© 1999 Harrison Bae Wein
This story originally appeared in the Spring/Summer
1999 issue of Paff House Press's Out of Line.
| Our goal for the first session, they told us, was to get to know each other,
to set the stage for a good tutorial relationship. We sat across from each
other at one of the long, narrow tables, my six foot five frame awkwardly
slumped into the tiny plastic chair. I raised my voice so as be heard above
the din of the large, open room, "So, have you been in this program
"Yeah," Emilio answered in a detached tone. "I was here last year." The
gaunt, eleven-year-old Puerto Rican boy that faced me had large, dark
brown eyes, but they avoided me, lowered to the table with a cool
"You like it here?"
"I guess so."
"Well," I said, looking to the single aid I had been given, "they gave me
this list of questions to ask you, so we could get to know each other better."
Emilio ignored me and began to play with his jacket zipper, slowly moving it
up and down. I turned back to my sheet. "Do you have any pets?"
"I had a pet piranha," he answered, looking up. "I had two of 'em."
"Piranhas? You sure they were piranhas?"
"Yeah. My dad got them for me as a present."
"What did you feed them?"
"Anything. Once, I put my goldfish in the tank with them. Next morning, all I
found was its skeleton." Emilio paused to study my reaction, and I tried not
to look uncomfortable. "Then I punished them. I took one and I held him in
my hand like this," he said, wrapping his left hand as if he were holding a
small fish, "and I took a stick and rammed it down his throat and mushed all
his guts and his heart and liver until he was dead. The other one, I held it in
my hand and I squooshed it until I could see its lungs popping out."
"That's pretty nasty."
Emilio shrugged, and his eyes dropped to stare at the table. He started
to play with his zipper again.
"Do you have any pets left?"
"Yeah, I got a cat." He straightened, animated once more. "She was
looking out the window and I grabbed the window and slammed it down; I
tried to slam it down on her neck, but she got away. She just got away," he
This was not how I'd pictured the interview after meeting the seemingly
quiet Emilio with his mother the Saturday before and reading the
instructions in the orientation packet back at the dorm. "Well," I stalled,
taking refuge in my list, "let's talk about something else. Do you have any
brothers and sisters?" It was question number five.
"Yeah, I got a big sister."
"Do you get along?"
"She beats me up."
"Beats you up?"
"Yeah, she keeps stepping on my head. I'm screaming for her to stop, but
she just keeps stepping on my head."
"Why does she do that?"
"I don't know." Emilio shrugged his shoulders and started to play with his
I looked back to my list. I sensed it was going to be a long morning.
It was another one of John's ideas, this tutoring. We were at Heron's as
usual on a Friday night, sitting at a table in back. John was leaning back
reading the alternative paper, paying no attention to me. I was staring at
the bowl of popcorn at the center of the table, wondering why I kept going
there with him instead of going where we could actually meet some other
undergrads. Occasional clusters of graduate students were outnumbered
here by the working class adults from the neighborhood -- loud, obnoxious,
stealing suspicious glances at us the whole time. I don't know why John
liked the place so much.
"Why don't we tutor?" John suddenly announced, his head still behind the
"Tutor," he repeated, lowering the paper. "They've got these tutoring
programs where they match up college students like us with kids from poor
families. We meet them once a week and help them with their homework."
"Volunteering helps build character, you know."
"I need character. Does it say that in the article?"
"Well, I guess we have to do it then."
John and I are often like that. Our banter just takes over.
The second week I was ready to inspire Emilio to do some reading. We
went to the library down on the ground floor. It was a small room with a filthy
maroon shag carpet, particle board bookcases painted royal blue, and
brightly colored, slightly soiled chintz floor pillows.
The first thing Emilio did was climb up on the wooden loft and throw a
huge stuffed bear on my head. I was browsing through the bookcases. The
bear bounced off my head, jarring me, and landed face down on the ground.
I looked up and spotted Emilio, his lithe figure swaying and bouncing
behind the loft's wood railing as he giggled with his hands over his mouth.
