It was a freezing January morning when I walked up to the school that my late husband had attended six decades ago. I rang the bell to get in and signed a sheet in the office. “J’s classroom is down the hall and to the left,” said the school secretary pointing to the right. I ambled down the hall checking the numbers on the doors. I found J’s room and entered. The teacher – a tall bespectacled woman in her 50s –shook my hand and pointed out the child I was to tutor. “He’s a lovely boy,” she said. “J is what I call a ‘bubble’ student. That means a kid who can make strong gains if given additional attention and a boost.”
I am not a teacher. My decision to tutor was prompted one night while watching a T.V. news report on child poverty in the U.S. Among many of the consequences is poor education and the city in which I live is one of the large cities topping the child poverty list. I thought, “What have I done to help? I’ve been looking the other way or maybe not looking at all. I’m basically retired so I have the time,” I rationalized.
After taking inventory of my skills, I signed up for training offered by OASIS, a St. Louis-based organization for seniors that offers such programs as intergenerational tutoring in area elementary schools. I passed a background security check and was assigned to tutor on a weekly basis a first-grade boy.
I approached the 7-year-old who sat slouching at his desk. He was handsome with caramel-colored skin, large chocolate brown eyes, and a big toothy grin. I went over to him and held out my hand. “Hi, I’m Meg. Let’s go out in the hall, sit at the table in the corner and talk. I have some books I love that I want to share with you.” Gingerly, he followed me out of the classroom.
Our conversation on day one was simple. Loose and pleasant. I explained who I was and why I was there, showed him photos of my kids, dogs, late husband, parents, grandparents, nieces and nephews. I learned that J was one of four kids being reared by a single mother who was a telemarketer by day and nursing student by night. They lived with his mother’s parents. J’s biological father was in prison. He loved to play video games, skateboard, eat mint-flavored ice cream, and ride his bike. I would build on this information when selecting books and games for our tutoring sessions. I took his photo with my iPhone, which I printed out at home and pasted on the cover of a “book” we’d compile about him with his stories and drawings.
Soon we developed a one-hour routine. We’d chat, read a book of J’s choice, and discuss it. Then he’d write about something related. I brought a white stuffed polar bear with me to tutoring sessions whom he named “Fluffy.” “Talk to me about Fluffy,” I said. He came up with a story that he dictated. Soon Fluffy became his muse, and then took on a more important role, based on a suggestion from another tutor. “Call him J’s ‘can do’ bear and every time he says he can’t do something, bring out Fluffy,” she recommended. Doing so became so much fun and diffused many moments of frustration when he couldn’t sound out a word or read a passage in a book, for example. I’d pull out our “can do” bear Fluffy and we’d laugh uproariously.
Thinking, feeling, tasting, smelling was all part of trying to reach J’s head and heart. One day, I brought in the book, “Blueberries for Sal” by Robert McCloskey. “Have you ever tasted blueberries?” I asked. “No.” Next time I brought some which he chomped while describing the color, taste, smell, and texture. His eyes lit up as I touted the health benefits and together we ticked off ways blueberries could be used—in pancakes, muffins, cakes, cereal, jams, and jellies. I wrote related vocabulary words on cards and asked the meanings of them. We also used this in a spelling exercise. He then wrote a story incorporating the words and drew an accompanying picture.
About half way into the semester, I saw firsthand the significance of this one-on-one interaction. One day, J and I were reading the Dr. Seuss’ book, “I Can Read With My Eyes Shut.” I said, “J, cover your right eye and read.” He read: “I can read with my left eye.” “Now, cover your left eye and read.” J hesitated. “The page is blurry,” he said. “Read another page,” I suggested. “It’s fuzzy, too.” I emailed his teacher that I thought J might need his eyes checked. A month later, he was sporting new specs.
There were other palpable benefits for J. Last year he doubled his reading level to reach just short of grade level, his spelling improved, and his vocabulary skyrocketed. I attribute some of this success to the fact that he worked hard, and I gave him praise for the effort rather than the outcome. “Way to go with that multiplication problem. It took a lot of thinking to figure it out,” I said, cheering him on.
This was tutoring with fringe benefits for me, too. After my husband died and I left my full time job, I needed something to help me get outside myself and my grief, beyond my freelance writing. Although at the time I had no idea what path my life now as a single woman would take, the time spent tutoring gave me new focus. It became a healthy antidote to my sadness when on Tuesday mornings I’d jump out of bed looking forward to tutoring that day. And when I asked J one afternoon, “What is your favorite thing about school?” he replied, “Tutoring with you.” My heart turned to butter melting completely.
On the final day of tutoring that first year, I found J on the playground. It was a gorgeous spring day and the teacher had taken the kids outside to run around. I gave J the option of staying outside with his class or going inside for tutoring. As J and I walked back into the building through the cafeteria, it was packed with 5th graders who would be going to middle school next year and were eligible to play a band instrument. Music teachers were there introducing the students to the possibilities. My youngest son is a jazz musician, and I’ve met several local musicians who were among the instructors that day and remembered me as “Tommy’s” mother. One asked J if he’d like to blow the trumpet. The teacher cleaned the mouthpiece and let him have a go. He then held an alto sax as the instructor described the different parts of the instrument. We passed the drums and the teacher showed J how to do a paradiddle. This musical tutoring session was serendipitous and one of our most significant times together. Over the next years, music became a theme in our weekly meetings
Four years later, I am still tutoring J who at the beginning of this school year gave me a big surprise. He was waiting at the classroom door for my arrival holding a violin case and wearing a grin as wide as the Continental Divide. He had just come back from the school’s string music class that he told me was “really hard but he liked it.” I said, “Yes. It requires practice, practice, practice,” at which point he looked me in the eye and said, “I know and be sure to tell Fluffy that I’m ready to work hard.”