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Learning in the Time of Covid-19

by Katie Alafdal 12 days ago in Short Story · updated 12 days ago

tutoring vignettes

Learning in the Time of Covid-19
Photo by John-Mark Smith on Unsplash

In the beginning, it was just going to be for a summer, while children across the United States were catching up on the last few months of remote school. A lot of kids I knew needed extra help in the face of the pandemic, and their parents did not have the resources to guide their studies constantly.

I reasoned that tutoring would give me a steady source of income alongisde my less lucrative personal writing projects. But a handful of clients swiftly became a dozen, and then two dozen. My part-time job helping kids with their English literature and composition homework had become a fully fledged business.

Jairaj, Age 10

"Can I pick the creative writing prompt today?" Jairaj flashes me a terrifying smile. His eyes sparkle with hidden mischief.

I feel myself nodding in agreement, against my better judgement.

"Of course! The most important part of writing, is feeling passionate about the topic you're describing. Whatever is interesting to you, is worthy of that description." I offer nervously.

He lets out a gleeful shriek that echoes through my computer speakers.

"I was thinking about that Edgar Allen Poe poem we were reading last week," he begins, furrowing his brow, "the one about the scary bird and the speaker being sad about his dead girl friend."

"The Raven?" I hold back a laugh.

"Yeah, that one. I want to write a scary, suspenseful poem or story like that. Except mine is going to be scarier."

"Oh? And what is the proposed subject of this fearful piece?"I ask, already knowing the answer.

"Killer clowns," he explains in an awed undertone, "In the Bermuda Triangle."

"Wow, that sounds horrifying. I can't wait to read it," I offer, but he's already off, typing on the shared google doc we use for vocab and writing assignments.

After ten minutes, he's ready for me to survey his handiwork:

One day, a boy named Joe woke up in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle, on an abandoned boat. At first, he assumed the boat was empty, but he heard strange sounds coming from below the deck. He found bright red clown shoes in the galley. His heart began to beat hard in his chest...There was nothing he feared more than clowns, ever since his parents took him to the circus when he was a baby and forgot him in the tent...

"What do you think?" Jairaj asks, suddenly self-conscious.

"I think it's brilliant. I love how you explain where the protagonist's fear comes from-- it gives him depth. Let's put a little more descriptive imagery in about the boat maybe?"

"Ooh, good idea!" he calls over zoom.

Perhaps this won't be a boring summer job after all.

Andre, Age 15

"History is the least interesting subject in the world. And I am qualified to say that because both of my parents, and my grandparents are historians," Andre huffs, pushing his curls out of his eyes. His nose ring glints in the light of the camera, "High school would be loads better if I could just skip AP Euro."

"Well, let's talk about this latest unit a bit. What are you learning right now, and where do you find it's giving you the most trouble?" I try, repressing a smile.

"The Later Middle Ages," he scowls, "Like literally, who even gives a--"

I cut him off quickly, "Ooh, actually that was a rather spicy time, when you think about it."

He looks at me blankly.

"Well, first you've got loads of famines and grain shortages, causing peasant revolts all over the place." I begin excitedly.

"I'm gonna revolt if I don't get an A in this class."

"You've got a brilliant mind, Andre. You'll get an A. But back to Unit One-- with much of Europe starving, everyone is particularly vulnerable to, what?"

"Um, disease?" he tries.

"Exactly! The Black Plague shows up, wiping out a third of the population. This, coupled with the Hundred Year's War sets the stage for the decline of feudalism, rise of the new monarchs, and beginning of the Renaissance, yeah?"

"The Black Plague is kind of interesting," he admits, begrudgingly, and I nod enthusiastically.

"Especially now, yeah? History may not repeat itself, but it does like to rhyme. Mark Twain said that. And he was right-- you can see it from how folks are operating during Covid. There are a lot of parallels between our pandemic and the one in the later middle ages."

"That's true I guess." He agrees, his eyes looking slightly more lively, "Alright, some parts of history can be useful. But some are straight up boring."

I laugh, "Fair enough. I myself have never much cared for the American Revolution."

"Uhg, right? The colonies were a bunch of whiners!" He exclaims.

Lydia, Age 9

"Arthur's never going to have children, is he?" Lydia asks, her face deceptively impassive. For a moment, I don't know how to answer her. Lydia's younger brother is severely developmentally disabled. Although he looks like any other boy his age, complete with adorable smile and beautiful curly hair, his mental age will forever be around two years old.

Our discussion of vocabulary words is suddenly put on hold. The word that triggered this latest rumination was progeny.

As in a descendant or the descendants of a person, animal, or plant; offspring

"I'm not sure. How would it make you feel if he didn't?" I proceed carefully, watching her eyes for any sign of emotion.

"That would mean I never get to be an aunt." A sadness infiltrates her face.

"Family is not always based on blood honey," I hum into the computer screen, "You're going to make so many friends in this life of yours, and if they have kids, you can be an aunt to them. And Arthur can be an uncle to your kiddos, if you choose to have some later on." I wait biting my lip, but the sadness does not disappear.

I realize, haltingly, that this conversation is not just about hypothetical children. It's about the rest of Lydia's life.

