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  • Writer's pictureggcarroll


When the baseball season is over and I’ve worked my last SF Giants game until next March, I morph into an English tutor for first generation high school students. I work with the kids on composition and comprehension. It’s there that I am reacquainted with old friends like Daisy in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Scout, Jem and Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, all sorts of Shakespearian heroes with a tragic flaw, like Othello and MacBeth and my favorite, Madame Defarge in Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities.

My students are typical teenagers. There are some that do the reading and answer questions methodically. (i.e. This is an assignment. I’ll do it.) There are some who don’t want to do it at all. There are others that once they understand what is happening, they get lost in the story.

For all the students, I dig deeper into the text to explain why a character is acting the way he or she does. And I give them the back story. I like to tell stories, so this is perfect for me. If they are reading Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, I describe the aftermath of the financial crash of ’29 when thousands lost jobs and there was a severe draught in the heartland of the county, so whole families came to California with hope for a better life. Instead they ended up in makeshift tent camps and if they were lucky became, migratory workers. I show them the classic Great Depression photographs of Dorothea Lange. Once they get the background, the stories are grounded in a place and time and they are ready to tackle the novel or play.

Just yesterday, I sketched out a small neighborhood in Maycomb, Alabama for a freshman reading To Kill a Mocking Bird. I think she can now visualize where Scout Finch lived, the Boo Radley House three doors to the south and the school butted up to the Radley’s. She understood the route the Finch kids took to school that lead them past the mysterious and creepy house of Boo Radley.

I compare Shakespeare’s plots full of dramatic characters who love, plot, scheme and kill to the telenovelas of today. The Bard of Avon had to appeal to the men and women on the street as well as royalty, because like all playwrights, he had to sell tickets and make money to pay the actors and maintain the Globe Theater. I have to remind them, there were no cellphones, tv’s, or movies to go to. Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights were it when it came to entertainment. The students’ eyes widen when they think about themselves in Elizabethan England without their cellphones.

They listen to my quick history lessons and then plow back into the text.

There are students that surprise me. One sophomore who I never thought would make sense of Shakespeare has fallen in love with his language. He commented once, “At first I didn’t know what he was saying, but the more I read it, the more I get it.” He enjoys saying the lines out loud. I keep reminding him that this is a play and Shakespeare’s plan was to have them recited in front of an audience.

Then there is the soccer player, a junior, who had trouble comprehending assignments and most text. She decided at the beginning of this year, she wanted to be a good writer and did I have any suggestions. I had two. “To be a good writer, you have to read and you have to write…a lot.” She began to ask questions when she didn’t understand (which is a huge step for any teenager) and I started to challenge her on her choice of words in her essays. What could she substitute for ‘good’ or ‘nice?’ I introduced her to Now she pours over synonyms and is becoming an expert at finding the right word to explain what she wants to say. She tries them out in her sentence, until, her eyes light up and she says, “That’s it. That’s the word.”

All the students in this program are here because they want to go to college. They are very aware that their parents left everything behind to come to the United States for a better life and to give them a chance to succeed.

I’m a very small part of that bigger voyage, but I’m glad I can help.

FYI: I also tutor History…Mostly I seem to cover wars, the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, etc. My parting words to all the students is that if they plan a revolution in Europe, don’t invade Russia in the winter.

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