Novella - A Cultural Crevice
A young woman finds that the ultimate one-on-one tutoring job is fraught with bicultural expectations and misunderstandings. If the situation wasn't a misunderstanding, she was helping terrorists.
Chapter 1 - Time Stood
I thought that private tutoring would be a good part-time career option, because I didn't want to try to teach the masses in the public school system anymore. I theorized that teaching one student who wanted to learn would be a dream come true.
Tutoring one can be a nightmare. Before September eleventh, my first tutoring job was only one of the worst, most horrifying, humiliating experiences of my life. My level of Middle East political knowledge was as vague as everyone else's in 1999. I can see how I brought problems on myself, to a certain extent. But how I could have been so cautious at the time, and end up feeling so foolish, naive, and humiliated personally after the fact, justifies questioning everything.
When you cross a cultural line, you enter into unknown and dangerous territory. For a period, time stood--not still, just stood. Sometimes all you can do against time is stand it. After teaching 13 years in the Texas public school system, I had burned out. I couldn't handle the emotional stress of feeling overly responsible for all the bad things that happened at school.The last 5 years I taught, 3 of my middle school aged students died tragic deaths. You always wonder if there was some small thing you could have done that would have changed everything.
Eventually I became more involved in personal student issues I couldn't solve, except to experience students' pain vicariously, and be too sympathetic for as much discipline as was needed in the classroom. But how do you tell the eleven-year-old girl who was sexually abused by her mother's former boyfriend that she can't interrupt the class every time she has to go to the bathroom. I just couldn't seem to explain the concept of being discreet.
Before it got to the point that I couldn't explain anything, I quit. I walked out on a contract. School districts hate that. But by then it was a medical issue, and it was best for me and the school that I walk away from teaching.
Although I had a degree in English and experience in the workplace, I had no real world skills. I'm of that peculiar age that thought computers weren't going to catch on, mostly because I was afraid to have to learn something new. I took courses at the local community college and got a part-time job at a vet clinic. Working around animals improved my attitude about life, and I started a pet sitting business on the side.
I was doing okay, but it wasn't really the career change I needed. Picking up massive amounts of dog feces on a regular basis will keep you humble. I needed desperately to feel less humble.
My mom passed on an ad she'd read in the classifieds of the Dallas Morning News that read like a personal invitation for me:
"Person needed to teach English
6 hours/day, 5 days/week."
I need to try to write this in third person, so this chapter serves as an introduction to the character Susan Carpenter. The story continues, only somewhat fictionalized, in "A Cultural Crevice - Chapter 2."
. . . As for Susan's dreams, she longed to have a special man in her life. No one would ever take the place of her father. She knew that every relationship she'd ended had been because of some male quirk that wasn't like her father's. She didn't really have any good male friends. She had a lot of ended relationships. And now she was too busy for a relationship, except with her mother.
As an only child, Susan valued the relationship she had been able to develop with her mother in the year since her father's death. They seldom fought anymore. Susan's mother accepted her as an adult, but she still made suggestions. And Susan felt responsible about fulfilling her mother's expectations.
Susan pushed back her coffee mug, opened the classified section of "The Dallas Morning News" her mother had placed on the table, and read a circled ad in the personals section:
"Teacher wanted for English
5 days/6 hours (972) 823 - 9393"
"I think you should call that telephone number and find out if this is something you'd like to do. I know you said you didn't want to teach anymore. But this would be teaching someone who wants to learn. It would be just you and the pupil," Helen emphasized knowing overcrowded classes produced many of the problems Susan had shared with her.
"You used to tell me such wonderful stories about your students. I know you loved them, and they loved you. This might be an opportunity to teach without being a teacher in a classroom." Helen had obviously been plotting her strategy since getting the early edition of the Sunday paper the previous afternoon.
"I'll have two eggs, over easy, with two strips of bacon, grits, and beer biscuits with gravy," Susan addressed the pony tailed, red-]aproned, blue jean clad waitress. She was focused on her most immediate need. Helen ordered her usual oatmeal, English muffin, and grapefruit juice.
"You know that greasy bacon and starch isn't going to help your diet. I noticed your clothes are getting tight in some places," Helen said.
Helen meant well. Susan took it well. She wasn't awake enough to be defensive. She sipped her coffee, and thought about teaching one student who wanted to learn. She had quit thinking about teaching as anything except old painful history. She didn't want to teach anymore. Her mother knew it was a closed subject. Susan's thoughts showed in her facial demeanor.
"At least call and find out more information. It doesn't hurt to ask." Helen was prepared to convince her daughter that taking a step, which Susan considered to be a step backward, would be good for her self esteem.
Helen had grown used to seeing her daughter in low maintenance mode. Susan didn't dress up anymore. She wasn't slovenly, just simple.
