As a classroom English teacher, I used to really crack the whip. Kids in my classes cranked out top notch work and lots of it. My “evil eye” or tapping of a pencil quieted down even the most rowdy. So it surprised me, at the family shelter where I work as a homework tutor, when the kids ran circles around me. They used time-honored lines: “I don’t have any homework.” “I can’t do this.” “I have to go to the bathroom.” “I’m too tired.” They somehow sensed I wouldn’t press, accurate little barometers that kids can be.
Until last week. Last week was the first week of the new school year, and this year would be different. It was time for me to “man up,” as friend Nick likes to say.
I showed up crabby and tired, after a day in doctors’ offices. I felt like the eight-year old who sat next to me looked. Head on her arm, Espy stared at her sheet of arithmetic problems and mumbled that she didn’t know how to add or subtract. I appealed to her pride. “I bet you do, a smart girl like you. So tell me, how much is four plus three?” She didn’t know. I held up four fingers on one hand and three on the other. “Count them,” I said. She shook her head. I went to a shelf and brought back a bead board. “Look,Espy,” I all but growled, “we’re going to do these problems, every last one of them. We’ll sit right here until we finish, even if it means you can’t go out to play with the others.”
I was so mean. Espy eyed me for a few seconds, then picked up her pencil. Slowly we worked our way down the work sheet. It was painful and laborious, pushing colored beads and counting, problem after problem, row after row. But we finished. “You did it,” I said without smiling. “I knew you could. You’re no quitter.”
We stood to walk out to the playground. Espy didn’t smile either when she put her arms around my waist and hugged me before running off to join the others.