typically meant is that I would go into a classroom and help some students while the teacher helped others. There was one classroom though that whenever I showed up, a table of girls would ask to work with me in the hallway. Their names were Lisa, Jenny, Sarah and Tammy (fake names to protect the kids, obviously). I was flattered, until they told me that they disliked their teacher so much that they just wanted to get away from her.
One day we were sitting in the hallway, and between doing their work, they engaged in their favorite pastime: making fun of each other. I was not spared. One of their favorite topics to pick on me about was my Android phone, the clear marker that I was broke. They were right, of course, but I couldn’t let these 13 year olds dunk on me. I took out my wallet and flashed a $20 bill and jokingly said, “Would a bum have all this money?”
Before I could blink, Tammy had snatched the $20 from my hand. She smiled as she gripped it in her hand and her friends gassed her up.
“Give me my money back.”
“For real though.”
“I’ll trade you the $20 for the $5 in your wallet.”
Now I need you to all understand: I’m the teacher here. At any point, I could have just yelled, or gotten a security guard, or an assistant principal, and gotten both my money back and Tammy suspended. But I didn’t because she’d outsmarted me, fair and square.
“I’ll give you the $5 if you promise to share it with your friends.”
We negotiated for another minute over how we would exchange the money (same time, like honorable people), and then Tammy was $5 richer than when she began English.
I saw the four of them walking together later in the day. “Did Tammy share the money with you?” I asked.
“Yeah, she did,” Jenny said.
“Cool. Have a good day.”
I’ve done a lot of teaching, but that was the day that I got schooled. It’s my favorite story because it demonstrates how smart and quick-witted the children in that school are. How amazing their communication skills are. How generous and kind they are, to share their bounty with each other.
There are so many other stories I could tell like this one, with different groups of children. Yeah these kids might fail these biased, absurdly hard tests. But they demonstrated their ingenuity and brilliance to me in so many other ways during the year I worked there. They taught me how to use a curling brush. How to set up my YouTube channel. Who the hot new artists are. I learned ten times as much from them as I taught them.
When I was hired, I was told that the school had decided to shell out the extra money for tutors because “this cohort is just so low.” The intention behind hiring tutors for kids may be good, but I think that kind of thinking, and ESPECIALLY that kind of talk, is harmful. It positioned us as tutors who didn’t know these kids to presume and expect deficiency.
As I talked to the students though, I didn’t hear or see deficiency. I saw really amazing, really funny, really smart people. That experience was what made me enter the teacher training program I ultimately quit. I want to work with these people, not the boring ass adults I’m forced to talk to every single fucking day. Kids are just so much more interesting. I’d already done 8th grade before, plus I had twenty years of additional knowledge and experience, and I STILL couldn’t keep up with Tammy. That shit is fun. It’s just too bad that adults run the schools.