"Emilio, get down here," I ordered, trying to sound authoritative.
"No," he refused, and watched for my response.
I climbed halfway up the loft's wooden ladder: "Emilio, move it."
"Down! Now!" The ladder creaked as I shifted my weight.
"Me? You get down. You're too heavy, man. You're gonna break the
"Emilio, come on," I said, trying to keep my voice down. "I've had enough
of this. I'm going to pick out a book, and you're going to come down here
and read it with me."
I climbed down to scan through the books, but the selection was dreadful:
Too Many Cows, Brenda and the Broccoli Burglars, The Big Dog Who
Was Afraid of Other Dogs. I was beginning to see that, though the tutorial
center was relatively large, most of what at first had seemed like extensive
resources were donated items no one wanted anymore: outdated
encyclopedias, incomplete crayon and paint sets in the art room, a
collection of bulky DOS computers with mismatched software upstairs, all
these dreadful books here in the library.
I finally settled on Escape to Jupiter, which looked mildly entertaining.
After some more pleading, I eventually talked Emilio into coming down. He
flopped down onto a floor cushion by my feet, and I lowered myself to join
him with the book. "O.K.," I said, "Let's try reading this."
Emilio looked at it. "I read that already."
"Fine," I surrendered. "You pick something." He got up and, after a
careful search, came back with Too Many Cows.
Emilio lounged backward to read, resting his head on the cushion while
his chest supported the book. He began to mouth through the first
sentence, stumbling haltingly over the large print words. His eyes shifted
from the page to see if anyone was watching him. As he slowly worked his
way through the second sentence, I tried to decide what to do. I hadn't
expected this from a sixth grader. I didn't know whether to let him keep
struggling or to help him with the words and potentially embarrass him. He
continued to plod, word by word, checking frequently to see if anyone was
looking at him. To our left, a girl two or three years younger than him looked
our way, but her tutor directed her back to the page before Emilio saw her.
I opted to let Emilio read at his own pace. At the end of the second
page, he sat up and declared, "I don't want to read anymore."
I had planned to spend half the morning reading in the library and the
other half helping Emilio with his homework, which he hadn't brought. I tried
to interest him in everything I could think of, but essentially spent the rest of
the morning chasing him back and forth as he bothered the other tutors and
their students. By the end of the session, I was completely exhausted.
Emilio's teeth were speckled bright orange, and the spindly fingers he
sucked were caked with the salty powder. He was halfway through the bag
of cheese puffs.
"So," I asked to begin our fourth session together, "did you bring your
"No. I gotta get a drink."
"Go ahead," I said, having little choice in the matter as Emilio had
already gotten up. I watched him amble over to the water fountain and fill a
cup as I tried to figure out how we were going to spend the next two hours. I
had brought a book, but even if I did get him to read, it wouldn't interest him
for two hours. Computers were out. The past week, we had gone up to the
computer room and Emilio had become engrossed in a game called
"Mildred's Puzzles". It seemed questionable to me in terms of educational
value, but at least the simple graphics and sound had kept him occupied.
J ohn was at work with his student at another table. He was being his
usual smart aleck self. Manuel seemed to like him. John never came up
with a plan in advance, never thought about the tutoring center until we were
walking there from the bus stop Saturday morning. I told him I was already
convinced that I wasn't going to accomplish anything with Emilio. "Like any
of us accomplish anything," he scoffed. "We're all just here to make
ourselves feel better. Maybe we'll do a little good as a fringe benefit, but I
wouldn't let that bother you if it happens. Stop worrying about it so much.
Just ask the kid what he wants to do, and do it. Have some fun with it."
I was brought out of my trance by Emilio's shout from the water fountain:
"Get off, man!" A younger black student was dangling off Emilio's neck
while Emilio twirled and struck the boy's arms to break the grip. I jumped up
and reached the fountain at the same time as the other student's tutor.
"This isn't easy, is it?" she said as she grabbed her flailing student by the
"You can say that again," I answered, shoving Emilio behind my back.
"Hey, don't touch me!"
