*Check out my short story, “Extremely Rare” on Burlesque Press!*
Once a week Paul and I do volunteer tutoring. While Paul has begun to form a bond with a mature, hard-working student who recently immigrated from Africa, I always end up tutoring this super-ADHD fourteen-year-old who I’ll call Wayne.
Wayne always shows up with a messy stack of homework assignments. “Why do you have four Geometry worksheets?” I asked him last Thursday night, sifting through the pile. Each worksheet had one or two problems attempted, but the rest of the page was blank. On some of them it looked like he’d started to write his name (“Way”) but got distracted halfway through.
“Were you absent?” I asked, but Wayne evaded the question.
“I’m going to the bathroom. Be right back!” He darted away.
I’m pretty sure the problem is that Wayne is so ADHD that he never finishes his homework. This stack was probably all of his incomplete assignments from the whole week.
When he came back, we jumped right in, but it was slow going.
“OK, let’s look at this line right here,” I said pointing to one of the many Geometry worksheets. “What’s the slope of this line?”
“A hundred and eighty?” Wayne guessed. “Three-sixty? One? Zero?”
“Well, hold on.”
“It’s zero isn’t it?”
The slope was, in fact, zero, but I doubted he knew why. “Let’s slow down a bit,” I told him. “Let’s talk about what slope is.” I launched into an explanation of slope, and with each word that passed from my mouth, Wayne got more and more antsy. He didn’t care. He just wanted the answer.
In the middle of my attempt to show him rise over run, Wayne started throwing crumpled pieces of paper at the girl sitting across the table from us.
“Hey,” I said. “Don’t bother her.”
He threw another ball of paper at the girl, who was trying her best to ignore him, her head buried in Spanish homework.
“Look, it doesn’t seem like you really want my help right now,” I said, starting to feel frustrated.
“Yes I do.” He laughed. He wasn’t even looking at me.
“I’m going to sit right here and read my book. When you’re ready to put in some actual effort, I’ll help you with the rest of your homework.”
I’m used to students like Wayne. School is hard for them, and they are constantly feeling frustrated with it. They know from experience that they might work hard and still get an answer wrong, so now they’d rather not put in the effort. Basically, if it isn’t easy, if it takes time, they assume they can’t do it, and they give up immediately.
That morning I had ESL tutored Sergiy, my forty-year-old Ukrainian student, on Skype. Sergiy and Wayne could not be more different. For one thing, Sergiy never, ever gives up on learning English. He wants to tutor every day, even Saturdays and Sundays – even Christmas. (I sometimes have to put my foot down.) He struggles his way through reading books and watching videos in English. He keeps a vocabulary notebook on his i-phone with all the new words he learns, and he studies them in his free time.
And yet, even he gets frustrated sometimes.
A few weeks ago, Sergiy sent me the link to an ESL site in which you can record yourself repeating English sentences. The program then grades you on your pronunciation.
“I think there’s something wrong with it,” Sergiy told me. “Because every time I try, I get a B.”
“But a B is good.” I tried to think of a kind way to tell him he wasn’t really at A-quality pronunciation yet.
“Try it and see what grade you get,” he insisted. “Then we’ll know if it’s broken.”
So I tried it. I got an A-plus. When I reported this to Sergiy, he was disappointed. “I’m glad that you got A+,” he wrote to me in an email, “but in this case I’m even more sad that I got B… I hoped it was a technical problem and now I know that it’s a problem with me.”
* * *
I understand Sergiy’s sentiments. All last week I was trying to play “Wagon Wheel” on the guitar and feeling like a failure. The guitar part itself is pretty easy, but whenever I tried to sing along, it was impossible. “The rhythm is just so different from the melody,” I complained to Paul. “It’s like trying to pat my head and rub my belly at the same time.”
“Keep practicing,” he advised.
Instead I got on youtube and watched videos of other people playing “Wagon Wheel” and singing along. Why did it seem so easy for them? What was the trick?
“Maybe my guitar teacher taught me the wrong rhythm,” I said. “Or maybe there’s some other rhythm I could play that’s easier to sing along with.”
“Maybe you should get a metronome,” Paul said. He grabbed my i-pad and started searching for a metranome app.
And then, out of nowhere, I started to cry.
“I’m sorry.” Paul looked startled and quickly put down my i-pad. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“You didn’t upset me,” I said. “I’m just disappointed. I thought this was going to be an easy song to learn, and I thought I’d be able to just play and sing along right away. I’m frustrated that I can’t.”
We live in an i-world where things are increasingly easy. We’re used to having the answer in the time it takes to press a button. And when we realize something isn’t going to be so easy, we tend to lose heart. We’re not used to trying and failing until we get it right.
There’s a little whiny part of me that thinks writing novels should be easy – that they should just pour out of me, fully-formed and perfect. When that doesn’t happen, when I realize it’s actually a lot of hard work, I start looking for an easy alternative. Maybe I could write a memoir instead? Maybe I could just publish a book of my short stories?
But despite all my frustrations, I still haven’t given up – on writing, or the guitar. The other day, I played “Wagon Wheel” over and over. “OK,” I said finally, “I’m going to try to sing along, but I’m not going to be able to do it.”
But, funny enough, I was able to do it. Sort of. I didn’t sound that great, and I made a lot of mistakes, but I was able to play and sing at the same time, and I know the more I practice the better I’ll get. There wasn’t some magic, easy answer. Only lots and lots of hard work. I think the same is true with my novel writing. It will never be easy, but the more effort I put in, the better I’ll get.
I guess working hard has it’s advantages. Now I have to work hard to convince Wayne of this fact. I’m sure I’ll be seeing him tonight.
P.S. “Are you working hard or hardly working is Sergiy’s favorite English expression. He thinks it’s hilarious.