This past summer, I spent my Monday nights in a jungle of books. The trees of knowledge, otherwise known as “the stacks,” formed a maze-like arena. Within this bustling library, I sat and learned with Sara, an incoming fifth-grader. We were part of a community tutoring program, and this was my first year volunteering.
I looked forward to these nights. The energetic and crowded atmosphere filled me with a sense of purpose and belonging. I felt at home among the other tutors: fellow teenagers, hip 20-somethings, middle-aged do-gooders, and retired citizens. Most of all, though, Sara’s kind smiles and genuine sincerity made tutoring a pleasure.
I remember the first week, nervously trying to break the ice, I asked her if she could be any vegetable, what would she be and why. She tilted her head to the side, mused for a minute, and then steadily replied: “A carrot, because it’s sweet.”
Throughout our time together, Sara’s approach to schoolwork was enthusiastic and organized. She frequently whipped out her summer-learning schedule to tap on the date of the first day of school with an air of profound knowledge and pointedly explain: “If I want to be ready for middle school, I need to complete today’s work.”
The second week of the program, as I finished reviewing my ambitious “agenda” for the remaining 15 minutes (I know—who would have thought I would morph into my sixth-grade social studies teacher?), Sara looked down at my excessive plans worriedly (we probably didn’t have time to finish the first goal on that list) and said, “We should write times for how long we will spend on each of these subjects so we don’t go over.” She paused briefly and then continued: “And maybe we can add a board game in there.”
No matter what we had ahead of us, Sara subtly hinted that playing a game would be ideal. One of my favorites was her go-to line: “You know, Ayelet, they have games here.”
A hard-core learner, I swore to myself at my tutor orientation that “my student would not be playing any games whatsoever.” At her student orientation, it appeared Sara swore the opposite. Together, we reached a compromise: We made learning into one giant game.
One night Sara commented: “Ayelet, we really are so much alike.” I beamed. The second week of the program, I got a spontaneous hug at parent pickup. I was glowing. I thought I knew Sara inside and out.
Yet, one week toward the end of the program, I was convinced otherwise. I asked Sara to answer the week’s writing prompt: “If you could transform into anything for one night, what would it be? How would you look? What would you do?”
“Well,” she said, “I would be a tiger.” I smiled.
“Hmmmm, why? How would you look? Tell me more.”
“I would be strong, brave, and fearless.”
“Wow,” I thought, “tougher than anticipated.” I continued prodding.
“And what would you do?”
“I would go out at night and hunt. I would bring back prey as food for my family.” I’m no psychologist, but I couldn’t stop my mind from buzzing. “Perhaps,” I heard my brain exclaim, “this represents her desire for security and relief from hunger, as well as her wish to take control of aspects of her life that often leave her feeling helpless.” I was intrigued.
“And anything else?”
“Yes. I would kill all of my predators to protect myself and my family.”
“And who are the tiger’s predators?”
“Lions.” Although I was pretty confident that lions don’t eat tigers, I nodded my head in understanding. We all want to protect ourselves and our families. She looked pleased. Looking into her satisfied eyes, I recalled that I had, albeit a few years back, completed a similar assignment.
“You know Sara, I had to answer this same question at my high school interview.”
“So what did you choose?” she asked. I smirked at the irony.
Suddenly, her curious expression shattered, and was replaced with a tense look of discomfort and worry. I felt all of my hard work to create an environment of friendship and mutual trust slipping down the drain.
In an attempt to rewind the clock, I blurted out: “Don’t worry, I would be a vegetarian lion, and anyway, lions and tigers don’t really live near each other.” And just like that, her expression softened and everything was back to normal. Well, almost.
Our learning proceeded, silly games and all. Then the end of the summer arrived. As Sara waved goodbye to me one last time, I noticed her nervous, hesitant expression. In that moment, I finally recognized the facts: Despite my arduous attempts to rebuild our initial trusting relationship, in Sara’s eyes, I would always be a lion.
Accompanying Photo: “Lion” By Liana Lapp
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