Just One Kid

March 22, 2010

This post isn’t going to rock your world or give you any insight into "the System." It’s not going to challenge preconceptions about race. It’s not going to aid the battle against oppression or help you do much of anything at all.

But I don’t care. Because – sometimes – I just have to do things for me.

In my time out here in Shanghai, I’ve been teaching Primary School classes, but – to get extra income – I’ve also been doing some one-on-one tutoring. Four days a week, I’ve been going to the home of a 7 year-old Chinese boy (we’ll call him "K") to help him with his homework and get him to practice his English. He’s in international school, so his English is pretty solid. And since his mother (his dad doesn’t live with them) can afford to put him in international school AND pay for me to come in and hang out most weekdays, it’s not like they’re hurting, financially. I’m just a replaceable cog in the machine – one more tutor in a long line of tutors for K.

I took the job for the money. Because it was easy, and it would enable me to do the things I wanted to do out here. I could quit any time because – who cares? – it’s just a "tutor" job. I didn’t have to put any effort or mind-power or soul into it. It was nothing. And yet . . .

All those justifications go out the window because – a kid’s a kid. And I can’t work with a kid so closely without getting attached. Without forming a relationship. It’s not about "making a difference" or really helping him improve his life in any sort of way – it’s just connecting to a kid, enjoying it, and having affection for the little guy.

And that’s why it tore me up yesterday to tell him (and his mother) that I’m going to have to stop tutoring him in a couple weeks.

The reason’s a good one: I just got an offer I can’t refuse. Honestly. It has to be a sort of "secret" for now, but I’ve gotten the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of an organization that is doing something that has the potential to really go along with all that I do and want to achieve in my life. A chance to gain experience (and some clout) in a direction that is going to come in really useful a few years down the line when I’m trying to go bigger with my reach. In short – a chance to help a WHOLE LOT of kids.

But, in order to be able to do that right, I have to stop working with just one kid: K. And the reasons for it don’t mean a thing when the end result is the same: I’m not going to be hanging out with him, anymore, and he doesn’t really know why.

He’s the only-child representative of the "One Child Policy." He comes home from school, and he sits around with his grandma and grandpa, who don’t really have the time or energy to play with him. Shanghai parents are scared to let their kids out, so he doesn’t get to play with other kids during the week. He’s lonely. So when I come over – it’s play-time. And work-time (because that’s my job), but it’s not like with those other adults.

We share snacks, for instance. I come over shortly after he gets home from school, which just so happens to be the middle of his snack-time. So he carries all his snacks over to the big desk where we work together, and we usually spend the first 5 to 10 minutes chatting about random things while he eats, crumbs spilling all over his homework assignments for the day.

A couple minutes in, he’ll look over at me shyly, and he’ll start digging into one of his bags of snacks. Maybe he’ll grab a shrimp-cake puff (don’t know what else to call it, it’s like a cheeto made out of shrimp-stuff) and drop it onto the desk in front of me, saying "that’s you." I thank him and eat it, and then he’ll grab a few more and more carefully lay them out in front of me. Or else we have "my favorite" – these sort of gummi (but not sweet) sea-weed snacks that come individually wrapped. He gets really excited about these, because he knows they’re my favorite (always making sure to say, "these are your favorite"), so he likes to share a lot of them with me. Or maybe it’s his cardboard tube of sweet gummi snacks. As he digs through them for the orange ones (his favorite), he makes sure to isolate the purple ones to give to me (again, my favorite).

So we snack (messily) while he asks me questions (I ask him some, too, but he prefers to do the asking): "do you like tiger or rabbit better?" (tiger); "do you like tiger or eagle better?" (harder, but still tiger); "do you like tiger or cheetah better?" (this one’s a bit of a trick, because we both know very well that cheetah is his ultimate favorite, but I’ve got to be honest . . . so . . . tiger).

It’s time to get to work now, but he’s a master staller (and I can’t blame him, because there’s no way I ever wanted to do homework when I was his age . . . or any age, really). As I break out his math, he’ll reach into his bag and pull out his most recent drawing: a pencil illustration of six Pokemon characters (divided into a "good" and "bad" team) fighting it out. It’s really good, and I can’t help but getting into it. Next thing I know, he’s describing the battle, complete with sound effects (a lot of spit flying as he makes crashing and exploding sounds), and I’m totally with him, smiling.

And then I remember we’re supposed to be doing homework. So I try to re-focus (myself and him) and have him choose which homework assignment he wants to start with. He stalls some more, telling me what he learned in science today. I allow myself to be distracted (I’m not going to cut him off), and then shake it off and go back to his homework . . .

And, in the end, we always get his homework done. It usually involves me breaking out the stop-watch and seeing if he can beat his times from before; or asking him, "how long do you think it will take you to answer these five (math, or reading, or science) questions?" He’s quick, and he likes to shoot for lower and lower times, and he’s generally up to the challenge (although he still likes to try to distract me by randomly asking about tigers or sharing about cheetahs as we go).

