It’s very important, as a tutor, to remain straight-faced and encouraging no matter how hilarious your student’s efforts may be.
Recently having become a student myself, I am particularly aware of this. As I fail over and over again to play the most basic riffs and chords on my guitar, I am both mortified by and grateful for my tutor’s patient, encouraging expression – when you know perfectly well he’s thinking, underneath the smile, “how many times do I have to listen to this mess, I know 10-year-olds who could get this faster!”.
And so I smile my friendly, you-can-do-it smile at my students, even when they ask me questions I can’t believe they seriously have to ask, or say something that sounds, in my humble opinion, borderline insane.
Today, I was helping my young protégés to choose subjects for their independent projects, and showing them how to split up the work into sections under various sub-headings. Some were very creative, choosing their own topics, which ranged from Martin Luther King to the motives of serial killers. Others opted to just pick a title from my list of suggestions – which was what one student, let’s call him Jake, chose to do when he wrote “The Solar System” at the top of his page.
Great, that’ll be interesting to research! I said in my Hails the Encourager voice. He stared blankly at me. Jake’s expression never changes. He stares blankly, whether he’s bored, telling a joke, or shouting at someone. Blank stare. It’s quite unsettling.
Anyway, he seemed to be struggling with sub-headings, as there were only two on his page, so I leaned over to look at them and offer a few suggestions.
How it works, I read over his shoulder. Hmm…. well, yes, I would maybe change that to something more like “What is it?”, but that’s a good start. Great! Well done! So encouraging, you see.
Jake stared blankly, and I hastily craned my neck to see the second heading.
How much it costs, I read out. I paused, slightly confused. How much it… costs. Um…
Jake stared blankly.
Sometimes I can see where they’ve gone wrong, and gently point out their error in a way that seems like I’m praising their efforts while nudging them in the right direction.
At other times, though, I’m honestly at a complete loss.
Desperately searching Jake’s impassive face for some clue as to what he was trying to say, I wrinkled my brow and said “ummm” a few more times. Jake stared blankly.
I’m not really sure what you mean, “how much it costs”, I admitted eventually, when it became clear that no further information was forthcoming. Do you mean, um, to run? To… buy?
I mean, I hoped against hope that the boy didn’t think , at 17 years old, that it was possible to buy the entire solar system, but one can never be too sure in my job.
To buy and run, he said as if I was being purposely obtuse.
I stared blankly at Jake. Jake stared blankly at me. He couldn’t understand what my problem was; I couldn’t understand what the feck he meant.
What the f**k do you mean, Jake? piped up Karl, sitting next to him and slightly less tactful than me. How is money even involved with the solar system? It’s just, like… there, man.
Jake stared blankly. You have to install it and set it up and all that, he said, as if speaking to a couple of absolute simpletons.
I just continued to stare blankly at him. I think it’s contagious. Karl, however, gave a sudden laugh. He’s not thinking of the solar system, he’s thinking of solar panel energy.
This was obviously the moment I meant when I started this story. The don’t-laugh-don’t-laugh-don’t-laugh moment. With a miraculously straight face and the facial expression of someone who doesn’t find this amusing in the slightest, I gently told Jake to just change his title to “Solar Energy”. No big deal!
Jake stared blankly. What’s the Solar System, then?
Oh, f**k me! said Karl with deep feeling, putting his head down on the desk.
It’s all the planets and shit, like, piped up Sam.
Why’s it called the Solar System, then, if it’s not about solar panels? asked Jake, staring blankly.
‘Cause it all revolves around the sun, man.
What’s the sun got to do with it?
Karl looked up, almost pleadingly. F**kin’ hell, miss, can we go for break yet?
Yes, I said faintly. Yes. let’s go for break.