The Midwest |

I'm The Teacher Who Saved Your Life

by Kaj Tanaka

edited by Anna Prushinskaya

This happened during the fall of 2009, when everywhere I went people were anxious about the financial crisis. This was in Rockford, IL, where there hadn’t been very many jobs in the first place, and suddenly, there were even fewer. I had a very low paying job, so mostly I went to work and went home. I listened to podcasts on my computer and I read the news and I slept. I did those things to pass the time. All of my pleasures were cheap, and still, I lived in poverty. I couldn’t even afford to buy alcohol most of the time.

I worked as a tutor in a community college writing center with a woman named Sarah. We were both teaching undergraduate writing classes, and we picked up this tutoring job on the side. Mostly we edited student papers. Sarah was a little younger than me, and less experienced, but she had a PhD from a prestigious English program on the East Coast and a tenured position at the community college, so she was my superior. There were other writing tutors, I think, but for some reason of scheduling, I only ended up working with Sarah.

The writing center was located in the old brick library in a little alcove on the third floor, which was difficult to find. We didn’t have a sign, and lots of people mistook us for students or lovers.

Sarah was indignant about correcting undergraduate papers. She’d just published her dissertation through some obscure academic outfit, and she’d never taught a class before, not on her own anyway, and she considered this tenured community college position beneath her. She blamed the recession for her unfortunate situation, and she told me she was already looking for new prospects in Chicago—somewhere where she would be better appreciated. We received a wage of sixteen dollars per hour, which, since I only worked 10 hours a week, didn’t amount to much.

The work itself was not difficult. Students brought us their drafts on crumpled pieces of paper, jammed into front pockets of backpacks or saved on their impossibly slow knockoff brand laptops. But it wasn’t hard, reading their work. Appointments only lasted a half hour, and there is only so much a person can say in that amount of time. Mostly I read the papers and pointed out things I particularly enjoyed—little phrases, unique flourishes of rhetoric &c. One thing all of the students had in common was that they hated writing. We discussed that, and I allowed them to air their grievances.

Sarah came from the opposite school of thought. She provided her students extensive feedback on each minutia of syntax, each claim, each warrant, each comma, each clause. The result was that her appointments ran chronically behind schedule. Sometimes she would be a full three hours behind, which meant that long lines ended up forming on the third floor of the library. On these days, no one had trouble finding the tutoring center, and I ended up tutoring some of Sarah’s overflow students as well as my own. I didn’t really need the full half-hour session anyway, and fifteen minutes was more than enough time.

We had no oversight in the writing center. The English Department co-chairs who hired me never stopped by, and no one ever evaluated our performance. Once, bizarrely, I needed to report to the English department office and explain why “a colleague” had filed a complaint about my “overly lax expectations.” I stood in front of the dean and sub-dean and the two department co-chairs and one of the provosts, and the dean read the complaint that my colleague had written about me. It was a long and detailed note, so long that it did not fit on the official complaint form, and two additional pieces of paper were necessary. Everyone at the meeting received a photocopy of the complaint, and we all read along. The note took a full inventory of my deficiencies as a tutor, and, although it did not present me in a very positive light, it was completely accurate. The complaint inverted my best qualities. My generous nature, for example, was presented as “a lazy, indulgent and slip-shot attitude toward student excellence.” I was a little hurt, to be honest. It clearly took this colleague a long time to catalogue my shortcomings. The note’s distain really hurt—the unbridled nastiness of the adjectives, for example. It was very well written.

I managed to keep my job that day, for what little it was worth. They had all wanted to fire me at the start of the meeting, but as I explained the thinking behind my tutoring style, they came around. I explained that I had a lot of intellectual backing behind my methods, and I cited a few scholars whose work I had read for my master’s degree—it sounded good, anyway—I mentioned the need, in the development of young writers, for “efficacy over criticism,” for “attention to process over product” and for “the priority of global errors over local ones”—I think they all agreed with me, and when they saw that we held similar philosophical views about tutoring, they no longer wanted to fire me.

Honestly, I didn’t like the job, and I wouldn’t have minded finding another one. I had thought about quitting a number of times already, in fact, because I wasn’t making enough money. But I didn’t want to be fired or to leave under those circumstances. I have always hated getting in trouble.

When things were slow, Sarah and I commiserated about our students. Sarah would sometimes come to work with this haggard look on her face. Some nights she didn’t sleep because she was grading papers and then worrying about the grades she had given her students. The work of improving her students’ writing deeply affected her. For me, it was a minor responsibility—I didn’t even remember my students’ names, most of the time. But for Sarah, teaching was a Sisyphean task—a long siege upon the castle of intellectual possibility, which she could only conceive of winning by attrition.

