The following is a four part non-fiction short story about moving to Brooklyn, NY.
Ma, I don’t need tutoring. I’m a gangsta.
That was the axiomatic spine of Gordy’s argument, which he punctuated by smacking his backpack against the apartment floor. Gordy Quintana was an 18-year-old Puerto Rican high school senior with an I-survived-puberty mustache. He was one of the three siblings I was assigned to tutor.
An hour earlier, I had been let in to the Quintana family’s apartment by Illiana, the hardboiled matriarch of seven. We had spoken over the phone, then again via crackling intercom downstairs. But she was still incredulous and screened me one last time. I told her I was a tutor sent from a tutoring company to tutor her son. She opened the door enough for me to fit through.
“Gordy? He ain’t here,” she said. That became her ritual greeting from then on. She said it as if she had been telling me how hard motherhood is for years and I had never believed her. Her hair was frayed and molting from frustration. Her feet were dried and white around the edges. We sat on the couch and got acquainted over a conversation about mobile phone providers.
“T-Mobile. I’ve had enough. I’m switching to it,” she said. “Whatchu got?”
“Verizon,” I said.
“There’s free texting on Verizon,” she said. “Hmm.”
“Only to other Verizon customers,” I said.
“I know that,” she snapped.
She left me to unpack my geometry books and binders. She disappeared to chain-dial Gordy’s phone until he arrived at the front door an hour later.
Now that Gordy was home, he and his mother haggled in Spanglish. They stood in the hallway, just out of view. I sat at the dining/everything table with a heavy clammy wooden tabletop that would rock for the next three months even after stuffing a folded wad of napkins from the corner deli under the leg when no one was looking.
Their apartment was rectangular. The kitchen and living room, where I sat, used about a third of the floor plan. The rest was a line of three bedrooms and a bathroom accessible all from the same side of the hallway like a passenger car. Floor tiles were jaundiced. Windows were barred. Sills were dressed with porcelain trinkets and nylon flowers. Taped above the toilet was a printout of five Clipart images with cutesy condescending captions such as “Please be neat, wipe the seat!”
To my left, out the window propped open with a Buzz Lightyear action figure, was the central courtyard of the Hope Gardens housing project. A cluster of flat-brim hats clung to the fence of a broken basketball court. A woman pushed a stroller. The jagged rhythm of disputes came in with rice and red beans from the floors below. A red sun softened over the brick of west Brooklyn.
The argument between Gordy and his mother played in the background while I reorganized papers and notebooks for the 30th time. The right amount of discomfort will concede any conforming man to obsessive compulsion. Gordy would lose the fight, I knew. His basic assumption was all wrong. Ma, I don’t need tutoring, I’m a gangsta. Everyone needs tutoring, Gordy, especially the gangsters. I shuffled worksheets and did what any teacher worth a goddamn would do. I tried to make up word problems that would translate abstract material into relatable terms relevant to my pupil’s arduous day to day struggles. These were the struggles that he didn’t think I could understand because we’re from different walks of life—but, I get it, Gordy. I get it. Because, you see, we’re not that different, you and I. Yes, I struggle, too. Yes, I get down sometimes. Yes, I shiver in the dark. What I’m trying say, Gordy, is that we’re both human. We bleed the same blood; we breathe the same breath.
Then, in light of this impossibly relatable word problem, Gordy, against all odds, turns out to be a gifted student. It’s just that no one ever gave him a reason to care. Then I contract a deep wheezing cough and am diagnosed with a terminal illness—really terminal. The doctor’s give me two months, so I give Gordy all of my unfinished manuscripts and pull him close while I lie emaciated on a sterile hospital bed and whisper “take these; you’ll finish what I never could.” Then, I call the first girl I ever kissed and tell her she’s a bitch. The din of an EKG flat-lining echoes into the cavernous maw of Gordy’s future.
Unfortunately, I don’t live in a daydream and the word problem I dreamt up was just offensively stereotyped and weird.
Question: You have one ounce (1oz) of uncut rock. You can sell it as is for $75/g. Or you can cut 3/5 of it with baking soda and 2/5 with Drano, then simmer it in a basement until solid, making sure to flatten the bubbles with a knife. It is very important that you flatten the bubbles with a knife. After draining and 20 minutes in the freezer, you now have two ounces (2oz), which you can pop off at $50/g. How many grams in an ounce?
Answer: GET YOUR LIFE TOGETHER. (28.35g)
A squeal from the hallway introduced a pinto bean-sized toddler who galloped into the room in a t-shirt and nothing else. He tripped over Gordy’s backpack and smacked the tile floor. He looked at me and welled up. He was sobbing like an engine starting in winter.
