Saturday, February 14, 2015

"The Joys of Tutoring," Ch. 18, BUT...AT WHAT COST

  While nothing can quite compare to being a gramma (the kids’ name for me), tutoring came close. I liked wallpapering and it was a worthy challenge, but tutoring was more personally satisfying. Prior to joining Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA), most of my accomplishments had been physical ones. Getting old sucks. Setting up staging in a stair-well and climbing around like a mountain goat while wall papering were very physical. I was far from being a great athlete, but I had coached Little League softball for many years, played competitive softball and volleyball well into my fifties, and played tennis until I ruptured my Achilles tendon playing tennis when I was 59. I couldn’t sing anymore, at least not as well as I wanted to. I couldn’t play sports anymore, at least not competitively. I didn’t want to hang wallpaper anymore because it was no fun doing it alone once Amy had moved to Georgia, and after the Achilles injury it was too physically demanding except for small jobs. As I said, “Getting old sucks.”

Tutoring saved me from entering a vegetative state. My brain still worked, so that’s the direction I headed. My long-time friend, Al Bojman, and his mother, Joan, had been after me for years to give it a try. She loved it, thought I would be good at it, and used Al as her recruiter.

Enter assignment number one: Ying was a returnee to the program. She had been in the States for two years and was living with and working for her brother in a local Chinese restaurant. She worked from eleven a.m. until ten p.m. six days a week, so we arranged to meet from nine to ten-thirty on Tuesday and Friday mornings. We got off to a slow start. I was inexperienced, and she was shy and entirely too polite. All that smiling and nodding had me completely fooled into thinking she was learning. Not!

Somewhere in the middle of our third session she allowed her eyes to glaze over. A definite breakthrough. I adjusted my technique and we got on track. Two sessions after we achieved a comfort zone, students number two and three arrived on the scene. They walked in the LVA room with Ying, said “Hi” and sat down.

Ying said, “You teach, okay?”

Well, I had no idea if it was okay or not, but they were sitting there smiling, waiting for me to say something. I turned to the new arrivals and said, “My name is Judy.” I got a smile and a nod from each. I tried again, “You are?” Nothing. “Your name is?” Nothing – no waiting for glazed eyes with these two.

Oh, my, I thought as my eyes glazed over, too. Fortunately, Ying noticed my dilemma and jumped in for the introductions. Lan knew a few waitress-related words, but Lin’s English vocabulary started and ended with “Hi.”

I’d been through many, many hours of training, but I was not really prepared for such low-level students. Ying was a level two; these were zeroes. I picked up my bag, thanking the language Gods I’d brought it that day, grabbed a few props to demonstrate actions and got to work. “Put the spoon in the cup. Put the cup on the table.”

I was immediately hooked. I simply LOVED working with lower-level students… and there was no shortage of them in Middletown’s Chinese restaurants. They just kept coming and coming. It got so I couldn’t buy Chinese food in Middletown; someone in every place that sold Chinese seemed to know who I was and wouldn’t take my money. I only took advantage once in a while. “You come eat Mother’s Day.”

“Okay.” Such a gracious people.

The best side-effect of my tutoring years was learning about cultural influences. My attention to culture was inspired both by my training, which emphasized not offending – as if we were a bunch of American chauvinists, and my up-close, personal observations of my students. The first few years, I was bathed primarily in Eastern Patterns of Culture because I worked almost exclusively with Chinese students. Afterwards, my horizons expanded to include other Eastern, Middle Eastern, and South American countries. My exposures were very revealing and in many ways confirmed my sociological beliefs and subsequent political evolution.


We are serializing on my blog Judy Axtell's
BUT...AT WHAT COST: A Skeptics Memoir,  available in paperback format from and other online book sellers. This chapter foreshadows her transition from liberal to conservative. I am proud to have coached Judy and to have edited the book.

My other site is




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