For the past 7 months, I’ve been tutoring English to students of age 11-16 at the weekends. When I took this job, I thought I would enjoy it – I always loved English at school and I like working with and being able to inspire and motivate young people.
But I never thought I would learn so much.
My session last weekend was particularly poignant, because I had two classes in a row with two very different girls, who gave me two very different perspectives on life. These two girls just made me think so much I had to write it all down.
The first lesson was with a 13 year old who struggles with spelling, writing and sometimes reading. She’s behind at school but her mum got her a tutor to give her a boost and she is the most motivated student I have. Despite struggling, she is so keen to learn, and always trying to improve. She’s positive about her future – she isn’t sure what she wants to do but she’s keeping her options open by not only working hard to do better in school, but also attending dance lessons, swimming lessons, going to concerts and trying new experiences (last week her family all went horse-riding). In our lessons she’ll sometimes deviate from English to tell me about what music she likes, what fun things she’s doing that weekend, or tell me stories about her friends at school (some of whom she thinks have the wrong attitude, because they don’t respect their teachers). She can be very naive, but also heartwrenchingly honest.
My second lesson then, was with a girl who is the complete opposite in terms of academics. She’s 12, so she’s younger that the first, yet she’s miles ahead in terms of her English skills, and seems to do really well in all her subjects at school.
Her parents, then, send her to tuition for English, Maths AND Science, not because she needs that extra help but because they want her to do the absolute best that she can. It’s a valid reason and what we would all want for our children, surely. However, this week for the first time, she opened up to me about the pressure she is under to do well in every little test, to get amazing comments on every piece of homework – and how she feels, at TWELVE, that she is wasting her childhood. The fact that she has that level of perception at 12 is a testament to her intelligence. But do you do things you enjoy, too? – I asked her. She said she does homework on weeknights and she goes to 8 hours of tutoring over the weekend. Student one does just a quarter of that amount.
She also said she wants to be a marine biologist – awesome, right? But that was followed by her fears that she’s perhaps interested in graphic design or textiles, but that it’s too late to change her mind about her career. I repeat, she is twelve.
Now I don’t want to get all philosophical about the way pre-teens see the world. However, I can say, with much certainty, that both these girls are smart. Both these girls are intelligent, beautiful young women who can and will go far. But is my first student not already pre-destined to go further, or at least develop in more interesting ways? School is so important and she knows that, but having interests and hobbies and passions are just as necessary.
Student two is already worried that she spends too much time doing homework. I suggested that she stop her homework 20 minutes early every night and use that time to draw, as she said that’s something she enjoys. She wasn’t so sure she’d have time.
Student one is already managing to make time for things she enjoys, whilst still understanding the importance of working hard. Maybe, as she’s a 13 year old, it’s unfair to say that my first student made these choices herself. That spirit and commitment to extra-curricular activities definitely was inspired by her parents, who clearly do so much to give her all the opportunities in life. And I’m not oblivious to the fact that money, sadly, plays a hugely contributing part in the opportunities children are able to be given.That said, I know that neither of these girls’ families are particularly well off. And both have enough to pay for extra-curriculars, just one chooses to diversify those activities whereas the other is adamant on academically educational ones.
So what lessons did I take from this tale of two children?
First, that we can’t spend our lives working or doing something we are obliged to do, without any moments to do things we enjoy. Student two is right, that’s a waste of a life. We need to make sure that no matter how busy we are, we have just a bit of time to do something we love, whatever that is.
Second, we need to find our inner child a little. Student one knows that life is meant to be enjoyed, and she seizes every opportunity with eyes wide open. We develop massive prejudices and close our minds to certain possibilities as life goes on, no matter how hard we try not to. So when I say ‘inner child’ I don’t mean act like you have no responsibility. I know student one has the luxury of actually being a child, and so not worrying about saving money, juggling commitments, all that adult stuff. But I just mean, being a bit more open minded about the good stuff in life and finding fun in the small things.
Some of us will always just be a little more serious, a little more cautious than our more carefree companions. Finding a balance is what it’s all about.