Truth in Tutoring

“How are you?”

“Not good,” Victor said, as he flopped on the couch in despair, “I hate my life.”

He fought back tears and told me what was going on. Our hour turned into more of a therapy session than a homework session, as he confessed to me the travails of his life, the details of which, even though Victor is a pseudonym for the name of the boy I’m tutoring, still feels a violation of his privacy to reveal here.

It was a heart-wrenching tale of having no friends, kids picking on him at school, and of violence, racism and isolation. I watched him cycle through the emotions of fear, shame, anger and self-recrimination. Then, after a brief interlude of exploring double digit addition, he confessed that the tale he told me was a lie. He did have friends, and only one kid was a racist.

“Why did you lie?” I asked.

Victor told me another story, more heartbreaking than the last, about his family, policemen and violence. He was raw with emotion.

“Okay,” he said, fighting back his tears, “That was a lie too. My therapist says I lie because…”

He spoke in words that sounded exactly like a therapist’s, which portrayed a scenario that you would be unsurprised to discover in the lives of a family staying in a shelter for victims of domestic abuse.

“Is that a lie, too?” I asked.

“Imagine you have a chart. One side is in red and that’s a lie and one side is green and that’s not a lie. Right now I’m somewhere in here,” he said, indicating the middle, “I’m going to be watching this chart.”

I was pleased with his charting abilities.

“Will you come with me to talk to my mom?” he asked, “because otherwise she won’t talk to me.”

It wasn’t the first time I had mediated communication between Victor and his mom, but it was the most dramatic, confusing and complex. Imagine walking into a fight between family members who are struggling on so many levels.

What I did know was that Victor had expressed his need for my support at a whole new level, and at a time when a transition in our status is pending and I’ve been debating what to do.

The session reminded me of how Victor and I, in his role as a tutor, are a good match, and why I like doing this work. Over a year ago I started tutoring because I felt a desire to have more children in my life and I’ve found that this kind of tutoring has been a rewarding way to make that happen. Tutoring a homeless kid can make me feel alternately like a teacher, a parent, or a therapist, though it is none of those roles. I suppose the best word for the job is mentor, but that term too fails to capture the spirit of two people who choose to need each other.