Lisa Pimental and Marcela Kogan

Lisa Pimental, 345


Marcela Kogan, Coveting My Son’s Tutor

Inspiration piece

I am sitting in my car, waiting for my son to come out of his tutor’s house, eager to hear what the tutor thinks of my son’s Great Gatsby essay, which I came across while rummaging through his backpack the previous evening while he was asleep. I wanted to see whether the changes she suggests were ones I would have as well. Mostly, I wanted confirmation that I—a professional writer for 30 years, author of hundreds of articles and two books—knew what I was doing.

My son started working with this tutor four months ago to help him improve his writing skills and reading comprehension. I feel my own writing skills could be strengthened—better organization, smoother transitions and clearer sentence structure. So when he declared he didn’t need a tutor anymore, I wanted to take his spot.

Admitting I want a tutor is embarrassing. I started out writing as a fluke, as an “editor” of a non-profit Hispanic housing organization’s newsletter. Panicked over my new fancy title, and wishing I hadn’t overplayed my writing ability—I took crash courses in journalism and creative writing through the local university’s continuing education programs. Equipped with good reporters’ tools—curiosity and audacity—I learned to write news and feature stories.

But writing, even simply news stories, still takes me forever. I write the lead, get distracted and lose focus. When I try to pick up where I left off, my mind goes blank and I panic, furiously writing whatever comes to mind about the topic until suddenly, almost miraculously, the information swirling in my brain materializes into a well written, organized, polished story. The process is hectic, driven by panic rather than technique or structure. I try organizing my thoughts using outlines, webs, charts but nothing works.

Wanting to improve my writing skills at 51-years-old is an admirable endeavor. Why should I have to sneak around my son’s room like a criminal to mooch off his tutor’s lessons? Why covet my son’s tutor when I could get my own?

Over the following weeks I ask people for names of tutors who work with adults. But psychologists, teachers, school administrators—everybody is confused by my question. Tutors, at my age? Did I mean a life coach? An editor? A consultant? Facilitator?

A highly regarded psychologist gives me someone’s name. “Just ask her if she does adults,” she says.

Days later, I call the tutor. She sounds flaky over the phone, telling me that changing my writing process would change my life. “You’ll never think the same again,” she assures me. She could only help me if I let her “get into” my head. “We should get together sooner rather than later to see if we’re going to get along,” she adds. “Bring stories you’re working on,” she says.

We plan to meet at American Diner on a Wednesday morning at 9:30. I wouldn’t have trouble finding her, she says. “I have a lot of hair.” I get off the phone wondering if I should cancel.

I arrive at the diner on time and set up my laptop. The place is nearly empty except for a few tables of business people meeting over coffee, mothers lingering with their children waiting for schools to start. A woman with long wavy hair and bright red lipstick traipses in, a fur hat covering her ears and fur boots, looking as if she were meeting a friend in Alaska, rather than a client at a Washington D.C. diner.

“You must be Marcela,” she says, squeezing my hand, a burst of sweet perfume settling between us. I perched at the edge of my seat, sliding of the slightly tipping cushion.

“Let me tell you what I do,” she says, her fingers rubbing her temples, as if nursing a migraine. She takes out a pencil and a pad and writes in big letters: F-E-A-R.

“I help people overcome their fear,” she pronounces, “because fear is the major obstacle to change.”

Every time I think, ‘I can’t learn,’ I should envision the traffic STOP sign. “You need to believe you can change.”

She was like a conference speaker giving a power point presentation, but instead of standing in an auditorium before a large audience, she was sitting next to a jukebox talking to me.

I could just end the session, give her the check and leave. But if I want a shot at something better, I have to believe that this disheveled, eccentric and distractible woman could help me somehow.

She lowers her voice and reaches out her hand to me. “Show me what you’ve got.”