Susan always wore either jeans or scrubs. Since she'd quit teaching, she'd also tried to quit smoking. On a break at the clinic, or at school, or at home, Susan ate nervously. If she wasn't eating, she'd started smoking again. Her nice school clothes might not even fit anymore. How would one dress to teach one student at home? Teaching at a home wouldn't be like teaching so many kids in a public classroom.
For just a minute, Susan drifted off to an image of herself, thinner, younger, longer hair, hose and heels and full professional school garb, a big wooden desk of papers and books, an overhead projector, a green blackboard of carefully formed writing, the bulletin board, and sixth grade students. The specific faces had begun to fade in her memory, but the image left a smile on her face.
"Teaching one student would be a totally different experience," Susan agreed. "But, Mother, let's be practical. I don't have enough time to study as things are now. Midterm exams are over, but I have research papers due. This sounds interesting, but I can't do this, go to school, and work at the clinic." Her routine was hectic, but it was a routine. She set the newspaper on the table between them.
Susan had struggled through jobs at the video store and craft store when she had first left teaching and returned to Dallas. She didn't like the monotony of cash register work, and minimum wage sucked. Although part of her job included picking up "feces," the job at the animal clinic wasn't that bad. And she enjoyed studying vet medicine. It would be a long time before it paid off so that she could be hired in a more responsible, higher paying job. But she was enjoying it--except that she couldn't ever seem to get enough sleep. And there wasn't enough money. And she had no personal relationship. Susan was enjoying her life just fine, such as it was. Life was work and studying. Maybe Susan did need some diversion in her life.
The look on Helen's face was drained of it's previous happy glow.
"Shit!" Susan thought to herself.
Just her mother's facial expression could have an effect on Susan's attitude. She couldn't disappoint her mother over something as small as a telephone call.
Maybe she could add teaching one student to her routine for awhile. She could at least call and find out about the student. Susan decided to make the call, if only to make her mother happy. Making the call wouldn't necessarily get her the job, after all.
Susan carefully filled her coffee cup, slowly adding two creams and two sugars. She neatly folded the spent sugar wrappers and stuffed them into the top of the four layer tower of cream containers. She stirred her coffee, gratefully savored her morning caffeine, then reached across the table and picked up the newspaper. She looked at the ad again.
She scanned the surrounding columns of the newspaper ad, expecting to find other professional positions and career placement agency teasers. Instead, she finally realized, the ad was in the "personals" section. She thought it an unusual place for such an ad. When her mother read the newspaper, she read the entire paper!
Susan read the headlines and the shopping ads in the newspaper. There were too many complicated medical textbooks in her life now for much leisure reading. Susan marveled at her mother's interest, and her compassion for her daughter's current situation. She knew Susan was struggling.
Susan appreciated that her mother always had been there for her 100%. In 33 years, no matter how Susan messed up, her mother eventually forgave, even if she didn't forget. She appreciated her mother's love and guidance.
The waitress finally arrived with breakfast, and spread the various necessary plates, bowls, and platters in their appropriate settings on the small table.
Susan picked up her mother's six ounce grapefruit juice, took a small sip, made a face befitting the citrus-sour taste, and slid the glass across to Helen, spilling almost the entire contents on the checkered vinyl tablecloth. Plates, cups, and glasses clinked and clattered. The sun had barely risen on a new day, breakfast hadn't been consumed, much less digested, and Susan was rattled.
She used her only paper napkin, attempting to wipe up the spill, making a wider puddle of mess until she gave up and added the sticky, soggy ball of mush to her pile of coffee product refuse.
The waitress was understanding and efficient, but too slow to suit Susan. The table wasn't any mess that couldn't be cleaned. It wasn't as big a deal as she thought, felt. Everyone wasn't staring at her. If they were it was only for a minute. Things spill in restaurants, but Susan was extremely self-conscious. She felt her faces pulsing waves of red.
"Well, I guess that waitress earned her tip for this table," Helen spoke quietly, focusing her attention on consuming regularly spaced spoonfuls of oatmeal.
Susan poked at her plate of bacon and steaming eggs, with a tidy little sprig of parsley on the side. After the first bite, her appetite improved.
"Mother, I'll call the number after my study group this afternoon. A few of my anatomy classmates are getting together at the lab to drill each other on the names of muscles with our cat cadaver. When I get home, I'll call to see what this ad is particularly looking for." The daughter looked straight into her mother's eyes, until they made eye-to-eye contact. Then she refocused her attention on her fork.
"With three years of beginning ESL experience, I can probably handle whatever needs this person has." Susan had succumbed to Helen's suggestion.
"I just want you to be happy, Susan." Helen's countenance showed concern for her daughter.
