He came though the door angry. Right away she could see the annoyance, not hidden at all behind his brown eyes. He didn’t make eye contact with her and he sat down with 18 years worth of sleep in his bones. While she had waited for him in the small, windowless room, she looked at the inspirational quotes and life suggestions taped to the wall. Probably hung there by another person who was a shadow of their own truth, a shadow of what they had allowed to die decades before. The quotes were truths and good advice, like “never give up,” but they had the mark of store-bought supplies, simple institutional decoration that came without the faintest hint at how to achieve such a noble goal.
The room in which they now sat was just slightly bigger than a closet, able to accommodate a small rectangular table and three plastic chairs, the hard chairs found in institutions. Each day she sat in there, the room always seemed too small and dirty, always smelling like old banana peels and wrappers stained with ketchup and a place whose standards were close to the floor. This was an institution, a school hidden in the far corner of an industrial park, where teenagers came, after failing out of every other public school. Its rooms were filled with people one fight away from juvenile hall. They were kids who screamed “Fuck you, man!” down the hall as they walked to the bathroom, kids who acted like they were being wronged by every teacher and administrator there. They came with attitudes and chips that had knocked over their shoulders and the assumption that they already knew everything, that this was just a place that they had to endure. The spark of curiosity had vanished, long ago, it had laid down and submitted to more simple plans. The guys wore large white shirts and baggy pants with the price tags still hanging from the seams, the girls sat on benches next to the basketball net and watched the boys play. They could hardly walk in their high heels and tight pants and looked like they were just waiting to be fucked, as though their only benefit to humanity was the hole between their legs which was waiting to be filled.
The small room had a student-painted mural of the golden gate bridge on one wall. It had smears of dirt and speckles of an undistinguishable substance covering its lower half. High above, close to the ceiling, were pictures of the cursive alphabet and more inspirational advice. She wondered if anyone ever looked up and read them. Did they resonate with anyone for a moment before being quickly forgotten?
The boy next to her certainly did not resonate with the message. He was just over eighteen and still struggling to read words like “was” and “should” and “through.” He had a medical condition which caused both his eyes to twitch, they moved like little ping pong balls stuck in his head, and because of this, he had a hard time reading. And even though he couldn’t read and even though he needed all the help he could get with his vision, he refused to bring his glasses. Each day he would arrive at his tutoring session and say he forgot them, just as he forgot his entire backpack and little notebook. He held the books an inch from his face and he would still mix up letters. She wondered what motivated him to come at all. Why did he get on the train and ride for twenty minutes each early morning?
He struggled with almost every word of the first sentence of the short story. Four words into the first paragraph, he had already uttered “I don’t know” and thrown up his hands in an expression of annoyance more than a handful of times. The words he couldn’t read were ones they had begun practicing months ago when she got him a small notebook of flashcards so he could study the sight words at home. Since the day she brought it, he never remembered to bring it again.
After trying unsuccessfully to sound out the fourth word, he excused himself without looking at her. He left for a couple minutes and she drew a small curving doodle with her pencil as she waited, it looked like the inner frond of a fern. When he came back, he brought a small Styrofoam cup of water with him and placed it on the table. He started reading the first sentence again, already forgetting the first couple of words he had sounded out. He made another gesture with his hand, as if to say, “I don’t know and I don’t care.” She leaned back in her hard plastic seat and looked at him, he stared at the page.
“Do you want to learn to read?” Her voice contained tinges of skepticism.
He looked up. “Well yeah, I do.”
“But I can tell you’re not practicing at all, you still aren’t remembering words we went over months ago, the ones we put in the notebook.”
When she had first given him the notebook, he had been very appreciative, he had carefully written down words in his neatest handwriting, he acted like it was precious and thanked her again and again. But it was obvious he hadn’t looked at it since, maybe it was lost with his glasses and backpack and anything else that could actually help him.
“Because, you know, I can come here every week and we can read for an hour and a half, but it’s not enough, you’re really not going to learn unless you practice and memorize the words on your own, it’s really up to you. Right now you’re acting like you don’t even want to be here. I’ve only been coming because you said you wanted to learn to read.”
“Yeah, I do, but it’s hard, I read sometimes with my social worker, but we do different things all the time. And hey, I thought you were supposed to come on Monday!”
“Well, I couldn’t make it Monday, but that’s why I’m here now…and what do you mean, like sometimes you practice reading and sometimes math with your social worker?”
“Yeah, lots of different things, mostly math.”
She didn’t understand what he was saying exactly.
“Well, all I’m saying is that it has to come from you, if you don’t want to learn, it’s not going to happen, no amount of help or tutoring will help unless you practice, it has to come from you. You need to want to learn and make the effort.”
He looked at her. “You know, you’re right. You’re absolutely right. I’m sorry, I don’t want to waste your time.”
He looked at the short story with a small burst of renewed interest. It took them an hour and a half to read two paragraphs. He had had bouts of enthusiasm before, she was not confident any pep talk was going to make a difference. She would know next week if he had problems sounding out the word “found.” His effort, or lack thereof, would be obvious then.
She knew that there was a part of him that really wanted to learn to read. Maybe it was the part of him that made the effort to get up with the sound of the alarm and put on some clean clothes and get to the train station. But the rest of him, the other 99 percent, got to school and sat down and was angry at the teachers, rude to the other students and made a day of possible learning into a failed effort. He let his days slip by and, when it was time for a tutoring session, he came up with reasons to be angry and annoyed and resistant to practice. No matter how much she wanted him to read, the true desire and effort would have to come from him. It was his journey.
A guide can do nothing without a sincere and constant effort from the voyager. Without such an effort, all help is precious seed poured into a gaping hole in the ground. Nothing will ever grow. Nothing will ever flourish.