I give her what started out as being an essay about my experiences trying to get out of having to pay hefty fines for overdue books to the Montgomery County Public Library, which had referred my account to a collection agency.  The story seems simple, but my thoughts are scattered, and the essay is turning out to be a Hodge podge of funny stories about getting bad legal advice from baseball moms and misplacing book returns in the donation pile.

I worry about her reaction, but every so often, she lets out a loud throaty laugh. Or she
stops to underline a sentence. “This is an excellent point.”  She moves closer in and confides in me. “Do you know how difficult it is to write a funny story like this one?”

I nod, painfully recalling many failed attempts at writing humor. Her words strike my fragile ego: I’m afraid to believe she thinks I’m a good writer. But when she begins drafting an outline of the story, I immediately object. “Outlines don’t work for me,” I blurt out. “I can’t organize anything that way. It’s just too many words.”

She pauses, perplexed. “Tell me the story about the library.”

I stammer at first, still flustered, having told the story dozens of times to friends and attempted to write it dozens more. But the sound of my voice as it steadies reassures me that I could go on, and I begin telling the story that I want to write, picturing in my mind’s eye events leading up to the confrontation with the librarian, describing the scenes with vivid imagery and humor.

The story I tell is well organized, and evenly paced. The tutor sees my eyes lighting up and begins drafting my story in a storyboard, a series of illustrations frequently used by film directors as a technique to visualize the layout of the scenes. Together, we fill in the panels, stick figure style, to depict the sequence of events. “We’ll first tell the story of what happened,” she explained, “and then go back and fill in background.”

The first panel shows a letter from the collection agency addressed to me, the second depicts people sitting by a baseball field. The third shows a stack of books under the word “donation.” Together, we build a story, one thought at a time. I’m no longer afraid my story would get lost if my mind drifts, my excitement wanes or my luck runs out.

At the next meeting a week later, I bring along a copy of the Corporate Relocation Survey 2009. I’m doing a write up of this survey for the next issue of a client’s newsletter. I’ve written hundreds of stories about the relocation industry, but I still agonize over whether to start the story by  describing the problem, summarizing the conclusion or presenting the findings.

The tutor groans when she sees the title of the report. She says she hates business writing and would rather work with me on essays or teach me to write fiction. But relocation is my bread and butter, so she snatches the document and thumbs through it. .

“What questions will this report answer?” she asks, drawing a question mark that takes up the entire page. “Write down ten questions.”

“What’s it about?” I ask tentatively.

“That’s one question. Write it down. What else?”

I’m thinking hard. Whom does it affect? I can’t think of anything else. And then: Why would anybody care? What are the findings? The questions are coming faster than I can write them down and my heart begins racing as my curiosity grows. How do spouses feel about having to move? What’s it like for the kids?

She then tells me to glance over the report and start out with whatever fact strikes my fancy. Eagerly, I thumb through the pages. I’m on a mission to find something specific, something insightful, and intriguing. And I find my lead: Companies find jobs for trailing spouses to keep their relocating employees happy.

Finding a lead to a news story and drawing a storyboard for an essay is easy when the tutor is across from me. On my own, the lessons were hard to implement. But when I lapsed into old habits, I pulled out our session materials. When panicked over the lead, I look at the question mark and I know what to do. When I’m lost in thought over an essay, I think about just the facts and that gets me writing on course.

Seeing the STOP sign helped me stop worrying that nothing will improve.

I only saw her for five sessions—long enough to know what I was doing wrong, but not long enough to correct the inefficiencies. I’m on my own now and it’s up to me to use those teachings to make the changes.

When I tell my son that I had seen a tutor, he looks up from his game boy and laughs. “You going back to school or something?” Is that notion that strange?

I found the copy of his Great Gatsby essay crumpled in the bottom of his backpack. Unfortunately, he and his tutor never had a chance to go over it.


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One Comment

  1. Posted March 16, 2014 at 10:00 pm | #

    What a delightful narrative! You tell a good story. Keep going please!