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As far as after-school jobs go, I consider mine pretty easy. I work as a reading assistant for a tutoring facility, instructing a group of bright kids and correcting papers. I don't have to walk slobbery dogs or flip an endless pile of greasy burgers like some kids at my school. I can just get through my shift, get paid, and go home without expending much thought or care. I could, that is, if it weren't for Sarah Jane.
One Wednesday evening, I sit at the front of the room, correcting a spelling test. Straining to read the large, messy handwriting, I try to determine whether a misshapen “r” might really be an “n” or an “h.” But even while concentrating on an indecipherable word that could either be “rainbows” or “hair bows,” I see that she has arrived. Maybe I don't see it so much as feel it – the way the whole room tenses up, seems to shiver. Who can inspire so much dread in a group of high school students? A seven-year-old in a pink jumper.
Her name is Sarah Jane, and she comes to the tutoring facility every Wednesday and Saturday. While the other students sit quietly and study diligently, Sarah Jane simply refuses to learn. Every day, she leans back in her chair, crosses her arms, and stares at the ceiling. She twirls her pencil, grinds it into the desk, braids it into her hair – anything but write with it. Every few minutes, one of us walks over and says, “Sarah Jane, do you want some help?”
“Nope!” she replies.
One of her favorite tricks is to let us help for a while, smiling as though she understands. But then, the second we walk away, she throws down her worksheet and goes back to staring at the ceiling.
It's not that I don't want to help her. That's why I applied for this job in the first place. And for the most part, I really like tutoring. I like working with children, teaching them new things. But I've grown so frustrated with Sarah Jane – it seems as if there's no way to get through to her. At this point, I've given up.
The clock reads 6:30. My shift ends in half an hour. Then I can go home and finish my painting, something I have been dying to do all week. Most of the students have left, their worksheets finished and corrected, but Sarah Jane still sits at her table. I tell myself to let her stay there; I'm going home in a few minutes and hopefully she'll be picked up soon. I decide to see if anyone in the back needs help grading papers.
But something stops me. Grading papers is easy. That's not what I signed up to do. When I interviewed and the supervisor asked why I was applying for the job, I told him I wanted to help kids understand and enjoy books, because reading was such a huge part of my life. Did I only say that because it sounded like something an employer would want to hear? Before I can talk myself out of it, I tell Sarah Jane to come to my table. “Bring your book,” I say.
She sits down next to me, looking confused. Charlotte glances up from the math test she's correcting and raises her eyebrows at me. I shrug.
“Have you read this story yet?”
She shakes her head.
Sarah Jane looks at me and tugs on one of her pigtails. “The words are too big,” she says.
I look for the longest word. “How many letters does this one have?”
She counts. “Seven.”
“Right. And you're seven years old. So you can handle that one.” Okay, maybe that doesn't make much sense. But it's all I can think of right now. I tell Sarah Jane to start reading.
She eyes me warily and looks down at the page. The first sentence is short, and she reads it easily. She looks up at me and I nod.
The next sentence is longer. Sarah Jane stumbles a bit, and I put my finger on the page to help keep her place. She pauses when she gets to the seven-letter word – triumph.
“Take it one syllable at a time,” I instruct. I cover up part of the word so only “tri” shows.
“Tri … um …”
“Remember what sound ‘ph' makes sometimes?”
“Triumph,” Sarah Jane reads.
I ask if she knows what it means, and she shakes her head.
“It's when you do something well and you feel proud,” I explain.
She thinks about this. “Like when I won my soccer trophy?”
“Exactly,” I say, and we keep reading the story. It's about a boy who finds a chimpanzee in a library. Whenever we get to a big word, I remind her to read it one bit at a time. She asks me how the monkey got behind a book shelf.
“I bet he escaped from a book.”
Sarah Jane sighs. “That can't happen. Obviously he's a robot chimpanzee.”
I decide not to argue. We finish the story. I was right – the chimpanzee did escape from a book. Sarah Jane still insists that he's a robot. I suggest she read some science fiction. At 7, Sarah Jane's mom picks her up and I get ready to leave.
Sarah Jane still comes for tutoring every Wednesday and Saturday. She still has trouble paying attention at times, but she always tries to read the stories. And when I see her staring at the ceiling or playing with her pencil, I have her come over to my table to read.
Maybe when I started tutoring I thought I would be working with seven-year-old geniuses, that I would simply give them an assignment and they would breeze through it. Some kids can do this, but that doesn't mean I should ignore the ones who need a little more patience. Not everyone I meet will be easy to talk to or work with. Sometimes I may have to edit for stubborn writers on our student newspaper, or work on a project with classmates I don't like. But if I try to find some way to reach them, we may just triumph. We'll have to take it one syllable at a time.