I got that incriminating feeling you get when you’re alone with a child and they start to cry. Before every adult in earshot arrives, you have to position yourself at alibi-distance. This is the distance at which other adults immediately conclude that it wasn’t you that made them cry. The kid was wailing his lungs out. Peel him off the floor and console him, I thought. But then it would be ambiguous as to whether I was savior or perp. And what is the protocol on touching other people’s children, exactly? Open palm, otherwise they can bite your fingers off. Or is that horses. I knew I shouldn’t stay sitting because that would make me look callous. I stood up in order to appear mid-action.
The front door swung open and a hooded rhinoceros of a man came in. The scars carved into the side of his face ran up and disappeared beneath his hood. Ink on his knuckle implied the comprehensive layer of tattoos he wore beneath his garments.
With the puff-cheeked child was screaming prostrate on the floor, and his mother and brother screaming in the hall, the room was splitting at the seams.
“Pookie!” the hooded man shouted as he scooped the toddler off the floor. The kid’s howl was muffled in his father’s chest. The man walked over to me. “Angel,” he said over the screaming. His accent was heavy. He extended a bobbing hand to me as he bounced to calm Pookie. “Crasy kid.”
Soon Pookie’s lungs were just about empty. He was in the last throes of his tantrum, spluttering and wringing out concluding tears into his father’s neck.
“Coffee,” Pookie sobbed. “I want coffee.”
“Ok, Papi,” Angel said, patting his back. “I make you some coffee.” Angel rolled his eyes at me. “Crasy kid.”
Pookie had cooled off and was flying a Woody action figure around the living room. Buzz was busy with the window. Two cups of coffee steamed on the kitchen counter. Woody’s flight path took him through the kitchen until Pookie spotted the mugs and promptly dropped Woody.
“Coffee!” he shrieked. Pookie reached a baby-fat arm up to the counter top, groping for a mug. Once his fingers found a handle, he decisively inverted the mug, flooding the counter, floor, and his t-shirt with hot coffee. Pookie cried by the stove in a brown puddle, dangling an empty mug from his hand. A lanky boy with dark curly hair appeared in the kitchen.
“That’s right Pookie. You did that,” the boy shouted. Pookie cried harder. Angel came. This lanky boy with dark hair and dark eyes was sixteen-year-old Ish Quintana: tutoree number two.
Ish was frictional, sure, but legitimate. Pookie should be patient. Concession to every impulse is enslavement of the will. Also, it contributes to accidents with scalding hot liquid. I would learn that this lanky boy with dark hair and dark eyes was the family conscience of sorts, an arbiter occurring to form lapses into lessons. He stuck paper towels to the floor and dabbed Pookie’s t-shirt.
“It’s your fault, Papi,” said Ish to his father. “You got him addicted to coffee.” Again, he was right. Now Pookie was a two year old with caffeine headaches.
Fifteen minutes later, Pookie and I were staring at each other across the table, sipping coffee. For a two year old, sipping hot coffee is right around the upper limit of difficulty for things you can do. Each sip required two-handed surgeon-like focus to tip the cup just enough for the coffee to meet his lips. After every sip he grinned broadly showing a mouthful of tiny white teeth and rocked side-to-side as part of a seated celebratory dance. What the caffeine was doing to a toddler’s circulatory system, I could only imagine. Probably akin to what crack cut with Drano does to a person if you don’t flatten the bubbles with a knife like I said to.
The front door opened again and two girls walked in—both young, both very pretty. They looked at me and looked away, bored, like I was a new lamp or something—or even an old lamp that had been moved. But their gaze dragged behind their heads as happens when your brain tells your eyes not to stare but your eyes are selfish. They disappeared down the hallway. One of the girls was Bibi, the 6th grade hard-ass. The other was Angie, a thin cinnamon-skinned freshman with quiet poise and rare-drawn sharp tongue. She was the third and final sibling I was assigned to tutor.
After the third or fourth time Pookie had messed himself due to the coffee (inferring by smell), Gordy walked into the room and took the chair next to me.
“Gordy,” he said. He held out his hand. His nails and cuticles were well-chewed. Most of that work likely done leaning his chair against the back wall in class. His fingers had the rubbery look of a knuckle-popper. His eyes were all pupil. They had a sheen of dishonesty, but no deviousness.
“I apologize about all that,” Gordy said. “I already had tutoring last year. A guy—Josh or something—came, so I don’t think I need it again. But you’re a guest in my home, so I am going to be a good host.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it,” I said. “So, the tutoring helped?”
“No,” he said. “That guy was an idiot.”
