Dante turns toward me; his deep chestnut eyes are anxious and hopeful. A winning smile breaks out across his face.
“Miss Jennifer, you know math real good, don’t you?”
I swallow hard. Dante, who’s ten, is sitting next to me at a well-worn lunch table in Northern Children’s Services’ dining hall in northwest Philadelphia. Since 1853, Northern Children’s has been helping Philadelphia’s hardscrabble boys and girls, ages 8 to 14, gain a foothold in life. Dante’s one of 25 boys in Northern’s partial program, an after-school program that, among other things, provides the children homework assistance.
I’m here this Wednesday night as Dante’s tutor, but I’m frazzled. My hair is tied back in a messy ponytail, my makeup non-existent, and my head’s still at work, mulling over deadlines. But this earnest fourth grader is staring up at me, yearning for me to be the tutor who can solve all his math problems in the next 60 minutes.
Butterflies gather in my stomach. English, I can handle. Reading comprehension, definitely. Science, sure. Math and its fractions, decimals, division, subtraction, and multiplication—not so much. I didn’t get math back in my school days and I certainly haven’t gotten today’s “new” math.
I tap my fingers on the table, trying to think of something to say.
For the past four years, I’ve been volunteering at Northern Children’s. Being single and in my early forties, I wanted to “give back” and work with kids. I was hoping to make a difference. There’s nothing like seeing the “a-ha” moment light up a child’s face after he learns a new word or she figures out a solution to a problem. I had visited Northern weekly, but now, because of work commitments, I visit just once a month. It makes it hard to develop a relationship with a child when I might only work with him or her two or three times during the school year.
I had arrived late when the boys’ Mr. Rick was pairing the kids with tutors. Dante and I were the last group paired off. It was the first time we’d worked together.
Tables are scattered haphazardly with book bags, jackets, pens, and pencils. The electric hum of voices fills the air, punctuated by brief outbursts of laughter. The smell of French fries and hamburgers from dinner hangs over us.
I turn toward Dante, force a grin, look him in the eye and make a feeble attempt to deflect the conversation.
“Hey Dante, where do you go to school? What’s your favorite subject?”
Not taking his eyes off me, he quickly tells me about his school in West Philly and his favorite subject, recess. Clearly that’s not what he wants to talk about. He grips his homework, a page of fractions, between his fingers. Beads of sweat gather at the top of my forehead.
Dante’s too busy to notice. He’s singing how his tutor is going to help him finish his homework so he can head out and play. He’s pushed his fractions in front of me and is now trying to hand me his pencil.
I hold my breath for a brief second. I remind myself that I cannot complete Dante’s homework for him, even if I were able. He has to learn on his own with my support.
I look over the paper for an easy problem. No luck. I push the paper and pencil back at him.
“Dante, which problem do you want to work on first?”
He grabs the pencil and doodles on question 1: How many thirds are equal to one half? He looks at me and hands me the pencil.
“Ms. Jennifer, what’s the answer?”
“Hey Dante, I may be a little better at math than you, but can you show me what you learned in school?”
Dante looks puzzled.
Then I try to bluff my way through the problem. I scribble down what I remember from grade school.
“Ms. Jennifer, that’s not how we learned it.”
“How did your teacher solve it?”
A cloud of frustration settles on Dante’s face. His smile contorts to disgust, his brow furrows, his eyes narrow. He lets out a loud sigh.
“I can’t remember, I thought you’d know what to do. I said I needed a tutor who was good in math.”
He turns away from me and stares ahead. He begins to write down random answers to the questions.
“Dante, come on, let’s take these problems one by one.”
Dante puts his pencil down and begins to take in long, slow breaths and then puts his head down on the table. We are only 10 minutes in and part of me wants to yell, “Man down!”
Dante’s sobbing quietly. I try to think of something to say. I motion Mr. Rick over to help.
Now he’s standing by Dante.
“Hey Dante, man, what are you doing? Can you tell me and Ms. Jennifer what’s wrong?”
Dante looks up at him, tears streaming down his face.
“Nothing. Nothing is wrong.”
“Aww Dante, that’s not true. You’re upset. I can’t help you unless you tell me.” Mr. Rick’s acknowledgement of Dante’s plight only makes him cry harder.
Dante shakes his head back and forth and sobs. “I don’t know math. And she don’t know it either.” He puts his head down again.
There’s nothing like being schooled by a fourth grader. I feel nervous laughter coming on and I want to crawl under the table.
Mr. Rick lets out a quiet and barely noticeable chuckle and whispers to me not to worry about it. He turns to Dante.
“Dante, hey man, that’s not a nice thing to say about your tutor.”
“But it’s the truth.” This time Dante is looking at me.
And that’s when I have my “a-ha” moment.
I’m okay with Dante calling me out. How many times has he wanted to say this to anyone who has let him down? If I gave him that opportunity, that courage to say something, then I guess all is not lost.
Mr. Rick rests his hand on my shoulder. “Dante, can you thank Ms. Jennifer for giving up her time to help you? She’s trying just like you are. No one gets a free pass in life. Why don’t you, me, and Ms. Jennifer take another look at your homework.”
Something Mr. Rick said clicks with Dante. He readjusts himself in his seat and sits almost upright, his bent elbow holding up his head. He mumbles “okay,” and with his free hand he picks up his pencil and points to our next problem.
A Philadelphia native, Jennifer Corey is a marketer by day, creative writer by night and budding aerialist in between. She’s been writing with the Greater Philadelphia Wordshop for the past 10 years and would like to thank Alison Hicks and her fellow wordshop members for all the years of encouragement and support. The names of the student and counselor in this story have been changed.