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Extra Credit

Hard lessons, and occasional rewards, in an after-school work-study program.

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On my first day as an after-school tutor, one of my students said, "I'm not working with you. Get the fuck away from me!" 

Daniel was 10 years old.

Another boy in my group of four, Trevor, started the day by climbing a retaining wall and pouncing on the roof of the after-school van. Once atop, he began screaming "Suckers!" and grabbing the crotch of his pants.

The program, designed to help children from low-income homes improve their grades, was staffed by college work-study kids from Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, like me. I'd signed up because I needed the money, and it fit my class schedule — reasoning that had made sense when I signed the forms, sitting in my apartment. By the time we talked Trevor down from the van and into the church, that rationale was hard to recall.

The program was free, and students didn't have to be Christian. But they were expected to participate in the Bible study.

We lift our hands in the sanctuary, all the kids sang. Except mine. Trevor, for one, used the time to remove every game and puzzle from the cabinets.

We lift out hands to give you the glory

"Trevor, you've got to sit in your seat," I hissed. He laughed. I chased.

And we will praise you for the rest of our days

"Trevor, you've got to sit down right now."

"Fuck that," he said. "Fuck that."

I dragged him back to the group. His body had gone limp, but his mouth kept forming the words. He was heavy for a 10-year-old.

Next on the agenda: snack and homework. Food lured the boys to their seats, but their attention quickly petered out. In desperation, I wrote their names in Arabic, which I studied in college. Daniel let out a high-pitched squeal: "This chick is cra-zy. She can't even write!" But Jackson pulled his chair closer. It was his first day in the program. Just like me.

"What is it?" he asked.

"Middle East."

"The Middle what?" he asked, his eyes awash with curiosity.

"Here," I said taking down a globe from atop a cabinet. "Where are we on here?" I gave the globe a spin. Donyae watched the spin of colors. When it stopped, he placed his hand gingerly on Canada and looked up at me, his face hopeful.

Close enough, I thought. I slid his finger to the U.S., then pointed out the Middle East.

I had taken this job only because I needed the money. I hadn't hoped to change lives. But the snack had given me some courage: I could do this.

Daniel took his homework out of his bag and looked at me. "Can I have a pencil?"

"What's the magic word?" I asked in my best kid-friendly voice.

"Gimme a pencil, bitch?"

Each day after that, I greeted the boys by saying I was glad to see them, and I'd ask about their days. Mostly, they ignored me or uttered a quick, "I hate you!" When asked about his day, Jackson always said the same thing: "Bad." His day was bad because his mom hit him, or because school sucked. Or sometimes, his day was just plain bad.

Jackson was like a miniature Incredible Hulk. He was usually kind and attentive, but when provoked, the transformation was sudden. After another child called his mother fat, Jackson threw him to the ground, grabbed a puzzle box and began beating him with it. It took two tutors to pull Jackson — who couldn't have weighed more than 65 pounds — away. He ran out of the church screaming, a piercing sound that hurt a piece of me I couldn't identify.

When I caught up to him, his fists were clenched and tears were running down his cheeks. The icing from our afternoon snack — a cinnamon roll — left a crusty ring around his mouth. He looked like what he was: a little boy.

On the way back to the church, Jackson and I talked about one of our mutual interests: candy. I often took fistfuls from the candy box in the back of the church and used it as a reward — for both the kids and me. Once inside, I pointed to the "Afterschool Rules" signs posted all around: Listen to Adults; Use Polite Language; and Respect God, People and Property. "Jackson, you broke all three rules today."

"I'm sorry."

"Sorry isn't enough. When you're mad, you can't hit. Can you use words next time?"

"Maybe," he said. "Can I have a piece of candy?"

"No. You don't deserve candy today."

But when it was time to go home, I gave him a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.

When the semester ended, I got an internship at a newspaper. I'd like to think that the smiles and handfuls of candy worked, that the boys became less difficult versions of themselves. I think it's possible.

If I didn't, I wouldn't have been able to look them in the eye.

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