Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Never Judge a Teen by His Cover

This week, I started tutoring school-aged kids in English language arts as part of a federally-funded program. I'll be tutoring the kids in their homes or at public libraries.

Today, I had my first student, and I've already learned a lesson. Yes, it was the tutor who learned the lesson.

I arrived in the apartment to find my student's guardian, his aunt, alone. She informed me in Spanish that the boy, Antonio, would be arriving shortly.

The family is from Guatemala and they live, 6 people, in a tiny studio apartment-- the one room being about 12' x 12'. The apartment is not located in a "nice" part of town.

All I knew about Antonio was that he is a 17-year-old who is in the 9th grade. Knowing this, I assumed that he had failed a few grades, since most 9th graders are 14 years-old. As a result, I was worrying that perhaps he'd be a gang guy type.

Soon, two teenage boys entered the apartment. One looked quite clean-cut, neat haircut, wearing a sporty zip-up sweatshirt and nice jeans. He looked like a good kid. The other boy was wearing a big baseball cap tilted to the side, with the bill of the cap straight and uncurved. He wore a T-shirt that was several sizes too big. He wore extra-baggy jeans that were so over-sized that he had to "cinch" them with a belt, his boxer shorts being the only thing that were covering his ass. He had several gold chains around his neck, bracelets and rings, and had piercings. He looked like a Chicano gangsta to me.

Instantly I started hoping that first boy would be Antonio, my student. He was. Whew, I thought.

Well, the first lesson with all of my students is actually not a lesson at all. It's a test. They take the test, which takes them about an hour. Then I grade it, and figure out what are their strengths and weaknesses, and plan my lessons accordingly.

Antonio sat down and started taking the test. I sat and waited. As I did, the other boy (he of the baggy jeans, gold chains and piercings) started to engage me in conversation, in his thick barrio accent. He was very friendly and respectful, to my surprise. He showed me a copy of Shakespeare's Macbeth and asked me if I had ever read it. I told him I had. He then started discussing the play with an enthusiasm which quite frankly stunned me. I am paraphrasing a bit, but this was our conversation...

"We're studying it in English dramatic lit now. It's pretty short for a Shakespeare play, so it didn't take me very long to get through it. What do you think of Macduff?"

My mind drew a blank. I scoured my memory to remember who the hell Macduff was. I hadn't read Macbeth in ages. I said, "You mean the Scottish king that Macbeth kills?"

"No, that's Duncan," he said, "Macduff is the man who suspects Macbeth of killing Duncan, so he goes to Malcom and convinces him to join him in taking revenge on Macbeth."

"Oh," I said, feeling quite inadequate.

"Do you think that Macduff is the personification of morality in the play? 'cuz it's like Shakespeare is using him to represent what is moral, in a play full of immoral people."

At that point my head was spinning. I never thought, when I first laid eyes on that kid, that a word such as personification would come out of his mouth, much less a name like Shakespeare. I felt such shame for having prejudged him as I did, and I simultaneously was wondering how he ever got interested in Shakespeare.

You see, he wasn't some teenager moaning that he has to read Macbeth for English class. He was a teenager who was actively interested in the story, enough so that he wanted to converse about it on his free time with a 41-year-old man.

I said, "I'll be honest with you, I only read it once, in college, and that was back in 1991."

"Whoa," he said, "that was before I was born."

"Yes," I muttered, grimacing at that fact, for the boy was almost as tall as I.

"How come you've never re-read it since?" he asked.

"It's not one of my favorite Shakespeare plays," I said, "Julius Caesar I've read about 5 times, but Macbeth only once."

"It's not one of mine either. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth both don't have a struggle of good and evil in them. They're just plain evil. I think it's more interesting when the evil wins over the good, then it's more tragic, you know?"

I marveled at him and asked, "You really like Shakespeare, huh?"

He said, "He's okay. I really-really like Goethe, though."

GOETHE?! This boy reads GOETHE?

He got out one of his school folders and pulled out a few verses of Goethe's Faust. It was covered with yellow highlights and pencil marks, in which he used modern synonyms to define the more obscure words.

"You don't find this too hard to read?" I asked.

"It's hard, but not too hard. I like that it's hard. It's like a puzzle or a code. When there's a word I don't know, I look it up, and when I get all the words together and it all makes sense, it's really cool."

I suddenly realized that I had forgotten all about Antonio, my student, even though he was seated at a table right in front of me taking the test. I asked him if everything was okay and if he had any questions. He shook his head and continued taking the test with great concentration.

From behind me I heard, "Do you like opera?"

This is too much, I thought, I have got to be on Candid Camera. He likes opera, too?

"Yeah," I said, "I like opera. I'm not an aficionado, but I like it. Why? You like it?"

"Well, I've only seen one, but that got me interested in it. Me and a bunch of kids from my school went downtown to the Disney Concert Hall to see La Boheme."

"That's one of the few operas that I know well. I love it. What did you think of it?"

He said, "At first I didn't think I'd get it, because it's in Italian, and I can only speak Spanish and English, but after a while I realized that if I just took in the visual things and opened myself up emotionally to the music, it would all sink in, and it did. I cried when Mimi died. Really."

He not only liked the opera, but he admits that it made him cry. Wow, I thought.

So finally Antonio finished the test, and I said bye to them and left. As I drove home, I couldn't stop thinking about what had just happened. I had caught myself being prejudiced. I am always disdaining prejudiced people, and there I was, being prejudiced.

Sure, he's Guatemalan, and lives in a bad neighborhood, and wears huge, baggy T-shirts and jeans and he piles on the gold chains, and shares a one-room apartment with 5 other people, but that doesn't mean that he can't read Macbeth and write about Faust and cry at La Boheme.

Conversely, there are many white kids living in big houses in the suburbs, who dress like preppies, and, if assigned to read Macbeth, would only read the Cliff Notes. They would hire a nerd to write a paper about Faust, and would have to be dragged to La Boheme, most likely falling asleep in the middle of an aria. Yet, would I have winced at the thought of tutoring them at first-sight? Of course I wouldn't have.

So today, the tutor learned a lesson.

Never judge a teen by his cover.

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