Adam starts volunteering as a tutor because it will look good on college applications. As a high school junior, he doesn’t yet know which colleges he wants to apply to, but he figures that showing an interest in students from disadvantaged backgrounds will appeal to admissions officers.
The community center assigns him a girl who’s currently in seventh grade. Adam is worried at first that he’ll have to waste time gently fending off a crush; his younger sister’s friends seem to adore him. But it turns out he doesn’t have to worry about Tasha.
She’s a large, expressionless girl in a neon pink hoodie. She doesn’t look at him or register any emotion at his presence. When the tutoring program director introduces her, she keeps her mouth in a flat line and says nothing.
Adam adopts the friendly big brother tone he uses on kids who aren’t his little sister (his sister is too familiar and annoying for such a pleasant voice). When he asks her how she’s doing, Tasha continues to look past his shoulder. When he suggests they find a place to sit in the community center rec room, she shrugs.
The rec room has several shelves of donated books, and a row of laptops chained to tables. Adam picks a table with a laptop, figuring that a seventh grader may need to use it for research or for typing something up.
“So… what do you want to start with?” he asks.
She stares at the wall. Her backpack remains unopened beside her.
“Um…” he tries. “Do you have any reading to do?”
For several seconds, he thinks she’s going to remain unresponsive. But after another shrug, she hoists her backpack onto her lap and extracts a heavy binder from it, along with a copy of The Giver by Lois Lowry.
“Hey, I remember reading that,” Adam says. “Do you think Jonas and Gabriel die at the end or not?”
“We haven’t gotten to the end,” Tasha says.
Adam flushes, but he’s also pleased that he got her to speak. Surely, that’s proof that he can tutor.
She slaps the binder open to a page with three questions on it in bold type. Under each there’s space for a handwritten paragraph. The first question is: What is the definition of a dystopia?
Without looking at him, Tasha hunches over the page and begins to write. Adam tries to squint past her arm, but her neon pink sleeve is all he sees. He doesn’t have to wait for long, though, before she finishes, and her one-sentence answer comes into view: A bad place.
“Is that all?” he says. “Maybe you need to… It’s true, a dystopia is a bad place…” He pauses and runs a hand through his hair. “Maybe you need a more well-developed answer?”
For several seconds, she stares at the wall again. “Like what?” she finally says.
“Uh…” As he flounders, she presses on to the next question. What are Jonas’s pills for?
“Like, maybe at least write in a complete sentence,” he says.
She keeps writing. When she’s done with the second question (Dreams is her answer), he tries again. “I really think you should write in full sentences.”
It’s as if he’s a bird at her window or a fly circling her head. She moves on to the third question. Do you think other people should decide what job you should have? Why or why not?
Sure, she writes and closes the binder.
“Wait, you need to say ‘why,’” Adam insists. “Why is it ok if someone tells you what you should be when you grow up? Would you really want that?”
She shrugs. “I need to do math.”
“Won’t your teacher take points off if you don’t answer the questions?”
“I did answer them.”
“I mean, more completely.”
“He won’t care,” Tasha says, with a sigh. She flips to a different section of her binder, to a page of basic algebra exercises.
But Adam can’t let it go. “He’ll be fine with what you wrote? Really?”
“He just checks off that we handed it in,” she says, and taps her pen against the math worksheet.
“If he took the trouble to come up with questions, he probably wants full answers,” Adam says quickly. He can’t stand how he sounds like a whining old teacher himself, but his duty as a tutor compels him.
“He takes the questions from some website. Most of the kids just copy the answers off the internet,” Tasha says, hunching over her math.
She solves problems inconsistently, getting some right and missing others. Sometimes, she balances an equation. Other times, she forgets to. Sometimes, she observes the rules of PEMDAS. Other times, she’ll seem not to notice a parenthesis or a multiplication sign. He wants to keep jumping in to correct her, but maybe it would be best to wait until she’s done plowing through everything? He isn’t sure.
He scans the room for the tutoring program director, but he doesn’t spot her. He studies the other tutor-student pairs. All of them appear to be in a state of cooperation, leaning together towards a book, a homework sheet, or a laptop screen.
Beside him, he feels the weight of Tasha’s silence and hears the jab of her pen. He wonders if she should be working in pencil, to better erase her mistakes.
She gets about halfway through the exercises before he can’t resist jumping in. “Let’s fix some of these,” he says, and her hand immediately stills. “You’re getting some questions right, but you’re making careless mistakes on some of the others.”
She finishes the problem she’s working on and – he notices with some amazement – uses her fingers to count when performing a simple subtraction.
Steeling himself for resistance, he reaches over and tugs the binder over to him. She lets it go and starts to tap her pen against the table.
“Ok, so with this problem, you forgot to do the same thing on one side of the equation that you did on the other, see?”