But the best days are when he doesn’t have much homework, and we finish early. Because then we just get to hang out. We’ll knock a balloon back and forth, asking each other questions (sometimes related to his schoolwork, often not). We’ll play Hangman (never thought about the cultural oddness of that particular game until K asked me why we’re hanging him . . .). Or – the best – we’ll draw.

Because K loves drawing. He’ll draw on his homework. He has piles of drawings in his schoolbag. He asks for breaks to draw all the time. So when we get to just relax and draw together? Brilliant. Because I was just like that when I was his age. So we’ll get some blank sheets of paper, and he’ll choose something that we’re going to draw together (maybe he’s into skeletons today, or dinosaurs, or – most often – Pokemon). And then we’ll pass the paper back and forth, each of us drawing a little something to try and make a bigger scene. Somedays – I’ll just sit back and watch him draw, because he’s really inspired, and there’s no time to waste by passing it over to me.

And in those times, as I watch him, so fully focused and scrunched over his paper, I can’t but feel this completely undeserved sense of pride. Like he’s my kid. I call them my "biological clock" moments – when I just think to myself, "if this is how fatherhood feels, sometimes, I really think I’d like to try that." I think back to my own childhood and such similar moments when my dad would be helping me draw robots . . . some of my favorite memories. I relax so fully and utterly, and I just want this to continue for a while . . .

And then – time’s up. I am reminded that this is "just a part-time job." His mom comes in, signs my little timesheet, and I say goodbye to K. He says it back to me with some sort of goofy voice, I imitate him, and then I put on my shoes and head out the door, telling him, "See you tomorrow!!!" As the apartment door closes and I turn to the elevator, I can hear him yelling at me from inside. I smile to myself, get in the elevator, and count myself lucky to have it so damn easy that I’m getting paid for that.

Except – yesterday – I didn’t feel like that. After I had told K about doing this other job, he didn’t have much of anything to say to me. Just focused on his drawing and got all frustrated when he messed up (which he never does, of course). As I walked out the door, he didn’t say goodbye. Certainly no yelling as I got on the elevator.

I walked to the bus stop, jostled my way on, and stood looking out the window. Subway station. Walked down the stairs. Swiped my card. Waited with hundreds of other people – but didn’t see any of them.

This is the other side of the work I’ve chosen and love so much. So many goodbyes. All these great kids. Hundreds of them. Maybe thousands of them, by now. And I keep leaving them. Sure – the reasons behind it all are legit. I haven’t moved on from any job until I’ve been sure that the next step will enable me to work with more kids, more closely, or with a chance to be in a position to affect even more kids in the future. And the kids, themselves? They’re resilient as Hell. They move on – quickly. But, in spite of all that, it never feels okay. I can never get away from that feeling that I’m abandoning them – letting them down.

How do I tell K – whose father doesn’t live with him – that I’m not going to be hanging out, anymore because I got this great job opportunity? There’s no good way to do it. It is exactly what it is – tutoring K versus this new job . . . and the new job won.

I am sure that K will have happily moved on within the month. He’ll be fine. There’s no psychological scarring here. I’m neither that important nor that impactful – in the life of any of my kids. But it’s just one more mark stuck in me. Just one more kid that I had to tell I wasn’t going to be there for, anymore. And, to make sure that I continue to make the right decisions moving forward, I won’t let myself forget it.

Not going to cry about it. Not going to dwell or beat myself up. But I’ll hold it, and use it as one more piece of motivation to do my job better than "well." Always.

So here’s to K – a little guy I’ve only known a short time, but I’ll always be proud of.

And here’s to all my kids back in Portland – who I had to say goodbye to half a year ago, but who I will see again come June (*1) . . . I told them I’d be back.

(*1) Heading back to Oregon to work this summer with a bunch of my middle school kids. Then probably back here to Shanghai in the Fall to continue with this new opportunity (and to stop by for some of "my favorite" snacks with K from time to time . . .).



  1. You are such an evocative writer. I felt like I could see you and K togther and got all teary eyed at the end. I guess b/c I was an only child and remember what it was like to not always have lots of playmates. I’m sure the little guy will miss you but as you said kids are resilient. Good luck on your new opportunity!

  2. This was really touching. Periodically Haitian kids come in and out of my life, staying at the house where I am or… in the toughest case in the three weeks right after the quake, hanging around outside the peacekeeping base to try and find food. It’s so hard to keep track of them. Ti Reynold survived, I know, but I haven’t seen him. Walter, who can’t see with one eye, still comes in and out with his mom. The kid outside the base, who looked more malnourished each time I saw him no matter how much food I stuffed into my bag and smuggled out – I had to leave the country for two weeks and when I got back, he was gone. His parents are dead. But he seemed like a smart kid. Never learned his name – he called me ‘blan’ and I called him ‘petit.’ I hope he’s ok.

    I was thinking that with K, at least, maybe you can correspond by e-mail or instant message with him as long as he’s interested in doing that.

  3. A positive update:
    Mom and I agreed that I should still hang out with K from time to time – so we’ll be scheduling little meet-ups while I’m still out here (much less frequent, of course, but we’ll still be in touch). And right now, I’m teaching him to juggle . . .

  4. Just cosigning with what the other commenters have said. Thanks for sharing.

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