One of the jobs I have most loved was being an English/Reading/Writing tutor to high school kids. I helped kids prepare for their SAT/ACT college entrance exams one on one to help them achieve the goal of getting into the school of their dreams.
I had taught many students, apathetic, doing the tutoring because their parents "wanted them to". Then I had *Irina.
Irina was an extraordinarily bright student native to an Eastern European nation. Irinia's parents had insisted she undertake tutoring because her SAT scores were "much too low" to get into a "great American school, such as Harvard or MIT". Irina's parents would call her stupid in front of her and tell her she needed to work harder.
Irina, I will tell you, till this day, is smarter than 99% of the population.
My first one-on-one meeting with Irina in her home, where our tutoring took place, was very awkward. Her parents, both engineers, grilled me on my background and why I was a good English teacher.
"Mr. and Mrs. P*.", I explained, "I am a graduate student who has a passion for English and has done very well on this section of the test. I will do my very best to ensure your daughter learns as much as she can from my knowledge."
Mr. and Mrs. P. did not look impressed. I then went with Irina to her family room den to begin studying. She could barely look me in the eye.
"Irina", I said, in a calm voice, "You are a very intelligent girl who is going to go very far in life. You are gifted." (After seeing her perfect SAT math score, I was the intimidated one at this point, thinking as how I could not add up the tip at dinner the night before.)
She looked at me, painfully. "Really?" And pulled out a stack of flash cards of English vocabulary that would have scared Charles Dickens. I gulped, hoping I knew what in the hell "obdurate" meant. "Yes", I said. "Now let's get down to some fun vocabulary!" (Sadly, this is a true statement, and I was very excited to study vocabulary for three hours. Never mind her parents had ordered an extra hour per session, as they believed she needed it.)
After hitting one poignant word, "sate", Irina said, "I am not satisfied with myself. I am a failure. My parents think so. I am number 3 in my class." (Keep in mind this was at a very competitive upper-middle class suburban Chicago high school.)
"Irina", I said, trying not to get choked up, "You are a smart, beautiful, athletic, kind girl. Who wouldn't be satisfied with that?" She finally cracked a smile from her usually stoic face.
Once this came out, Irina and I got to talking about things besides vocabulary. She confided in me her fears of lack of self-confidence, her insecurities, her fears of surviving college, her fears of her parents. I became more of a counselor than a tutor. Week by week, I saw her get stronger, her confidence improve, and develop into the star she was meant to be. Not because I was teaching her words like "sagacious" or teaching her how to solve analogies; because I gave her a backbone to believe in herself.
I saw the potential in this girl from day one. I loved meeting with her, it became the highlight of my week. We would talk, she would reveal all of her school and non-school related fears to me. She felt awkward, unattractive, geeky. All things I had felt in the past. I listened. I didn't judge. I saw her grow, both academically, but mainly personally. In our last meeting, Irina told me she had gotten asked to a dance at school for the first time and was extremely excited.
When I finished with Irina, her parents were not, of course, fully satisfied, but gave me the compliment of being a "very nice young lady". Ironic, as they hired me to be a "smart young lady".
I later that year received an email from Irina saying she got into Harvard*. The email read something like this:
I don't know how to thank you more for helping me to overcome my fears of so many things. Without you, I would have never done so well on my SAT and, well, would have not been enjoying Harvard* so much. Thank you for all you've done. I'll never forget you."
My heart broke into tears of sadness, joy, and pride as I read this. This girl could have done Harvard without me- she needed a mentor, someone to instill confidence in her. And I am proud to say I did so. If I were to guess, Irina is somewhere around the world today changing lives with her engineering degree being much smarter than she thinks she is.. I hope she remembers how special she is too.
*names of student and school have been changed.
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