Tap, tap, tap goes her pen.
“Tasha, look. See?”
She glances at the page and nods once. He shifts the binder back to her, and she immediately starts on a new problem.
“No, wait,” he says. “Fix that one. The one we just talked about.”
She releases a sigh. “What do I have to do again?”
He shows her, more slowly this time, but he isn’t sure if she’s staring at the wall or glancing at him out of the corner of her eye. After his demonstration, she repeats what he does and immediately settles into finishing the worksheet.
As she plows through the remaining algebra exercises, she curls her arm around the page. With a sigh, Adam sits back and checks his phone.
“Everything ok here?”
He startles, almost dropping his phone. The program director is standing behind him with an expectant look. He flashes her a smile and says, “We’re just working on math now.” A glance at Tasha shows him that she’s still solidly hiding her homework. “We worked on something together, now she needs to see if she can do it on her own.”
The director nods slowly and looks like she’s about to say something else, when she spots another tutor waving her over. “Keep up the good work,” she says and strides off.
It takes Tasha a while to complete the rest of her math homework. Adam isn’t sure whether she’s having trouble focusing or whether the exercises are getting harder towards the bottom of the page. “You know you can ask me questions,” he says. “And I’ll check your work when you’re done.”
Time crawls on, and Adam keeps glancing at his phone. When it seems like Tasha is on the final problem, he tenses, like a bird of prey poised to descend with grasping claws. As her pen leaves the page, he snatches the binder from her and reviews her answers.
On and off, on and off, right and wrong… and she’s made the same mistake he pointed out earlier, failing to balance the equation. “We should go over this. Do you have any scrap paper?”
After several seconds, Tasha leans over and roots around her backpack. Then she pulls the binder away from him and flips through it at a leisurely pace.
“No,” she says at last.
“Listen, it’s simple,” Adam begins. “This is why the problem’s wrong.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she says.
“It doesn’t matter.” She flips the binder shut. “All we have to do is hand it in and our teacher checks it off.”
“But… what about tests?”
Tasha shrugs. “I get enough right to pass.”
Adam feels like his mind has gone blank, as if it’s caved in and become a pile of dust.
“Look,” he begins, sounding uncertain even to himself. “Even if your teacher doesn’t care, another teacher may care in the future. And you’ll be using what you learn now in other classes.”
“I’ve heard that before.” Her mouth settles into a firm, unyielding line. “It doesn’t matter.”
From her backpack, she extracts a science workbook. After a pause to yawn, she stares at the beakers filled with purple fluid on the cover. “I’m going to get water.” She pushes away from the table and lumbers off.
Adam scans the room again for the program director, who seems to have a knack for disappearing when he’s ready to talk. He could go looking for her, but he feels tired, not just physically. Playing with his phone is about all he’s motivated to do.
Tasha takes her time with the water. Adam vaguely recalls a drinking fountain in the hallway, but he wonders if she went in search of water farther afield – on a different floor, or in a different building. When she returns, she doesn’t respond to his nod of greeting. She huddles around the science workbook, blocking it with her arm and shoulder.
It’s only when she’s been working for several minutes that it occurs to him to ask, “If none of this matters, why are you here?”
Her pen stills, and she doesn’t reply at first. “Wasn’t my idea to be here,” she says at last.
He nods, and his mouth cracks open on a yawn. “Fair point.”
The tutoring session ends shortly after. Adam feels relief leap up in him, as he stands and stretches. Tasha crams her workbook and binder back in her bag. Although she doesn’t hurry, she also doesn’t make any slow ponderous pauses or drag her feet.
The program director hurries over to them before they can part ways.
“So, how did your first session go?” she asks.
For once, Adam and Tasha are on the same wavelength: uncertain silence. “Good,” Adam finally says, just as Tasha mumbles, “I need to catch my bus.”
“Of course!” The program director pats the girl on the shoulder. “See you next week.” She returns her attention to Adam. “What did you think?”
Adam’s mouth shapes a few words before he settles for, “Ok. Tough sometimes.”
“It can take time for students to open up,” the director reassures him. “Some of them aren’t used to personal attention like this, people really caring about their education.” She thrusts a paper towards him. “Don’t forget to fill out your tutor log before you go.”
Adam reins in a sigh and sits back down with the sheet, which asks him to list what he and Tasha did today, what skills they worked on. Reading, writing, math, science, he writes.
The next question asks him to report what needs to improve. Some of the math, some of the writing.
Finally, a question asking if he felt like they had a productive session, with two boxes to check (yes or no) and an optional follow up where he can explain why he chose one over the other.
Adam checks the box next to yes, leaves the follow up blank, and turns in the form. He shakes off the stale book smell of the rec room as he heads outdoors, texting his friends that he’ll meet them up for pizza.