Susan's weight had often proved an indicator of her emotional state. Overweight always meant some degree of depression. Helen estimated her daughter had added 30-40 pounds of depression since she'd quit teaching. Susan was always studying, or working, or sleeping, or eating-- as far as Helen knew. Helen felt that they had finally reached a point so that they didn't keep secrets from each other. Helen didn't keep secrets.
Susan, however, had learned that the best way to deal with her mother, in certain situations, was to not tell the entire minute-by-minute account of her days and nights.
Reared in the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, Susan rationalized that if she sinned by not "honoring thy mother," it was more a sin of omission rather than premeditated disrespect. Her latter teen years had been full of premeditated disrepect, though she hadn't thought so at the time.
After she had gotten her driver's license at age 16, Susan's teenage years were filled with freedom loving rebellion. She didn't want to answer for her whims and escapades. Only after her graduation from college had Susan become more settled and somewhat less needing of her mother's approval, necessitating fewer arguments.
Susan wanted to respect her mother, even if she didn't agree with her. They didn't agree about alcohol.
Helen's early childhood was spent with an especially abusive alcoholic father. He'd left, or died. Susan never got the whole story so that she understood everything. She understood her mother didn't like to talk about it. Helen didn't drink. Helen didn't approve of Susan drinking. When the subject came up, it rapidly became a torrential verbiage of personal opinion.
Rather than inviting a heated discussion, Susan told Helen that she was "out studying" the few times lately she'd broken the monotony of her life by visiting the neighborhood tavern, drinking glasses of Zinfandel, and playing darts.
Susan felt at home at a dart bar. She didn't feel like she needed a date to go in a neighborhood tavern. She'd played darts for many years, and was "good for a girl." She always smiled and took it as a compliment when some drunk guy she'd beaten at a game told her that.
Susan had had a few bar boyfriends of whom her mother didn't approve. It was difficult to tolerate her mother's put downs, so sometimes Helen heard of a break up long before it actually happened, usually as soon as Susan anticipated her mother's disdain developing.
It wasn't really her mother's business, and omitting inflammatory information quelled arguments. Susan considered them little white lies to get through the day with fewer complications. Susan could imagine no situation she could get in to that her naive mother could get her out of. Her life wasn't set up that way.
Helen certainly didn't need to know that Susan hadn't gotten home from the bar until after 1:00 am the night before. The eggs, bacon, and those beer biscuits with gravy, plus several cups of coffee had greatly alleviated her too-much-wine-the-night-before head. Susan wished that they were sitting in the smoking section of the restaurant, but Helen always insisted on non-smoking since her husband had died.
The waitress made timely returns, and dishes disappeared as they were emptied. With a clean, clear table, the two exchanged planned activities for the week.
Helen was dressed for mass. The disillusioned daughter declined an invitation to attend early morning services with her mother. She wasn't dressed properly, and she wasn't feeling particularly Catholic that day. She had animals to attend to at the clinic.
Susan made a mental note to check in with God later. She didn't feel the need for a special building or appointment in time to communicate with the God she had come to know in her adult life. She'd taught students from a wide variety of religious backgrounds, and learned from those she taught. She also knew, first hand, the traditions of the Twelve Step Program. Helen, conversely, relished in traditional church activities.
"Father Freeman is beginning a 12-week course on 'Grief Recovery' this week, Dear. Will you be studying on Wednesday evening?" Helen always attempted to include her daughter in her plans, though most invitations were demurely declined.
"Mother, I really couldn't tell you what I'll be doing by Wednesday night. It's a regular study night though." Susan wasn't about to make any more commitments. The phone call was enough.
Susan gulped the last of the coffee in her cup as Helen reapplied her Monroe Red lipstick. Susan marveled at how her mother could apply lipstick so accurately without a mirror. She thought about digging in her big purse to put lipstick on herself, mimicking her mother as she had in her childhood. But her next stop was the clinic. The dogs didn't care about lip color.
Susan had learned from experience that some cosmetic odors, especially perfume, could cause an otherwise friendly animal to turn on you. Her lipstick stayed in her purse.
Mother and daughter departed their breakfast table, Helen paid the bill, and they walked toward the front door together. The two women were both almost six feet tall. Height, if nothing else, attracted attention. An older gentleman opened the door for them as they left the restaurant. Helen nodded and smiled at him.
"Susan, you'll call and let me know what you find out about the ad." Helen was persistent.
"Yes, Mother. I'll keep you informed. I have a feeling that if I don't, you'll be making the call for me." Susan smiled, and the two laughed as they walked to cars on opposite sides of the parking lot.
Susan watched as her mother's new silver Lincoln Town Car pulled slowly out of the parking lot. She lit a cigarette and started the car on the third try.
"Too bad I don't have a boyfriend to check out what's wrong under the hood," Susan mused to herself. "Yes, I could really use a boyfriend to check out what's wrong under my hood."