I recently got dumped by an 8-year-old. The jilting occurred at a community center on the Upper West Side, where I have been a volunteer tutor the past two years.
This year I was matched with a student who I will call Alex. We met Wednesdays for reading and writing, while another tutor, Karen, helped on Mondays with math.
Alex had wide eyes that made me think of Bambi. We hit it off, but sometimes Alex’s thoughts veered from academic pursuits. One evening he interrupted my explanation about the past tense to tell me about how his friend cost the flag football team a game, by dropping the ball before crossing the goal line.
“Your friend must be upset about dropping the ball,” I said.
“He doesn’t know about it.”
“How could he not know?”
“Nobody told him.”
“Oh,” I said, deciding that further inquiry would be unfruitful.
Despite Alex’s occasional loss of concentration, he was a paragon of discipline compared to his immediate predecessor, whom I will call Hellboy. Upon arriving for our weekly session, Hellboy would promptly go to the bathroom…and not come back. After searching several toilet stalls and imagining a headline saying: “10-Year-Old Boy Missing After Trip to Bathroom; Last Seen with 49-Year-Old Tutor,” I would usually find him in one of the staff offices playing computer games.
My experience with Hellboy made me doubt that I was cut out for tutoring. I considered volunteering with the physically disabled or the elderly—any group who would be unlikely to run away from me. But Alex made me believe that I was adult enough to handle myself around a grade-schooler for at least one hour a week.
I could be tough on Alex, not allowing him to stray from his work for too long. I saw myself as a demanding football coach, whose players would run through a wall for him because they knew he had their best interests at heart. I was the Vince Lombardi of tutors.
Our last session for the semester I was in mid-May. I had signed up to tutor for the summer and was thrilled to learn that Alex was also returning in June.
“I heard you are going to be in the summer program,” I said when Alex arrived.
“Karen is going to tutor me in math and reading.”
There was no warning, no “I really like you as a tutor but…” to cushion the blow. He stared right at me as he said it, his Bambi eyes mocking me for being so naïve, his cold rebuke punishing me for all the times I refused to allow a cookie break.
“It’s great that you and Karen get along so well,” I said nonchalantly, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of seeing my disappointment.
The week before I had been blown off by a woman I was dating, so perhaps I was more sensitive to Alex’s rejection than I otherwise would have been. Still, no matter how you parse it, getting the boot from a 3rd grader is just plain humiliating.
At the end of the hour I helped Alex clean out the box where he kept his study materials. Inside was an essay he had written about Karen: “I like Karen because she gives me presents. She also teaches me things.”
When I get my next student, I will shower him with candy, give him a pack of baseball cards for every correct answer and proffer a new Pacman figure for completed homework assignments.
And when word of my generosity gets around and Alex asks if I can be his tutor again, I will look in his big eyes and say, “I like you as a student, but I think you are too high maintenance for me.”
Ben Krull is a lawyer and essayist who lives on the Upper East Side.
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