City Paper is not for tourists
My eighth-grade student looked blankly at his Spanish vocabulary list.
“Come on,” I said, determined to have him leave this tutoring session with renewed motivation. “I’m sure you can think of one way that Spanish will be useful in your lifetime.” He could work as a translator, host a foreign-exchange student, read a Spanish newspaper—even have a basic conversation with any of the hundreds of thousands of Spanish speakers in Maryland, including the more than 2,000 who live in our current location, Potomac.
He shook his head, still at a loss.
“Keep thinking about it,” I told him.
I moved from Baltimore in fall 2005 to accept a job as a tutor and office manager of an educational company in Potomac, one of the wealthiest communities in the country. The position promised the usual rewards of working intensively with children, and it delivered. But I still found myself caught off-guard by the advantages that students here had and the nonchalance with which they expressed them. Today was no exception.
The eighth-grader’s face lit up; he’d figured something out. “Oh, I forgot,” he said. “My family has two houses in Costa Rica.”
The Posh Community
Driving north on River Road feels like gliding into a fairy tale. Curbside, relatively modest homes grow castle-sized, adding extra wings, third floors, and even turrets. The median Potomac resident lives in an eight-and-a-half-room house that, at $450,800, is triple the value of the typical Maryland house. Nearly 45 percent of those over age 25 have a graduate or professional degree; the median household income is $128,936.
I had heard that Potomac was a great place for businesses that charged a lot of money, but it wasn’t until I arrived that I fully understood why the creator of Beverly Hills 90210 had used Potomac as his inspiration. Every turn I took off of River Road led to more custom-built mansions on more custom-built cul-de-sacs. Potomac looked like an inland, deciduous Malibu. I doubted I could afford to live here until I read an encouraging fact: In Montgomery County, single income earners making under $31,600 a year (today, it’s under $34,450) actually qualified for low-income housing. Also a plus: no crime. My copy of the weekly Potomac Almanac detailed only one criminal event: an overnight car burglary resulting in the theft of the owner’s daughter’s UGG boots.
Before the school year began, I visited the Potomac library, where well-dressed retired men chatted at round wooden tables and high schoolers pondered SAT practice problems at study carrels. I hoped to find a foreign language audio course to help me brush up on my Spanish in what I expected would be an impressively stocked library. Indeed, shiny new CD cases packed the shelves with instructional materials for students of French, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Danish, Swedish, Japanese, Cantonese, Arabic, Hindi, Greek, Swahili, and Indonesian. The reason the library didn’t stock Spanish, the librarian told me, was due to lack of demand.
As I gave the shelf one last, sad look, wondering if I should take up Urdu, I spotted something about Spanish—no, in Spanish. From behind the newer items emerged the decrepit audiotape cover for Inglés Para Su Trabajo (English for Your Work), a two-
cassette program in which Jorge and Carmen taught the Spanish-speaking “waiter, busboy, kitchen worker, housekeeper, houseman, and bellman” how to understand phrases he or she might hear in the hospitality world.
I checked out the tapes to get a sense of what English phrases I might need to know when I tutored. I found that Sylvia might yell at me about getting the rooms ready and Miss Smith might misspell my name, that it would be very important that I learn to be both vivacious and obsequious, and that I never clear the table without asking first. I admired the patience Jorge and Carmen demonstrated as they restocked toilet paper and changed linens.
I quickly found out many of my students lived in houses with more bathrooms than family members. I asked one middle school girl what was coolest about the house her family had just built, and the question seemed to stump her. Later, as an afterthought, she mentioned the movie theater in the basement. When her math assignment asked her to create a biased question, such as “Do you agree that Sally has a good lunch?” she wrote, “Do you want to come watch a movie in my movie theater, or do you want to go to Sally’s house to watch regular TV?”
The Outrageous Rates
To pay for a typical hour of tutoring in Potomac, a minimum-wage worker would have to spend at least 12 hours on the job; the most expensive rates I saw advertised were at an outfit where appointments with certain tutors cost $350 an hour—more than a week’s minimum-wage pay (before taxes!).
When I started tutoring in Potomac, I proceeded tentatively, distracted by how much money went into each portion of our session. At my company, students paid $90 for one-time-only appointments, $75 for those who committed to a weekly session. Even at the cheaper rate, my nerves jangled over the $6.25 they paid for small talk (was I witty enough to be worth it?), the $12.50 for reading silently (I suspected I’d be fired), the $5 for the time the student waited while I went to ask another tutor for help with something I didn’t understand, and the $7.50 for the time I sat around while my student took a slow trip to the bathroom.
