Today I met my match in a wispy thin girl with tiny pale wrists. As a volunteer reading tutor you never know on any given day who you will tutor. Hopefully, you will have the same child or children many times, so that you will see progress or better yet, success in their reading. Yet, this may not happen and what you have to say to yourself when you enter the door of the school where you volunteer is, how can I be of service to whomever needs my services today?
I had never seen Joanna before. Then I wondered if I had seen her, but not remembered her. There are so many children I don’t know here. I work in just one room in the building. Marcus, the boy I usually tutor, had failed to show up today. When I asked his friend Trey, he said, “Sometimes, Markus just doesn’t come. I don’t know why.” This was one of those statements that is so far removed from my life experience that I didn’t even know how to respond. I grew up with two parents that were professors. I learned to read before kindergarten and books were everywhere in my house.
This is how I met Joanna. I walked into Mrs. Banner’s third grade classroom, paused at the door and asked her “Who needs help, because Marcus isn’t here today.”
About five kids raised their hands. Some I knew had tutors and some didn’t. Mrs. Banner picked a girl who did not raise her hand. That’s funny, I thought. I had never seen a student picked who had not raised his hand. That should have been a red flag to me. This petite little girl grabbed a book under her desk and began walking toward me. I noticed that her uniform looked very neat. Her white polo had no dirt on it and her blue pants weren’t frayed.
“I’m not really Joanna,” she said to me while sitting down at the large table we were about to share “I’m Jackie.”
“Mrs. Banner, “ she went on, “always gets confused and thinks I’m Joanna, so I just go along with it.”
She went on, “Joanna, of course needs to do a certain amount of hours at school, so I came for her, essentially, I’m taking her place.”
I must have been sitting there with my mouth open. I took a deep breath and tried to process the all of it. I had been tutoring for four years and had yet to meet a child so articulate. I was sure I was dealing with a gifted child. She looked at me quite seriously. My mind was racing. How long had Jackie pretended to be Joanna? And when was the real Joanna going to step forward? Were they twins or Irish twins? How dumb is this school? She picked up her Curious George Rides a Bike and announced, “I am now going to take a quiz, for Joanna.”
“Hey, Jackie, Joanna, or whoever you are. I think this has gone too far. You cannot take a quiz for someone else. That is called cheating and it totally unacceptable.” She tilted her head slightly to the right as if to say, I never thought of that before. She paused, “now that you mention it, it could be a problem.”
On that note, I said to her, “Why don’t you come with me.” I was completely flabbergasted. I had not met a child this precocious since my own childhood. I didn’t know what to do back then and I still didn’t know.
We walked over to Ms. Karen’s desk. Ms. Karen runs the tutoring program. She is tall and thin and wears breezy blouses. “Did you know,” I said, “that this is really Jackie, not Joanna? And she wants to take a quiz for her sister.” Ms. Karen’s eyes narrowed and her jaw tightened.
“Joanna,” Ms. Karen said angrily, “Mrs. Schwartz, is here to tutor you, not to hear your stories. Now go read your book and get back to business.” I had been duped by a third grader. I had tutored students who slept on floors. I had tutored students with jailed parents. I had tutored students who were lucky if they got one meal a day, but I had never tutored a liar, a brilliant liar at that.
Joanna and I quietly finished her Curious George book. I asked her if she played any instruments because in the book George had swallowed a bugle. “I play guitar, violin, drums, piano, French horn and bells,” she said, “and I write songs.”
School must be such a boring place for her, I thought. She clearly lived a full life in her head. I excused myself a moment and left Joanna with a pencil and paper. “Why don’t you take a break,” I told her. “You can draw something if you like.” I walked down the aisle past the other tutors. Ms. Karen waved me over.
“She has a horrible home life,” she whispered to me. She now lives with her Uncle.
“How sad.” I said.
We went back to the desk and I tried to keep my cool. Though I felt for sorry her. I looked at my watch and realized we were out of time. “I enjoyed meeting you today,” I said. “I hope I tutor you again.”
Joanna stood up, picked up her book and said nothing. Just when I thought she was going to walk away with no acknowledgment of our time together, she paused in the hallway and looked at me. She tilted her head that same way, again. Then she walked off towards the computers.