Through our conversations, I came to know Sarah’s students intimately—better than I knew my own students, in fact. Sarah had a way of vividly painting her students’ shortcomings, their stunted minds, their unearned sense of ego, the way they lied, cheated and complained their way through each of her carefully prepared lessons. It all felt so unfair to me, and I was angry on her behalf. I didn’t have these problems with my students. I didn’t have any problems with my students at all. We had a gentlemen’s agreement, my students and me: we stayed out of each other’s way. For what I was getting paid, that seemed fair.

In early October, Sarah and I decided to go out for a drink to celebrate the end of midterms. We had been swamped with these desperate half-assed midterm papers, and we were both at the end of our respective ropes by the time we finished our Friday shift. We went to a national chain restaurant, which Sarah suggested because it was close to her apartment. We drank these nine-dollar cocktails, and Sarah complained about her teaching load and her departmental responsibilities—responsibilities related to her status as salaried, tenured faculty. She needed to sit on committees, for example, which she hated. It annoyed me, her lack of gratitude, but I didn’t say anything. And when she invited me back to her apartment to check out some of her poetry, I said I would.

Sarah’s poetry was so intellectual and flowery that I couldn’t really understand it. She used words like “egad,” “abysmal,” “dross,” “thane,” and “beloved.” I don’t know much about poetry, and so I guess I don’t know what makes a poem good or bad. This was romantic poetry, though, written to some idealized version of a man. His body was a wooden embankment, his mind a garden, his loins a Spartan foundry. I would have liked her poems more if I understood them, I think. Sometimes, after that night, she talked about what they meant—sometimes I asked her because I wanted to know, but her explanations didn’t help. I came to understand, through Sarah’s poetry, that she suffered from some serious existential darkness and some real hang-ups when it came to men, and, like me, she was deeply insecure.

We didn’t sleep together that first night, but we did sleep together a week later. A week later, we went to the same chain restaurant after work, bought the same nine-dollar cocktails, drank more of them that time, got drunk, and went back to her apartment. We did it half-clothed, with the lights off, and I spent the night in her overly soft bed, and in the morning I was still there.

The week after Thanksgiving break, we were lying in bed, awake. It was the middle of the night and Sarah had been obsessing about a few of her students she thought she would need to fail. Their work had been fine, but according to her, they were capable of doing much better. She wanted to teach them a lesson about hard work by making them retake the class. I thought it was a bad idea, and I told her that she wasn’t being fair. She rolled her eyes at me and said she wished she could have failed me when I was a college freshman—maybe then, she said, I would have turned out better. She said I could have been so much more than what I was.

I wondered aloud, then, why she was so unpleasant all the time when, comparatively, she had been very lucky. She went to an Ivy League school, a prestigious PhD program, and had published a book, all before she was twenty-five. She had lived a charmed life, unlike her students or me. I wondered aloud why she was so ungrateful and spoiled. She asked me to leave, and she said she didn’t want me over again. That was okay with me, I said. She told me this had always been a mistake. We were just too different from one another. I think she knew it was true when she said it because then she started crying. This whole town can go to hell, she told me. As I was putting on my clothes and gathering up my things, I asked her if she was the one who complained about me earlier in the semester—the anonymous “colleague” who almost got me fired. She denied it.

Since it was already late in the semester, I quit my job as a tutor and cancelled the rest of my classes. I called the English department and told them I wouldn’t be able to return to work. I didn’t give them a reason, and so I wasn’t able to use that job on my CV as a consequence, but the upshot of it was I never needed to see Sarah again. I gave all of my students As that semester, and it felt like I was sticking it to Sarah, somehow.

I stayed in Rockford, IL until the end of the recession. I found a job at the mall, which, truth be told, was much worse than the community college. The mall goths, and the video game freaks, and the made-up Koreans from the nail salon would sometimes come up to me, during the long afternoons, their bloodshot eyes, their body piercings, their choker necklaces—all of them my former students from the community college, though I’d forgotten their names. They would look at me closely, they would scrutinize me like an insect; they would turn to each other and ask if I was someone they used to know. They’d say: do we know this guy? He looks like someone. And I would offer them free samples of cookies, which was all I had the power to do in my new job. And I would say: “You know me. Don’t you remember me? I’m the teacher who saved your life.”