I did begin to notice, though, that almost no one ever questioned the cost of the sessions. Some parents even canceled appointments at the last minute, unconcerned that their eleventh-hour decisions made them ineligible for makeup appointments. Later that year, when my preschool student spent $26.25 refusing to come out from under the desk, I hardly broke a sweat.
The Surprisingly Unaware Parents
Students came to tutoring for a range of reasons. Some needed remedial help, while others wanted to get ahead. For certain parents, working with their own children had become an ordeal. “I asked him to underline the subject,” one unhappy mother said, enrolling her son in tutoring after an unproductive homework hour, “and he underlined the predicate just to annoy me.”
With all the graduate degrees the Potomac parents had, I figured they might have had an appreciation for the value of independent work and self-reliance. But a surprising number of them saw tutoring as a necessity. One distraught parent, whose son had trouble getting on the appointment schedule said to me: “What, you want our kids to study for the finals themselves?”
Another parent got us to return her call—and I’m not making this up—by leaving her number and a message saying there was an emergency. As it turned out, the emergency was that her kid needed a tutoring appointment.
Once, I actually had to hang up on a mother who was furious that we had given away an open tutoring hour to someone other than her son. I was sure I had left her a message when the appointment became available, but because she never called back, I gave the time to someone else. When she called, venomous, I tried to be noble and apologize for the confusion. But nothing short of kicking the other student out of the appointment hour—in my mind, not an option—would placate her.
“I guess you don’t believe the customer is always right,” she said.
“Not in this case,” I said.
She did not appear to like this answer. “I’ve spent thousands of dollars…”
“Look,” I said, giving it one more try, “I’m sorry for the miscommunication.”
“I bet you are,” she said and launched into a loud, frenzied diatribe that I wish I could reproduce but, quite frankly, have repressed. “You’re welcome to call back if you calm down,” I said loudly, over her yelling, and hung up, shaking. I wish I could say the mother disappeared, never to be heard from again. Instead she hopped right into her car and, in what seemed like moments later, arrived at the tutoring center to speak to the owner of the company (who, luckily, is a reasonable person and managed to finesse the whole situation).
The parents need us. But many of them don’t know us. Even those parents who had entrusted their children to a highly valued tutor for years of instruction and guidance hadn’t necessarily learned the tutor’s name. We had a tutor named Sunhee, yet I regularly fielded messages for “Sanhee” and “Soohoo” and scheduling requests for “Sooee.” And he was one of the lucky ones. Most students referred to their tutors as nameless entities, “my tutor,” or, when answering their cell phones, “I’m at tutor.”
Those tutors with the most success often owed it to a distinguishing characteristic. Parents loved distinguishing characteristics. One among us had it made: At 6-foot-8 and Malian, he went by “the really tall tutor” or “the African tutor.” We also had “she’s Asian,” “he’s Asian,” and “the Indian.” Every now and then someone requested not to have “the one we didn’t like.”
Some parents went so far as to disregard gender. Those tutors with unisex names—Sam, or, worse, something ethnic—had no chance. On their behalf, I waged passive-aggressive battles with the help of pronouns:
Parent: “Is he available this week?”
Me: “Yes, she has a free hour on Tuesday.”
Parent: “No, that’s personal trainer night. What about Saturday? How’s that for him?”
No, he can’t, I wanted to say, because he has to schedule a sex-change operation to please you.
Of course, a double standard existed—tutors had to learn students’ names. Try as I might to get specific, even: “She’s the Caucasian with the Vera Bradley bag, straightened hair, and a direct line to Congress” didn’t narrow it down enough.
Maybe I shouldn’t be that surprised that parents didn’t know the names of tutors. After all, as active as many parents were about demanding tutoring time for their children, they could be equally uninterested in face-to-face interaction with the tutors. Some parents never stepped foot inside our center and, therefore, never met the person charged with salvaging a kid’s academic future even, in some cases, after years of instruction.
As far as I could tell, some parents functioned as little more than secretaries for their children. When one mother called to make an appointment that afternoon for her daughter, I asked her what subject she would be studying. “I don’t know,” said the mother. “She just texted me and said, ‘Get me time.’”
