My name tag said “Volunteer”, but I was working there. I was a tutor in the Homework Center, an after-school program at the public library for kids K-8 to come and get help with homework or practice their reading and math skills. They’d run out of “Tutor” tags before I started. I was given a yellow folder, which had another woman’s name on it: a hand-me-down from the tutor I was replacing, because she’d gone back to school to become a real teacher.
It was often assumed that I was also going to school for teaching. I was a college student, but I was working on an Associate’s degree from the community college. Most of the other tutors were or had been or were going to be teachers. The woman in charge had been a first- and second-grade reading teacher. One volunteer was a man who used to teach engineering; now he made kids practice their times tables on dry-erase boards, and he’d hit them on the back if they weren’t paying attention. All the kids’ favorite tutor was a retired kindergarten teacher, of course. Another tutor was a girl my age, also a student, studying to teach junior high. Only myself and the tutor who always worked at the table behind me were non-teachers. He was a grad student who let the kids basically run wild, which is to say that he let them play checkers on days that were not Thursday, the only day of the week board games were allowed.
The kids were supposed to become better students who earn better grades and have better chances of success– whatever that was supposed to look like. Maybe like more girls in STEM, maybe like not getting into fights in the library parking lot. If students misbehaved in the Homework Center, they were given three warnings before finally being asked to leave. One kid liked to lean back in his chair and speak rudely to the tutor until he got three warnings so that he could go back out into the library and play the Xbox until his dad showed up to yell at him. When I wouldn’t give him warnings for being rude, he took his shoes off and put them on the table. I said, “You know that’s bad luck, right?” He put his shoes back on and kept his feet on the floor after that.
Students were not allowed to eat any food they brought with them, but they’d be provided with a snack halfway through the session. Students were not allowed to go get drinks of water without asking, and they had to go one at a time in case they were using it as an excuse to talk to their friends. Students were not allowed to cause a ruckus, run around, or talk so loudly that the room became deafening. To get them to sit still and be quiet, I got them to play organized spelling games on the dry-erase boards. The next day, dry-erase boards were banned from being used for anything but math practice.
One girl put her head on the table and said that homework was unfair. The certified teachers told her that education is the most important thing and that she needed to work hard and get A’s. Didn’t she want all A’s on her report card? She said she wanted to remember the name of a song she once found on Youtube and couldn’t stop humming. Humming was banned. The snacks were passed out: Cheerios in styrofoam bowls. “This is jail food,” one student said. A first-grade student said school was like jail. I didn’t want to think about the school-to-prison pipeline, so I taught him to fold a paper fortune-teller instead. The next week, paper fortune-tellers were banned. They were too distracting because the students kept teaching each other about them.