"Remember what you asked me in that writing assignment at the beginning of the year-- about what I would do if I had a time machine? And I didn't have an answer?"


"Well the truth is I would go to the future, far enough ahead to where they have a cure for Arthur. And then I'd go back to now and give it to him. And he wouldn't be sick anymore."

"He's lucky to have a sister like you, who cares so deeply about him. And you're lucky to have him. There's so much to find in a love like that." I try, haltingly.

"I know. It's just hard sometimes."She exhales slowly, some of the tension leaving her face, "I get so anxious I can't focus on homework or anything."

"That's fair. You have so, so much on your plate. Why don't we write about it?"

Val, Age 43

"I'm sorry we have to meet so late-- I only just got the children to bed," Val explains anxiously from her end of the phone.

"That's fine. I usually don't go to bed until midnight anyways," I laugh, hoping it will make her feel more at ease.

Val is a re-entry student at her local community college. Just before the pandemic hit, she decided to go back to school to earn the college degree she never had the chance to get when she was younger. Her father died young, and as the older sister to various sibblings, she has always been a caretaker. She met her current husband when she was in her early twenties, and immediately started a family with him. Between raising the kids, and working a full-time job, there was never time for her to go back to school. Now, she's completing her GE's, and that's where I come in.

"What are we working on tonight?"

"It's for my psych class. I'm supposed to write about a time I learned something new, preferably in adolescence or childhood, and relied on someone else for help."

"Oh, interesting. Does anything spring to mind immediately? Something that proved instrumental to your development?"

"Sure, but I always taught myself everything. My mom was at work constantly so she wasn't there. And all of my sibblings were younger, so I was teaching them." She sounds exhausted just thinking about it.

"That must have been difficult."

"Yeah, I guess it was. But I just kept my head down and did it, because I had to."

"Who taught you to ride a bike?" I brainstorm.

"Oh, actually one of the neighbor kids. He was a little older than me and had a two wheeler of his own! And actually, I think about him every time I take my own little ones out on a ride." She smiles warmly at the memory.

"Sounds like we've got our topic." I say and she nods.

Colin, Age 17

"We have to pick a current event to write about, and my group wants to do transgender people in sports, since there's a bunch of media attention around it right now," Colin mutters, looking frustrated.

"You seem upset about this?" I offer slowly, suddenly worried. Colin is firmly within the ranks of Gen Z, but that does not mean he's a leftist like me.

"Yeah well, I just don't get it. Like I don't know why people like that have to flaunt it, being gay or trans or whatever. And pronouns are stupid. Like, honestly, Katie, do you think male-to-female trans people should be allowed to compete in normal woman's sports?"He finishes in a rush.

I take a deep breath, centering myself. Although I've been tutoring Colin for the better part of a year, I make it a point to not tell any of my clients very much about my personal life. He has no idea I identify as gay and agender. I realize that now that conversation may be unavoidable.

"Colin, I have to be honest with you. You know that I'm gay right? And that I don't identify as a woman?"

Immediately his face reddens, "Oh, well I didn't mean you! You're fine. You're--" he breaks off.

"No, no, it's okay. I'm not telling you to make you feel bad or anything like that, just so that you know where I'm coming from. Do you know any other trans or queer folks?"

"Not really," He shakes his head.

"Okay, that's fine. Sometimes, when we can put a face to something, like a group of people, we understand them a little better. Let's start with pronouns-- what don't you like about them?"

"I don't know I just don't see why we need them," he mutters.

"Well, pronouns are actually a built in part of the english language. Anytime you talk about someone in the third person, without using their name, you're using pronouns, yeah? So yours are he/him."

"What are yours, if you don't mind me asking?"

"I go by any pronouns. So she/her, he/him, they/them, you name it. But everyone's different. The thing I like to remember when honoring other people's pronouns is that if it makes someone feel more comfortable, and it doesn't matter much to me, there's no reason not to do it, you know. In the same way that you wouldn't want to be referred to as she/her, other folks have identities too. It's an excercise in human empathy, and I've known you for long enough to know you're an incredibly empathetic person."

"That makes sense, actually," he paused and then adds, "But I still don't know if men should be able to compete in normal women's sports."

"Okay Colin, right there, when you made the distiction 'normal' you were implying that trans folks aren't normal. Can you see how that might be problematic, even if you didn't mean to do it that way?"

"Oh yeah, I'm sorry" he blushes again, "That's not what I meant."

"I know dude. The other thing to keep in mind is that these aren't men competing in women's sports, right? They're women. Trans women are women, and that's something really important to remember. If you're thinking that they might have some sort of biological advantage over people assigned female at birth, that is kind of canceled out by all the bigotry and hatred they face on a day to day basis, just for being who they are."

"Like all the prejudice, you mean? Because I get that. Like I'm the only non-white person in my history class and the teacher is always picking on me."

"You're touching on something really important I think, Colin. It's especially hard for trans women of color, you know? Because they have to deal with transphobia compounded by racism."

"I never thought about it like that."


It seems cliche to say that the kids have taught me more than I could teach them. And it seems reductive to suggest that I'm more pandemic therapist to many of them, than I am tutor-- but it's the truth.

Short Story

Katie Alafdal

queer poet and visual artist. @leromanovs on insta

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