I adjusted. I stopped being surprised when the parents I called picked up their cell phones while driving, while in meetings, or, in the case of one mother, while riding (“Can I call you back? The phone spooks my horse!”). After a while, I didn’t cringe quite as much when students picked up their own phones during tutoring sessions. “I have to take this call,” they’d say. “Hello? Tell me what you need.”
Grades could drive even the sanest of parents to scream on the phone, beg for a spot on the schedule, and pay big money for tutors. Their fears included far more than failing grades; what would pass for marks of achievement elsewhere would leave a Potomac parent in tears.
For example: A woman called to get my advice about her ninth-grade daughter. Formerly a straight-A student, the girl had recently received five A’s and two B’s. It got worse, the mother told me. The night before, the girl had told her mother she felt she’d done enough studying for her upcoming Spanish quiz. But when the girl’s father came home and quizzed her, it turned out she really wasn’t prepared. “Do you think this could be a cry for help?” her mother asked.
It’s not just the parents in Potomac who bear the onus for pressuring their kids. Many of them told me they wished local students could sleep more, work less, and stop dwelling on grade-point averages. One student told me about a grade chart posted on bulletin boards at Churchill High School and circulated widely among parents, students, and tutors. (A Montgomery County school official later confirmed its contents.)
The chart detailed 242 different possible letter grade combinations, taking into account a student’s first- and second- marking period grades as well as his or her final exam grade. Students and parents used it to determine how hard to study. For example, a student who receives an A each marking period can fail the final exam and still end up with a B for the course. When I asked parents if their children wanted to continue math tutoring in early June, prior to final exams, they’d often say something along the lines of “We think he’ll go B-C-B,” and wait for my reply. I usually found myself stumped by their gradespeak, so I would say something about my belief that it was best to “go” learning-for-the-love-of-learning. Sometimes, the parents actually laughed in response.
At Long Last, the Students Themselves
In 2007, U.S. News & World Report ranked Potomac’s Winston Churchill High School as the 42nd best public school in the country, among more than 18,000 others. Two other MoCo schools also made the list: Thomas S. Wootton at 34 and Walt Whitman at 40. This calculation came from a formula that took into account the performance of a school’s average students, its least-advantaged students, and its “college readiness index” (e.g., number of students taking AP tests).
I bit my tongue as I worked with a Churchill senior who thought Camus was a whale.
I asked my ninth-grade students, who were reading Romeo & Juliet, to share their Shakespeare knowledge with me. He was born in the 1950s. He wrote Titanic —the movie, not the musical. Where did he live? Think of the capital of England, I hinted. “Oh, France!” one student told me. I shook my head and displayed a map. The student’s face relaxed: “Oh, Ireland!”
Some fared no better with North American history: One freshman asked if Native Americans were “guys or girls.”
If Churchill ranked 42nd, what did numbers 43 through 18,000 look like?
But, still, I’d venture to say that displays of ignorance bother tutors less than those of entitlement. Here’s an inventory of several such moments from my Potomac tutoring career:
• “If my father didn’t have his job, we wouldn’t have gas in this country.” (sixth-grader)
• “What’s new?” (me)
“A lot is new. I got a new phone!” (ninth-grader)
• “You’ve never been to Disney?” (sixth-grader about to go to Disney for the sixth time)
• “I’m getting new glasses.” (seventh-grader)
“Oh, neat, what kind?” (me, expecting a response like “tortoise-rimmed”)
• “Did you learn the word grande?” (me, during Spanish tutoring)
“Yeah. I know it from Starbucks.” (sixth-grader)
In January and June, students flocked to our offices to prepare for their midterms and final exams. My husband, Adam, conducted a review of Matter & Energy, a ninth-grade physical-science class, with a group of about eight students. Halfway through the three-hour review, he gave the students a short break, and, with it, a plate of hard candy and chocolate. The idea was that the food would be a treat—a reward for good work in progress. Instead, the students left and returned with Frappuccinos and pastries that provided them with enough matter and energy to ignore the plate of candy completely. Actually, that’s not entirely true. One student took a Hershey’s kiss, which he chewed up (wrapper and all) and spat back out onto the plate.
And then there’s the fifth-grader who sums it all up. The owner of my company tutored her on various subjects, finding a resistance to work and an attitude problem. Finally my boss suggested the two stop working together. “But you have to work with me,” the girl replied, “because my mom’s paying you.”