When I started tutoring, I did it inside of my daughter’s elementary school and I did it as part of my organizing work within the school – working with immigrant and non-English dominant families to ensure access to information. I did it on a volunteer basis and worked with recent immigrant English Language Learners (ELL’s as per NYC Dept. of Ed.). While many of the immigrant parents I worked with were Latinos. The majority of the children I worked with on reading so that they could test out of the ESL program were Indian. The Indian community where I live are predominantly part of a tight knit Ismaili community. Word got around and before I knew it was tutoring out of my mom’s kitchen.
As a single mom – then raising one, now raising two daughters, this seemed perfect. I could take care of my daughters, be with them, work with my local community and make some money.
I think I tried to insert too much importance into what I should have just looked at as a job. I was especially excited by the fact that the majority of the young people I was working with were young women of color. I imagined having some sort of influence, seeing myself as a mentor I would have liked to have growing up. I imagined what would have been like to understand racism, sexism, colonialism growing up and not painfully crashing into it the way I did as 16 year old.
Of course all of this was to be done within the prescribed NYC DOE curriculum. My students would improve their grades in school, pass all their high stakes assessments, but they would also get support from bullying, family concerns, and engage in critical thinking with and about what they were learning in a way that the current high stakes standards don’t really allow for anymore.
For a while I really felt it was working. Felt like I was contributing something. My students did do well and we also went beyond the curriculum talking about politics, faith, sexuality, gender, community, art, visions and dreams. I felt this was especially important as many of my students transitioned from elementary school, into middle school, and high school. Hell my first student ever, a young man, always greets me in the streets and tells me how college is. This makes me feel happy (but also old).
But as I enter my what, 7th year of tutoring, I am growing disheartened. I am seeing/feeling especially as my students grow older, that unless I am working with the same vision as the parents/schools my work may not have the importance/impact I once imagined. My pareja says that sometimes, in this capitalist system we look for/invent more meaning when it comes to our work when in reality it is just labor/a service. Hearing this made me sad to the point of tears but it also felt/feels really true.
None of my students named helping to create a better world/helping their community among their goals but nearly all of them named being rich as one of their goals. Since I can’t quantify my students’ success beyond the grades/test scores they get in school, my assignments/suggestions are not followed up on. This means that my students still don’t read the newspaper or follow the news via any medium, so generally they have no idea what is happening in the world around them, or even in the city in which they live. They won’t make vocabulary or grammar study cards so that it takes a high school student from one of the best schools in the city/country two hours to read and understand two pages of a book because she doesn’t know what most of the words mean. The students and parents know I am a (sorta) single mother with two kids of my own I am helping guide through this world and yet I feel the disrespect from these two parent families everytime they cancel at the last minute, pick up/drop their child off late, have unreasonable expectations of me (i.e. checking homework via email at 11 pm), and don’t even bother to look at their kids’ work.
Maybe work cannot be radicalized. Maybe work is just work, a way to feed yourself and your family. Maybe I need to be real about my role in this fucked up market/education system. Maybe all I can do is give these kids and their parents what they expect – better grades. Maybe I need to let everything else go and focus on how my life – with my daughters, through my writing, with my pareja, y family and my community – be where the change happens.
As I focus my energies on shifting – moving – physically and spiritually – maybe I need to let go of certain visions if they aren’t shared.