A memoir: from struggling student to struggling tutor.

*math AE, Academic Excellence tutoring. Featuring Tommy.

It’s almost 10 pm, and to put it mildly, I’m screwed. There are lots of epsilons and deltas I wrote on many pages without understanding what they are. It seems like there are people here that know what they’re doing. I’m flustered and confused; I nod as they ask me if this makes sense. I don’t like that it doesn’t. It’s crowded here.

The closet door closes with a satisfying click. I see blackboards filled to every corner and edge with equations and graphs of all shapes and sizes. I can almost smell the pretzel crumbs and whiteboard marker residue. My hands are dry from a layer of chalk, and I’m only sort of complaining about how much later I had to stay. I grab my skateboard from the Writing Center, and pause. Crap, I think I told her the wrong lemma.

There’s a lot of work to do but everyone around me yells, Pass, fail, frosh! I got an academic advisory for failing my spec rel quiz. What’s to blame? I did play beer pong all weekend, and this stuff makes no intuitive sense to me. I go to Prof. Chen’s office for an appointment and she tells me I should go to AE. I am flustered again; I nod and say thank you, and leave.

I hear my name as I’m walking briskly towards the other corner. I turn around and say one sec and I’m back at it, dropping hints like candies on Halloween, but making sure they earn it. Ooohhhh, I get it and wow are my favorite things to hear. I smile and walk back to my regular customer. He’s stuck on number 6 and I ask him you got the other one’s okay?

Thursday night AE is nice. There’s usually no one but me and one tutor. He seems chill, and he doesn’t seem to mind the number of questions I ask. I’m relieved he’s a senior. He knows a lot about Mudd. I still can’t finish the homework on my own, but I’m not flustered anymore. He’s packing up the pretzel box and laptop so I need to go to Sunday AE. There’s still one problem I don’t know how to start.

There are hands raised everywhere so ask each hand what’s up. I pull at one hand to the other, and together we’re looking at the problem with way too many arrows. I hesitate because I don’t know the answer to this one. I nod, pretending to know. I ask, What do we know? One hand sticks up a suggestion and another grabs it. They trade. I ask, Okay, now what? They’re stuck. I’m stuck. We stare at the board in silence, together.

Prof JIM! We all yell in unison because this frictionless pulley problem is hopeless. He smiles and comes by. He performs some magic on us, and the problem now makes sense. We love him. How are you so good at everything? He chuckles and shakes his head no. I ask some people if they’ve done number 3. He quietly watches our bickering over free body diagrams, until at the perfect moment of silence he drops, let’s try considering the normal force. He walks away.

I see two freshmen sitting two seats apart. I ask for names, and what problem they’re stuck on. I stand in the middle, but not between. Nervous glances, uncertain of competition. I tell them I cried over the problem they were solving. Glances soften into a smile. I ask them what they like about the class, and what they don’t. One notices it’s different from high school. The other asks about what differential equations are. When we return to the problem, it’s part of a conversation, not a test of knowledge.

I declare my major and someone asks me for help on a problem. I’m flustered. I don’t know the solution immediately. I read through their solution. I scratch my head in confusion, once. I ask them, did you try solving it backwards first? I smile, because now I understand. It now makes sense, and that makes me happy.

Someone asks me for help on a problem. I think it’s something I’ve seen before, but I don’t remember how to start. I lead the student down the wrong way, twice. My heart is racing when another tutor comes by to help. Together we get through the problem. The three of us are smiling, but I’m nervous. My face is flustered; I remember what I should do. I ask the other tutor to help me review the concept.

I ask a tutor for help; I don’t understand how to start.

I answer; What do we know?

A memoir: from struggling student to struggling tutor.

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