"Why don't you go cool off?" I ordered. He held his ground, unfazed,
twisting his mouth into a snarl and narrowing his eyes to glare at us. I
looked away. Emilio turned his attention to the other tutor, and she met his
challenge, frowning as their eyes met. Locked without a blink, she bore his
wrath with an expression of resolute compassion. Emilio finally retreated.
Still scowling, he started back toward the table.
"I just hope I make it out of here alive today," I said before turning to follow
"Good luck," she offered. "I think we both need it."
I caught up with Emilio, and we sat down again. He slammed his plastic
cup onto the table, splashing some water. "Want some?" he asked with a
smile, pushing the bag of cheese puffs toward me. I was amazed at how
quickly he could resume his cool manner.
"No," I declined and then, for lack of anything better to say, asked him
how his cat was doing.
"I killed it."
"Why did you do that?"
"I wanted to," he answered proudly.
I must have looked horrified. Emilio waved his hand and smiled. "I'm just
kidding. I didn't kill it. She got run over by a car."
"Aw, that stinks," I said woodenly, uneasy with the way he was toying with
Emilio suddenly looked serious again. "I didn't like her anyway." He
inverted the shiny bag to empty the crumbs into his mouth, then took a gulp
of water to wash them down. Some of the orange crumbs still clung to his
After Emilio finished breakfast, I got him to come with me to the other
side of the main room. We sat at a little table near a corner, and I took out
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, a paperback which I had picked
up at a used book store. I was sure Emilio would enjoy reading it, but he
just looked away and grabbed a Mad magazine from the bookcase behind
"Emilio, just try to read this. Give it a chance and see if you like it."
"No," he insisted, literally burying his head in the open magazine. He
lifted his head slightly to turn the page and started to look at the pictures.
I resolved to make the best of it and tried to persuade him to read aloud.
Emilio consented to read only the pages with the fewest words, but at least
he was reading something, I told myself. When he finished the magazine
less than ten minutes later, he threw it back on the pile in the bookcase.
Holding up the book I had brought, I asked, "Are you ready to try this now?"
I dropped the book in frustration. "Emilio, why are you even here? It's a
complete waste of time. You don't want to read anything, I can't get you
near any math. What do you like to do?"
He stared at me as if I was a total moron. "Nintendo."
I didn't know how to answer. Under my blank gaze, he shrugged and took
another Mad magazine from the shelf. I sulked as he turned the pages. A
little boy, chased by his tutor, ran past us shouting, "Tongue kiss! Tongue
Twenty minutes late for the day's session, Emilio strode into the main
room, glanced around, and quickly walked out again. I turned to John, who
was also still waiting, and said, "I'm not chasing him. I didn't even see him."
John continued to read his magazine without acknowledging me.
"Man, I don't know what the hell we're doing here," I persisted. "This is
"If you don't want to come anymore," John quipped, "just quit. At least I
won't have to hear you complain anymore."
Fuming, I fell silent. Manuel soon arrived with his mother, and she
apologized for his lateness. "Let's go, kiddo," John said, rubbing Manuel's
hair, and they left to go up to the computer center.
John was just so easy about the whole thing. Part of that was Manuel's
receptiveness, of course. But Emilio was intent on not learning anything. I
knew there was a long list of children waiting to get into this program. Not
only was Emilio wasting his own time; he was wasting my time -- I could
actually be spending time with someone who wanted to learn something.
Jennifer, one of the center's coordinators, approached me a few minutes
later. "Did you know Emilio was here?" she asked. Jennifer was a couple
of years older than I, probably just out of college, with pale skin and faded
jeans that held only a tenuous grip at the widest point of her hips.
"No," I lied to her. "I haven't seen him."
"He seems to be wreaking havoc at the computers." She looked
concerned. "I think it's time I had a little talk with him."
When Jennifer asked him, Emilio told her that he had searched all around
the room but hadn't seen me. Jennifer knew I had been sitting in clear view
of the entrance.
