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The Forbidden Objects

by Jonathan Cohen


I have been a tutor, both public and private. In the public world, I’ve worked as a literacy volunteer at the OC Public Library and its glitzier cousin, the Newport Beach Public Library. I’ve worked at the loveliest branch at the OCPL, the Katie Wheeler Library in Irvine, an old-fashioned, white New England-style wood-framed house, restored and converted into an intimate, wood-paneled two-story library surrounded by flowers. I’ve also worked at the colossal, hangar-style main branch of the NBPL, where wealth and postmodern architecture met to house 250,000 books and many fashionably spoiled high school students from Newport Harbor and Harbor Day on their next-generation phones and laptops. (You can tell who the students are because they never actually go into the stacks for books.) 

Wherever I have worked, there has always been a built-in dynamic that has left me crashing and burning: reciprocation. Students (or as they say in libraries, “learners”) are gobsmacked when they learn that I don’t get paid for helping them. They are infused with a white-hot desire to reciprocate. And that puts me into peril. In every tutor training class you are taught, do not take anything from a learner worth more than ten dollars. A holiday card and a five-dollar Starbucks card from the student are on the screeching edge of what is permissible. But what if your student wants to do more for you? Much more? 

The first step in avoiding being a lawless recipient is to talk about what you want for the learner. Although this may seem very fancy for a literacy student, this passage from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics sometimes works with older learners:

But friendship seems to consist more in loving than in being loved. A sign of this is the enjoyment a mother finds in loving. For sometimes she gives her child away to be brought up and loves him as long as she knows about him; but she does not seek the child’s love, if she cannot both love and be loved. She is satisfied if she sees the child doing well, and she loves the child even if ignorance prevents him from returning to her what is due to a mother. (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, tr. Irwin, 1159a27-32)


The point is that what the tutor wants to do is to see the learner do well. Seeing the learner do well is all the satisfaction I need. Like the mother in the passage, I get nothing else – should get nothing else – and yet, like the mother who has given up her child, need nothing else.

So I repeat this to them, and yet often it does no good. Many of my learners come from relentlessly transactional cultures, where a person’s honor is impugned if they do not return like for like. So it was with a student, Sepideh, with whom I was working on citizenship.

A week earlier, I had constructed what educators call a “manipulative” – a set of index cards and string that together explained any move in the Constitution’s “separation of powers.” When I removed it from my bag the next week, it was utterly tangled. She laughed for half a minute as she tried picking it apart. The following week, I came to the tutoring room, and, when I opened the door, enticing smells wafted out. Sepideh had cooked me a Persian banquet, complete with chicken kebab, stewed celery, rice with saffron, and mixed pickle, and everything was homemade. My first thought was, “Oh, my God, she brought food into the library!”  My second thought was, “I’m damned. I am going to eat this.” And so I did. I ate most of it, and she boxed up the rest for me to take home. So much for teaching her that day.

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But not every learner is the type to tempt me with food. Some learners feel that I have had too much food. I am overweight, and certain learners want to do something about it. They want to save me.

For my benefit, Hua tended to punctuate her attempts at reading John Steinbeck’s The Pearl with admonitions about diet and Chinese herbs. She would only write compositions on food, exercise, and diet. She knew I was her de facto audience (for don’t learners always understand, cynically, that the teacher is the audience, not the “general reader”?) She was writing persuasive essays to convince me to straighten up and fly right. I was unmoved, however, and so she played her last card: she would get me a medical-quality digital scale, such as you might see in a doctor’s office, that would not only tell me my precise weight but would also analyze my body fat. I did not want my body fat analyzed, nor did I wish to communicate the results to her, nor did I want her to pay hundreds of dollars for this device on my behalf. Fortunately, at this time, she was called away to China, and by the time she returned, I had a new learner.

The last learner interested in my well-being was named Marmaduke. He was a six-foot-tall pillar of muscle, a former boxer, and an ex-Special-Forces fighter. The men in Special Forces called him “Duke.” He had never learned to read or write; like many such people, he had elaborate mnemonics that he used to simulate being literate. My late grandfather had been in the same position a century ago – Grandpa Cohen could not read or write Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew, or English his entire life – so I was sympathetic. At least Marmaduke had the advantage of a cell phone which would turn his speech into text and let him get information via YouTube. (Sadly, he found a source of dubious news which played to his authoritarian personality.)

He wanted to save me through exercise, and I knew it, but I did not realize the lengths to which he would go. Marmaduke texted me to come outside – he’d found where I lived -- and I found a huge, purring black truck, its railed bed filled to the top with used weightlifting equipment. People were still using the tennis courts next door, the lights shining against the already-overlit clouds. I could read some of the labels on the gym equipment.  Marmaduke snapped his fingers and easily plucked out an errant ball coming over the fence. I soon discovered that I had taken delivery of an ancient NordicTrack treadmill, scrapped from a gym. He motioned for me to open my garage door, and I gasped as he leapt to the bed of the truck, lifted the entire thing (it weighed 193 pounds, a two-man job), jumped down with it, plunked it down on its hidden wheels, and rolled it into the garage. I would not be able to get rid of it very easily. The College Hunks Hauling Junk would charge at least $200 to cart it off. I was stuck with it and would now have to use it. I cannot slight Marmaduke on his strategic thinking; he defeated me and my scruples.

This paragraph should serve as my letter of resignation from the various Orange County libraries and agencies, for I have convicted myself. If being a literacy tutor were a profession, I would have committed a breach of professional ethics. But what was I to do? Turn down an enormous home-cooked meal? Pay $200 to get that treadmill out of my garage? I think I am hooked on the idea of my learners doing well – that I love them, as much as the mother in Aristotle loved the child she would never see again and who might in time forget her. Having to navigate my own ethics may be the price I have to pay every time I work with a learner.


Jonathan Cohen's short stories and creative nonfiction have been published in the Community of Writers' Omnium Gatherum Quarterly and the Santa Monica Review. He is a 2004 alumnus of the CoW. For eighteen years, he and his wife Beth have been the proofreaders of the Santa Monica Review. Jonathan is a private tutor specializing in AP U.S. History and has been a volunteer literacy tutor at Orange County's two public library systems, for which he received the Excellence in Volunteerism award from Orange County in 2015.

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