Thursday, October 28, 2010

An Accidental Job

I’m still sometimes baffled by how I ended up with the job I have. I’m a private English tutor for Korean children, but I never intended to become one.

It came about indirectly. Back in 2004, I was a student at Shoreline Community College (best school I have ever attended, by the way). I also had a full-time job at a used bookstore, but I was still struggling to pay my tuition and bills. One of my classmates told me that it was easy to get a part-time job as a tutor on campus, so that’s what I ended up doing. I was assigned to tutor ESL. This was a strange experience for me, because most of the students I tutored were much older than me. I felt uncomfortable instructing people that I felt I should be deferring to based on age. But I soon grew to love the job. I made friends with people from countries all over the world. One of my favorites was a woman from Ethiopia. She often invited me to her house for wonderful dinners of njera flat bread with spicy chicken and lamb dishes. She gave me cinnamon-cardamom tea with a type of creamed Ethiopian honey that will NEVER be matched by anything I can find in this country. Her little children played at my feet while she told me about the special white dresses Ethiopian women wear to church. I have never met such a warm and sunny woman.

My other favorite woman was Korean. It’s hard for me to describe what it was about her that made me adore her, but something about her personality felt extraordinarily comfortable and trustworthy to me. Whenever I talked with her, I felt like I was with a family member, despite our different cultural backgrounds. After I had been tutoring her for several months, she asked me, “Do you tutor children?” I almost choked on the tea I was drinking. Though I thought children were cute and precious, they also made me incredibly nervous. I felt like they would somehow break if left in my care. I couldn’t imagine tutoring kids. Surely they would think I was boring. They wouldn’t listen to me and I’d end up frustrated and losing my patience with them. “No, I don’t tutor kids!” I told her.

This was the moment I learned about a unique skill Koreans possess. Koreans can talk anyone into doing anything. I don’t know how they do it. I think a Korean could talk me into donating BOTH of my kidneys, and probably my liver, too. It’s just something about the way they ask you… Their personalities are so sweet and generous that you don’t even realize when you actually want to say “no” to them. You don’t realize until both of your kidneys (and your liver) are gone! It’s not that they use some sort of trickery. It’s not intentional manipulation. It’s simply the genuine sweetness of their spirits that makes you say “yes”.

So a few weeks later, I was at her house, tutoring her daughter and son. At first I was terrified, but it went surprisingly well. I found that the kids actually had fun reading books with an adult. I also found that I could learn so much from teaching them. In part, this was because their mother gave me so much freedom with their curriculum. As long as they were practicing reading in English, she didn’t care what we read. So I found books for kids on African history, world religions, international labor rights issues, geography, and mythology. When the kids asked me questions that I didn’t know the answer to, I was inspired to go home and do more research.

The little girl was especially enthusiastic about asking questions and learning. She went to the library every week and checked out books on everything from the human circulatory system to airplanes. Her favorite author was Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and she often told me facts about his life, which she had learned reading his biography. She insisted that I borrow her favorite books, so I ended up reading children’s literature that I would never have read on my own, such as Kate DiCamillo's Because of Winn-Dixie. I learned something very important from that. Adults shouldn't make the assignment of books a one-way street. Adults need to read the books that children assign, too. Education needs to be like a tennis lesson, with the ball bouncing back and forth between the coach and the student.

After I had tutored these twp kids for several months, I learned about another Korean skill. Networking. By some magic means that I still don't understand, all the other Korean moms in Shoreline soon had my phone number and were calling to ask me to tutor their kids. About this same time, I met the Korean man who is now my husband, and his family also introduced me to more families in need of tutoring. Soon I was able to quit my job at the bookstore (loved the books, but hated the retail aspect) in order to tutor full time. This is still my source of income as I try to figure out what to do for a future career. It is the perfect job to have while in transition. It can be tiring, but it is also so satisfying, in the sense that I feel like I am always doing something constructive. Nothing feels like a better use of time than helping kids soak up knowledge and develop passion for the world around them.

In the next couple of blog posts, I will write about some of my students, because they are all such fascinating kids. Stay tuned!


  1. It doesn't surprise me in the least that destiny handed you this job. You are a born teacher. Just being around you for a few days this summer lit up my mind and fired my enthusiasm to learn more about the world around me.

    I love that you enforce the idea of learning being a two way street, going back and forth like a tennis ball. Teachers reading books the kids assign is a delightful strategy! Every school should do this. I bet a lot more kids would get involved in reading if they did.

  2. It's great that you've become more comfortable with your abilities. And doesn't it feel awesome to be teaching and sharing with kids? What a great way for them to learn about the world!