# of pages written: 10 – but none of it on the novel
# of days left to write 1st draft: 134
I love tutoring teenage boys. Is that weird to say? It’s probably weird. But true. They are secretly so unsure about themselves. They put on their tough-guy fronts –which I couldn’t see through as a teenage girl –but now that I’m an adult, I can see past the machismo and the antics to the self-conscious boys who are just looking for acceptance.
The other day I was tutoring one of my fifteen-year-old students in Algebra. He’s a stoic boy with a shaved head and giant basketball sneakers who reeks of cigarette smoke. He failed Algebra last year and is getting ready start at a new school in the fall. I asked him if he knew anybody at his new school, and he said no.
“Are you nervous?” I asked.
He rolled his eyes and snorted. “No.”
“Oh.” I shrugged. “I would be nervous.”
“I don’t care,” he said.
We started working on three-step equations. He’s come a long way this summer. When we started he couldn’t add or subtract negative numbers or multiply fractions. “Do you know what to do here?” I asked, pointing at an equation. “If you don’t, it’s totally OK.”
“No,” he admitted. “I don’t know.”
“Absolutely fine.” I showed him how to do a couple different types of equations and then gave him some to try on his own. He worked through them carefully, and when I checked, they were all correct.
“Perfect,” I told him. “I love it. You remembered your integer rules and did your fractions. That’s a lot to keep track of!” He shrugged, his face blank as always.
“I think we’ve found your calling,” I said. “You’re a master at three-step equations.”
His lips curved into a tiny smile that quickly slipped back to neutral. But I’d seen a glimpse behind his mask of indifference – he felt proud. And for this boy – a fifteen-year-old with learning disabilities who failed all of his classes last year, that’s an accomplishment in itself. He rarely gets to feel good about himself.
The thing is, if he forgets how to do everything he just learned by our next session – which is quite possible due to his poor retention skills – I won’t hold it against him. I’ll patiently explain it again, and I’ll find some way to praise him. He doesn’t get enough praise, and I feel like it’s my job to fill him up with it before he starts back at school to repeat his freshman year.
It’s just the same when I tutor a pair of teenage twins for the SAT’s. Their grandfather, a former math professor, puts them down when they ask for help. “You should know this,” he says. “What’s wrong with you boys – don’t they teach you anything in school?”
But when they ask me for help, I say, “oh yeah. This one is tricky. Let’s see if we can puzzle it out together.”
“They really like you,” their mother told me one day, sounding surprised. “They said you’re better at explaining than their last tutor. They said he was “too smart,” whatever that means.”
What is means, I’m willing to bet, is that their last tutor made them feel dumb.
The other day, while Nikki and I were picking sun gold tomatoes, she asked me, “Eva, what do you think your Job is in life?”
“My job?” I asked.
“Yeah. Like your Job with a capital J. Your Job in the universe. What were you put here to do?”
“Oh my. I don’t know about that. Let me think.” I picked the little yellow tomatoes from the vine. They were so ripe I hardly had to touch them and they plopped right off into my palm.
I wasn’t even sure I believed in a Job with a capital J, but maybe if there is such a thing, and I knew what mine was, I wouldn’t feel so directionless.
I don’t think my Job is teaching. I’ve done that for years and never really felt fulfilled by it. And not writing, either – at least,if that were true it seems I would be better at it. Storytelling, maybe? My friends often say things like, “I’m sure Eva has some crazy story to tell us,” or they claim to be living vicariously through me and my various ridiculous life choices. So maybe entertainment is my Job? But I don’t know. That doesn’t seem generous enough. It seems like your Job is what you contribute to the world, and I don’t know if telling exaggerated stories is enough of a contribution.
I thought about my tutoring students. “Maybe,” I told Nikki, “my job is to give unconditional love and support to people,” I said. “To make them feel accepted and proud of themselves.”
“That’s nice,” Nikki said.
I dropped a few more tomatoes into my bucket and examined the gray-green pollen collecting on my fingers. “I don’t know. I wish my Job was writing. Then maybe things would be going better right now.”
Today a friend sent me a quote from Kevin Smith, the director of Clerks, Mallrats, and all those other indie cult classics. Here’s part of the quote:
The secret to a successful life is hardly a secret; it requires you to be self-centered as all fuck, is all. So long as it’s not at the expense of others, make yourself the center of your universe. You only get to do this ONCE, so try to take as much stress out of the process as you can.
I thought this was very interesting, and probably true. Here Nikki was asking about my Job in the universe; well, maybe my job is to make the universe revolve around me!
This made me realize why I was a more prolific writer when I was in my mid-twenties: I was more self-centered! I was so sure that what I had to say was important and awesome. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started thinking more and more about others instead of myself. I’ve been thinking about how I should be living my life as a “good” person. And maybe, as a result of being less self-centered, I’ve become more self-conscious about my writing. More unsure that I actually have anything important or creative to share.
The question is, if I work on being more self-centered, will I be more successful?
Or maybe the real question is more about success. What does it mean to be successful?
At the end of the day, what will make me feel like my life has been a success: publishing books, or knowing that I’ve made people feel good about themselves?
To be honest, I think I want both. Does that make me selfish? Well, then…good!