"We're going to the art center," I said when Jennifer left us alone with
each other. Though the workshop activities were designed for the younger
children, I felt I couldn't deal with Emilio alone that morning.
In the art center, a workshop dealing with a different topic was held each
week. The facilitator, as she liked to call herself, began the workshop by
giving a mini-lesson on dinosaurs. My eyes wandered to the walls, which
were covered with previous projects. Directly across from me were
collages of scantily clad women in suggestive poses, the pictures cut from
donated fashion magazines. On the right wall was a Halloween story about
the horror movie villains Jason, Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers,
accompanied by a crude picture of them slashing each other with knives
The talk finished, and we broke up to work on posters. Emilio dictated a
story to me, which I wrote down, and then he made a painting to accompany
the story. The narrative he made up was about Tyrannosaurus Rex and
Triceratops fighting to the death as a volcano erupted behind them and the
earth shook, killing all the dinosaurs. The forms of the fighting dinosaurs
were barely discernible behind the thick coat of red paint he slopped on the
paper. At least he seemed to have fun with it.
At the end of each tutoring session, Emilio was supposed to write
something in his student journal, but the most I had ever gotten from him
before was "I hate writing" in large block letters. The previous week, he had
left refusing to write anything. This time, I was determined to get him to put
something down on paper.
"Just write something," I said at one of the low tables upstairs. "It doesn't
matter what." John came over to witness the conversation. "Come on,
"No, man. I don't want to write."
"Just write anything. Write about how much you hate me."
"Yeah," John encouraged him, "Write about what a jerk he is."
Emilio, inspired to write for possibly the first time in his life, picked up the
pen and painstakingly scrawled: "My tutor is a cockface asshole jerk. His
friend is a dick." John helped him with the spelling.
The following week, Emilio left abruptly after another typical session of
clashes, and I collapsed into one of the plastic chairs to wait for John to
finish. The director soon approached, a thin man in his late twenties whose
wardrobe consisted of nothing but solid black clothing as far as I could tell.
"I saw Emilio's journal entry last week," he began, his speech flamboyant
and breathy, his words meticulously enunciated, "and frankly, I was
appalled." He paused a moment for dramatic effect before continuing, "I
spoke with his mother and she assured me she'd have a word with him.
Did he seem to show any improvement today?"
"You two don't seem to be getting along very well."
"We're getting along. I just can't get him to do anything."
"I think it would be better if we switched you," he suggested. "You look
like you're at your wit's end with him."
"O.K.," I shrugged, but I felt a chill after saying it, as if I'd done something
"It'll work out better this way," he assured me. "Emilio needs a little more
of a drill sergeant."
I slouched in my chair, listening and watching the cheerful greetings
around me. The room was alive with chatter -- not nervous like the first
week, but excited and enthusiastic and comfortable. The student with
whom Emilio had been fighting at the water fountain a few weeks before
was now engrossed in a geography game with his tutor two tables away.
"Idaho!" the boy shouted.
"Good, good," encouraged his tutor. The boy smiled, grabbed another
card, and began studying the board again.
I wondered who Emilio's new tutor would be, and who I would be tutoring.
It had all happened so fast the past week, I could hardly believe I wouldn't
be with him anymore.
I was a little surprised to see Emilio enter the room on time. He walked
directly to my table and slumped into the chair across from me.
"What's up?" I asked, trying to hide my discomfort.
We sat for a while without speaking as the shouts of the other students
whirled around us: "Leonardo!" "Pizza, dude." "Cow-a-bunga!"
"I hope things work out better with your next tutor," I said.
Emilio paused for a brief moment. "Yeah," he muttered, pushing his
chair back. I caught a pained look in his eyes as he turned away. He
stood, brushed off his jacket, and sauntered toward the door. He was
almost there before I realized he must not have known about the switch.
I wanted to chase him, to explain, but I didn't know what to say. The back
of his head disappeared from view down the stairs as I sat stuck to my
plastic chair. Next time, I tried to calm myself. Next time I'll talk to him. But
that was the last time any of us ever saw Emilio.
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