Sarah Avery (dr_pretentious) wrote,
Sarah Avery

One Hundred Years of Tutoring (or, Literature Enrichment Is Sex Ed)

I assigned two of my tutoring students, the ADD Brothers, several short stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The boys loved these stories. In particular, they loved it that "The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship" is a single, five-page-long sentence. Things were going swimmingly in our little booth at the Chinese restaurant owned by the ADD family, until the drifty brother asked what else Garcia Marquez had written. I made the mistake of praising One Hundred Years of Solitude (one of my all-time favorite novels), and then the twitchy brother made up his mind that we had to read it...for the following week.

If you have read One Hundred Years of Solitude, you know immediately that this is unworkable. No matter how fast you read that book, you arrive at the last page feeling as if you have survived a century of rain and slogged through a century of mud. You've seen wonders, wept, cheered, and fallen in love a dozen times, but you're relieved to have escaped from the village of Macondo.

It's not just the scope of the thing that made me say no. It's not just that Mr. and Mrs. ADD don't pay me enough for me to spend the necessary hours wracking my brains to come up with a lesson plan appropriate to the skill levels of two junior high school students. It's not even that these kids with ADD stand no chance of keeping straight a very large cast in which, generation after generation for a century, nearly all of the characters are named either Aureliano Buendia or Jose Arcadio Buendia.

It's the sex.

No amount of money could persuade me to explain to a 13-year-old and a 14-year-old whose parents don't speak English why, in the book, it seems to be okay that the Buendias decide it's time to marry little 9-year-old Remedios off to her very much older cousin, to whom she's been betrothed since (if I remember correctly) the age of six. No way in hell am I going to field questions about that menarche/incest/pedophilia triple whammy.

I have already had enough of being the emergency auxiliary sex education system. Several times now, I've limped line by line through Romeo and Juliet, that pillar of the 9th grade English syllabus, with tutoring students who probably wouldn't have needed me to help them with their homework if their teachers weren't being evasive about stuff Shakespeare is brandishing blatantly. The first Romeo and Juliet session always begins like this:

ME: So tell me what you understand about Act I scene i. Why are the first two characters on stage looking for a fight?

KID: The Montagues are going to be angry because the Capulets decapitated all those girls?

ME: Where do you see decapitation in this scene?

KID: The guy says he wants to cut all the maidens' heads off.

ME: Look it up in the dictionary. No, you don't have to read the definition out loud this time. You stand no chance of understanding this play until you know what they mean by "maidenhead."

And then, because I don't ever want to sound like some scary predator, I bite my lip and refrain from saying, "Don't tell your parents."

Once, the Client Mom from Hell insisted that her kid did not need another week of The First Part of Henry IV, and that I ought to assign him The Second Part of Henry IV immediately. I hadn't reread 2 Henry IV in a while, but I had this vague recollection that there was something in it that the kid shouldn't see. But there was no telling this woman, so 2 Henry IV it was. I caved in.

Bad tutor. No biscuit.

It turns out, the thing I almost but didn't quite remember was the long brothel scene in which Falstaff cavorts with Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet. Fortunately, the Client Mom from Hell didn't speak much English, and her kid's reading comprehension was not great, so he may not even have guessed what he was missing when I focused relentlessly on Bolingbroke's death scene. (In all honesty, I think that scene, in which Prince Hal puts on his dying father's crown too soon and Henry Bolingbroke wakes up to demand it back, is much more engaging than the brothel scene, anyway.) Before the kid and I ever had a chance to meet over Henry V, his mother had finally Crossed the Line about something completely unrelated, and I had to fire her as a client.

If my students' parents just spoke enough English so that I could ask them where their boundaries were, everything would be so much easier, but for the most part, the kids are the interpreters when the client moms and I try to discuss business and logistics. Nearly all of my students are boys, early in adolescence. What am I supposed to say? "Could you ask your mom if it's okay for me to give you truthful answers about sex when the matter comes up in the reading?" All possible results are unspeakably awkward.

Remember how I said I didn't miss old Fair to Middling State University? Well, I still don't, but I do miss teaching college students. In a college classroom, when the student looks all pleased with himself and raises his hand and says, "I just realized: Shakespeare is dirty," one can say, "Excellent observation. Tell me your thoughts about that."
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