I came to Seattle in the spring of 1991 when I was 27 and somehow landed a part-time job tutoring teenagers.
There was no good reason for me to be doing that, other than I’d had experience editing for a big-time publisher in New York City before succumbing to the siren song of freelance writing, i.e., unemployment, which set me adrift across the globe until I washed ashore broke in Ballard.
But it turned out I had a knack for tutoring because I had been such a terrible student myself.
The kids were of all sorts from all over the city. Some were on scholarship struggling to graduate from hostile public schools; others were desperate diamonds from the best private academies, anxious to burn a little brighter than their peers.
I remember this one girl who would not do any kind of school work at all or much of anything else other than the usual things adults don’t want teenagers to do. Her parents were determined to get her into some kind of college far away from her no-good lazy friends who were always trying to get her stoned or pregnant when she wasn’t grounded and stinking up their nice house with her bad attitude. My assignment was to get her to write shining college application essays that would take her away from all that.
In our first meeting she arrived with an application question asking her to describe current events and their effect on society and herself.
She talked a lot and was quite boring because she was not at all interested in the assignment or me or anything other than filling our hour together with dead air so she could leave without doing any work. But I knew this move because I’d pulled it myself so many times, and I sat smiling and nodding and not being offended when she batted away my attempts to redirect her.
Her monologue eventually snaked itself around to some school dance and a fight that broke out over a necklace she was so proud of that featured a plastic Captain Picard action figure.
I interrupted her: “I love ‘Star Trek.’ ”
She went to warp speed telling me about how she’d made this necklace with various significant characters and symbols from “Star Trek,” how a person attempted to relieve her of it at the dance and the price that person had paid for this affront, along with the price she’d paid defending herself. It took all of five minutes and she was beaming at the end of it.
“Write that,” I said.
It was like I’d stunned her with her own phaser. “Ah, what?”
“It’s a current event relevant to you and it’s hilarious and you loved telling it,” I said. “Write about that.”
“Ooh-k,” she said, and got up to leave.
“No, no, no. Now.” I slid my legal pad in front of her. She looked at the blank page but didn’t move, the classic deer caught in the headlights, or writer facing the firing squad of self-doubt.
“Start with, ‘This girl tried to steal my captain from me,’ ” I said, and withdrew to another office.
Twenty-five minutes later she had 300 words. They weren’t very good and were of course irrelevant to the assignment at hand. But I marked it up and gave her some suggestions and asked her to type it up for our next session.
Her parents were incensed. Writing about a necklace made of dolls was going to get her into college? They were paying good money for professional results. I should be fired forthwith.
My boss had some master’s degrees in psychology, education and probably a bunch of other things. She’d worked for the FBI, been a college professor and was a private counselor for, I don’t know, 30 years before starting her tutoring business.
She reminded the outraged parents that their daughter, who struggled to stay in school while staying off drugs and unpregnant, had completed a spontaneous writing assignment on demand. “Let’s go with that,” she told them.
We got through another draft of her story. It was a little better, a little funnier and a little more relevant. But mainly it made it easier to inch closer to what her college applications really wanted, and she was able to write a rough draft about her life at home.
I never saw her again. Her parents refused to pay our bill. They would tell everyone we were scammers. My corpse would be dumped in Lake Union.
I was still there a year later, meeting my 120th student or so, when I got a postcard from her. She was living somewhere cheap in town with some no-good lazy roommates, working at Costco and taking art classes, and just really thought I’d enjoy this card. It was the bridge of Capt. Picard’s Enterprise with him and his crew. I asked my boss what this was all about. She read it, flipped it over to look at the bridge, then handed it back to me.
“She’s saying thank you.”
Ted Olinger lives in Vaughn.
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