Way to go Champion Learning. Way to go Josh.
The thirty free hours of tutoring that Champion Learning offers to kids who get free school lunches is bookended by tests. Start with the pretest, end with the post. That way Champion Learning can fit the 7% “improvement” between the pretest and posttest into an Excel cell and show it to the Department of Education for another $21 million check. The tests are not standardized or calibrated for disparities of difficulty. They are uncorrelated in skill-level and subject matter. So long as you subtract the pretest score from the posttest score and you get a positive number, that’s all they want. In fact, you are encouraged to give an easier posttest and a more difficult pretest in order to exaggerate the improvement. But none of the percentages or personalized student education plans or student progress logs really matter anyway. It’s all a big bureaucratic dog show.
So, with reluctance, I administered pretests to each of the siblings, Gordy, Ish, and Angie: geometry, then writing. In addition to the futility of the pretest, it’s a hell of an introduction.
Hello, I’m a stranger. This one-on-one learning is going to be much different from your dragnet public school learning. Here is a test. Show your work.
Later, home at my desk, I read their short essays about “dream careers.” Boxer, music producer, and baker, were Gordy, Ish, and Angie’s responses, respectively. I showed Gordy’s essay to my roommate and asked them to guess the author’s age. They guessed fourth grade. I sat for a while in the cone of light from my desk lamp. I wondered how I was supposed to make up for a dozen years of schooling in a few dozen hours.
We began having tutoring sessions with some regularity. If I wasn’t there for Gordy, I was there for Ish. If not Ish, then Angie. Often I was there five days a week. I was becoming a permanent fixture—like an old moved lamp.
Gordy was hopeless. He had long since made bullshitting his default setting. He had two techniques to feign understanding and attentiveness with the least amount of thought possible. He would parrot my words exactly, either sticking a question mark at the end or remixing my phrases to clutter the order.
“—then you just add the surface area of the two bases to the lateral surface area and that’s it: the surface area of a cylinder,” I said. Should I explain it one more time?”
“No, no, that’s so easy.” Gordy slouched like he was dripping off his chair.
“Alright then. Go ahead and finish up the problem. Remember: two bases plus lateral.”
“Easy,” he said. He muttered to himself and dragged his pencil tip arbitrarily across the page trying to create the illusion of thought. He was violently bored. His neurons were turning to honey. He was in a viscous trance due how little thinking he was doing. His pulse dropped. His eyes kept looking at the back of his skull like fish trying not to go belly up. “Ok. Two bases…plus lateral…surface area of a cylinder…lateral surface area…go ahead…finish up the problem…“
“Gordy, those are all of the words I just said in a different order. Please focus. And stop breathing through your mouth.”
It was really shitty bullshitting. And he had been doing it for so long that now he was a senior with six months until graduation and the inability to write coherently or do basic linear algebra.
Ish the Conscience was the brilliant one. He was intimidating to me. At times, I didn’t know why I was tutoring him.
“Some of the most common Pythagorean triples are (3,4,5), (6,8,10), which is just twice that, and (5,11,13).” I said.
“Five, twelve, thirteen,” he said.
Ish, no one likes a showoff.
Angie was bright but distracted. Each session, she wore slightly more makeup than the last. First nothing. Then foundation. Then blush. Then eyeliner. The cut of her shirt crept lower and lower announcing more of what ballerina-like front a fourteen-year-old can have. She touched my forearm to ask questions. These were intensely uncomfortable sessions. However, she lacked the skeptical folded arms of her older brothers and was the most engaged of all three. Initially, at least.
I would excuse myself from tutoring when Angel’s coffee was done Tasmanian-deviling its way through my digestive tract. Down the hallway to the bathroom, there was always a pair of dark legs suspended across the frame of view of a parted bedroom door. It was Illiana, the mother, lying on her back on the bed like a patient, texting. She scarcely left the room but for altercation.
Neither Illiana nor Angel Quintana were employed. Once Angel offered me a hard-candy that tasted like hoof.
“You like it?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“It’s not good. I work there for five years, the factory,” Angel said. “Five dollar an hour.”
Illiana made cake lollypops for her children to bring to school to sell for a dollar apiece. One day Bibi, the sixth grade hard-ass, left for school in the morning with five cake-pops and returned in the afternoon with four dollars. The exchange had a worrisome pimp-ho quality. When she is angry, Illiana Quintana parts her lips wide enough to see she is missing two bottom front teeth. That afternoon, you could see her molars.
 Cowboy protagonist from Toy Story(s) 1, 2, and 3, not the wildly popular material known from cabins, oars, and bats that are made out of wood.