A new perspective: Tutoring program benefits all

Elizabeth Smith

The first time I saw her, her hair was splayed across her head in tiny, neat cornrows. Her clothes were dirty from playing at recess and were covered in food — a sharp contrast to the pressed pleats of my skirt. It was my first day at a tutoring program for kids of low-income families in Marin, and it was my first day with “Shelly.”

Shelly was adorable and bubbly, but it soon became apparent that I had a greater task at hand than to just teach her how to read, how to spell and how to add. I was meant to be her mentor.

“Do you know how to twerk,” she asked me, referencing a sexually suggestive form of dance just soon after greeting me. I asked her where she learned about that, and she couldn’t give me a definite answer. She was a 7-year-old — one growing up in a rough place — and it became apparent she learned this vernacular from people in her neighborhood.

Each week brought a new academic challenge. A cringe-worthy score of a zero out of 10 on a spelling test provided a not-so-subtle clue that Shelly needed help. But we got caught up in our conversations about her “dating” Justin Bieber and being a “cousin” to Nicki Minaj. Some nights went by with little progress on the addition tables, but with good work in the socialization department. Her laughter would often blow our cover with the teachers, and we would be sent back to work.

But this was how our friendship came to be. I listened to her rap Flo Rida songs as I guided her through her basic math. And when we were working hard on reading, it seemed to pay off as I began giving in less and less to her pleas to make me read a page of her chapter book for her.

Even though the kids in her neighborhood seemed to grow up a little too quickly, nothing made them happier when the day they earned a Wish Book, a book they had been admiring for four weeks, for working hard. It was a simple joy, but it was worth it for them to earn something, and worth it to me to see them achieve something.

Shelly was a great story teller, even if much of it was from the depths of her imagination. She warned me of a shooting under the nearby overpass, or the crazy lady who was rumored to be a kidnapper — urban legends — and as concerned as it made me, she seemed unaffected by the true meaning of what she was saying. To her, every person that passed us with a similar shade of skin was her cousin, or so she claimed. But she was too feisty to be naïve.

We were such opposites in every way, but it worked. She told me all about how cool it is being cousins with Keyshia Cole and I told her what it was like to leave the state. On top of my stories, she loved the globe game, where we would imagine living wherever our fingers landed when we spun the globe.

If this game taught me anything, it was that with my help, she might be able to get out of her neighborhood and onto a better track.

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