Right after I graduated from college, I started tutoring students to boost their verbal SAT scores through Kaplan Test Prep. My family needed financial help and my FT job didn’t garner me a high enough salary to assist to the extent that was required, so I looked around for a PT gig. I learned about Kaplan, took the test, underwent an interview, and wham! There I was, a bona fide SAT tutor.
Most of the students I was assigned to didn’t need SAT tutoring. They were smart, studious, and highly educated. Since their parents could afford Kaplan to begin with, obviously almost all of them lived in top school districts or attended private schools. Their parents only hired me to help their kids gain an extra 300 points or plus to further increase the possibility of them being admitted to an Ivy or similar college.
I remember one student in particular. I don’t recall his name, but he was precocious and acted in an insouciant manner that reminded me of many of my schoolmates at boarding school; he exuded that casual, yet assured air that he was smart and privileged, but a nice guy. And he was. Polite. Funny. He had that mischievous gleam in his eyes, but he never treated me like “the help”.
However, he showed up to the first few sessions without having completed his assignments and whenever I chastised him, he would give me a saucy grin, as if to say, hey, come on, really? So what? I would then make him do the work before we began the lesson, which he did, in record time, and usually he would get everything right.
“I like you a lot more than my math tutor,” he said after a few of these instances. “He told my parents I wasn’t doing my homework. He told on me, like reported me or something.” He looked at me, waiting for my response.
“Well, he was doing what he thought was right,” I said.
“You don’t tell on me.” I could see that he was waiting to weigh what I would say. “You’re cool.”
I knew, instinctively, that my answer would affect how the rest of the tutoring would unfold, whether or not I would be able make an impact on him. In my mind, I threw up my hands. This was a kid who was good at manipulation, at utilizing his charms to get out of scrapes and doing chores, at thumbing his nose at authority and getting away with it. I was new to tutoring, but I instantly perceived that the gentle-teacher approach wasn’t going to work. And I have a temper of my own. So I forged ahead with what I’m best at, which is being honest and frank with people about what I think. It usually backfires, but I was pretty frustrated.
“Whatever. It doesn’t matter whether you think I’m cool or not. That’s not the point. You can do the work, you’re obviously smart, you complete the assignment right in front of me every time in fifteen minutes, so why can’t you just do it before our lessons?”
“Because it’s boring and I know how to do it anyway.” He said.
“Yeah, I know that.”
“So…look. Your parents pay me to do a job, which is to help you with your SATs. And you not having your homework done before I get here takes time away from me being able to help you. See? So if you know and I know that you know the material, why can’t you just do it?”
“If I don’t, will you tell on me?” His eyes were level, serious.
“No. Okay? No. I won’t. Because you know how to do it. The only person it negatively affects is you, so if you want to take away from our lesson time, that’s your choice, okay?”
“Even though my parents are paying you to make sure I do my homework?”
“Yes. Because you’re not a kid. And you’re the one who’s going to have to take the test, not them, not me, and you’re the one who’s going to have to suffer the consequences.”
A silence settled over us as he contemplated what I said. Great, I thought, I am so fired. He’s going to tell his parents that I suck as a tutor after taking their money and I will have a black mark on my record and then I will be kicked out of the program and where will my family be then?
“Okay.” He said. “I’ll do it. Okay?”
After that, we settled into an odd relationship, one in which I felt more like a TA at a college struggling to nudge a wayward pupil through a class, one who liked to challenge me at every roadblock.
He constantly pointed things out, like how some of the questions were unfairly skewed against students who weren’t exposed to what he was (“What if they don’t have a tv, how would they know who Barbara Walters is?”), about the test-taking system itself (“Why do I have to take the SATs, what do these scores mean anyway?”), how it would impact his future (“Like, after this, it’s not like anyone will care about it.”), and class division ramifications in general (“It’s not fair, someone who really needs the tutoring isn’t getting it like I am.”).
Unfortunately, I agreed with all his points, but as a formal Kaplan representative, I held back my thoughts for a while. After a few weeks of this back-and-forth, I finally caved.
“Yes. Is that what you want to hear?” I told him. “I agree with you. The SATs don’t measure intelligence, they don’t gauge future performance, and they are standardized tests which I agree, a number is a number and what does ‘standardized’ mean anyway? But this is the way the world works. In the future, maybe it’ll change. But you don’t live in the future. You live in the present, where colleges require an SAT score and if you get into a good college, then you’ll probably go on to have some wonderful career. But that’s what society requires right now. College. Which means the SATs. There’s no getting around that. It is what it is. So there. And your parents can afford it so take advantage of it.”
He finally buckled down after my speech, limiting his smart aleck remarks and did the work. We built a friendly rapport, mainly because he started racing through each lesson, leaving enough time at the end to talk about his school and friends and ask me about my life (“Why do you do this? Do you like it?” and “What was your major? Do you like working?” and “Was Johns Hopkins hard? Was it fun?”).
I had a sense that he appreciated that I treated him as more of an adult than a kid. I also believe he thought, rightly or wrongly, that he didn’t have anyone who was older than he was to talk to. He was an only child and his father often worked late, coming home as we were concluding our lessons. His mother seemed removed, hardly appearing downstairs where we were, in a new and impeccable magazine cover ready McMansion; his housekeeper was the one who let me into the house each time and offered to bring us snacks or dinner.
I was never told what his final SAT scores were, but I’m pretty sure they were high. He was naturally smart. I don’t know if he remembers me at all, but if he does, I’m sure his memories of me consist mainly of my head-on approach to tutoring and his ruminations about his current and future life based on my responses to his needling questions. Which, I suppose, made me not such a great SAT tutor, but hopefully a good teacher of some sort. I hope he is doing well, and is happy.