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A Tutor’s Agony

By Maliha Bassam

As unbelievable as it may sound to my own ears right now, it's true. In the beginning I was excited. I was. After all, it sounded like a dream job. I fix the timings, I get to give orders, I get to give the marks and at the end of the month, I get a sealed envelope filled with cash. Oh of course, I have to teach as well. But how difficult could that be? A class five student? A few long divisions topped with essays like, "The Day I Got Lost" and "The Day an Alien Ate Me Up"? So easy. I got into it with the attitude, "Been there, done that_ and it's a piece of cake, baby."

The first day her mother dropped her at my place, I gave her my "Let-me-check-thee-my-student" look. Ah! I was pleased. She looked like an angel; a good, obedient, homework-completing sweet angel. My student. My first student. It felt so good to say it out loud. Sigh, how responsible I sound!

As a kid, before my brother was born, Mum tells me that in my loneliness, I'd line up all my dolls and making the side of the steel 'almari' the imaginary blackboard, I'd teach them. She reminisces how I used to perfectly mimic the teaching styles of my kindergarten teachers, asking questions and scolding the lifeless dolls passionately. The days of my schizophrenic childhood (*wipe tears away*) are finally over. I no longer need to make use of my active imagination to create pathetic teaching environments. I was a… (*sniff*)… tutor.

Now I knew very well what kind of a tutor I wanted to be. A great one, of course. Firm but approachable. My student would stand first in her class. I'd be so proud and the entire world would know about the brilliance that is me. Years from now, they'd write it in the history books: "Maliha Bassam: a great mind, a great tutor…" Sitting with my new student, I could literally see the respect for me in the eyes of the future historians.

What can I say, folks? Life's cruel. It never lets things happen the easy way. Uh uh, no shortcuts. Sigh.

Though traditionally that's supposed to be my job, it so turned out that my young student had some things to teach ME. Before I met her, I never thought that being a teenager, a thing called the 'next generation' existed for people of my age. I mean, I am the 'next generation', being still so young. That, my dear readers, turns out to be a complete misconception. There is right now another 'next generation' of which my student is a current member, and it is even ruder than my generation. They are even better liars and they make excuses that are even better than ours and they hate doing work even more than we do.

My angelic student apparently had an evil twin. And it would readily show its face whenever I'd utter words like "Now do these five sums for me".

These days, it so turns out, that students like dictating their tutors about when the schedule for the lessons should be, and this is completely dependent on the student's TV routine. "Could you let me off a little early today? I have this TV show at 8 p.m." She told me on the very first day. I couldn't believe my ears.

Starting the job of tutoring, I had promised myself that I'd never be one of those horrible tutors who scream at their poor, little students and badly need to attend anger management classes three times a week. But stupid me, why didn't I think that thinking of something and actually doing it are miles apart? When you're actually tutoring and when your student doesn't do the homework AGAIN, your already limited patience reaches the critical level. Read, RED!

So I became a tutor by the textbook definition of the word. Sentences like, "I won't let you go home if you don't finish the comprehension" and "I'll call your mum tonight about this" became my most-used lines. When she really got on my nerves, I'd give her, what I call the Classic Tutor's Lecture, which goes like, "It's okay. You don't have to study if you don't want to. It's your future, not mine. Why should I care?"

Of course, the teenage student part of me wanted to tell her, "Who cares? I never took my studies seriously anyway," but hey, I didn't want to get fired by inspiring such anti-education feelings in her. Besides, I have realised that though I honestly couldn't care less about education the rest of the day, those two hours that I am with my student, I DO care. In those two hours, a grammar mistake seems fatal, a multiplication goof-up clinical. I feel like I MUST teach her the right thing or she might just flunk because of me. I take the job very, VERY seriously.

I know it's stupid to feel so responsible for your student, especially when I know for a fact that I give it my best. I stay up nights making worksheets, I get awakened at an unearthly hour in the morning by a phone call with student's angelic 'I-want-something' voice asking, "Can I not show the workout for the word problems just this time? I promise it won't happen again…" Some days I get up after only three hours of sleep to teach her in the morning. I reschedule my plans with my friends so that she doesn't miss a lesson. I correct the same mistakes over and over again. I explain things to my best capability (which means sometimes enacting a scene to explain her the meaning, which obviously makes me feel quite silly) and don't have an outburst when she asks me to explain her the same thing the fiftieth time. I ask, cajole and as the last resort, threaten her to finish homework. I try to explain angles over the phone when she gets stuck on a problem. I do my bit and though the temptation to go back to sleep on an early Saturday morning is really strong, I fight it off to sit with her and read out inane passages with names like "The Donkey".

Ever since I became a tutor, I know I've become a little more responsible. With all those hours of gritting teeth, I have learned to be more patient and keep my anger under check. And I have to admit that having been terrible at high school math, it makes me feel really smart when I find that I know and can teach Class Five math. Being a 'fakibaj' myself, I know most of the techniques pretty well and do a good job at not letting my student get away with them. And I have learnt that like every tutor I know, as soon as you start teaching a student, you have memory lapses. So whenever I get interrupted, I lose my train of thought and go like, "What was I saying?" and my amused student giggles at my every five-minute memory loss.

At the end of the day, I have to admit that despite the frustration and small incidents of humiliation, I am glad and proud to be a tutor_ because to care about helping another student whether s/he's in kindergarten or giving his/her O-levels, is a great feeling indeed.


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