It’s not pretty, but it’s true.
Once a week I drive forty-five minutes or so to a suburban town much like my own to tutor middle- and high-school Spanish. I make twenty dollars per student, per hour. A friend of mine got me the job in October on naught but a kind word, and having just left New York and what had then seemed like the promise of a promising career, I was up for anything.
Now, let me be clear: I have taken exactly two semesters of introductory Spanish, both in my senior year of college, and both entirely on a lark. I’d figured it was my last chance at any bought-and-paid-for whim, so why not prepare for the future in what promises to be the Bilingual American Century? In my nigh nine months as an estudiante I learned to conjugate regular verbs, describe my and others’ plans, and speak generally on the facts of the past as I saw them. With mild prodding I might have found inclination to comment on things I used to do, or would do, someday, but grammatical poverty and a philosophical aversion to Regret prevented me from opining on anything I would have, should have, or could have done.
All of this is to say, or rather acknowledge, that two semesters does not a Spanish speaker make. Except when it does. As it happens, two semesters of introductory Spanish puts me right about on par with your average American high school sophomore. Small wonder, then, that Spanish 101 was full of freshman five- and six-year Spanish veterans—all failed, apparently, by America’s educación pública. (That, or just lazy.)
My tutees (?) were freshman, sophomores, and a few seventh and eighth graders, some earnestly struggling and others blithely floundering, shanghaied by their parents and without a care either way. In any case, my career in education had begun. I had four to five students in a day, depending on the week, netting me between eighty and one hundred tax-free dólares per tutorial journey—Not. Bad. This carried on through Christmas, but began to drop off after the New Year. Whatever the cause (deciding not to take it personally), my earnings had nearly halved, on a good day. On a bad day, I was down to two kids—barely enough to cover the gas of a fifty-mile round trip. No one goes into teaching for the money, I realize, but this was becoming untenable.
All told, my success post-graduation renders a Return On Investment calculation crushingly ill-fated. I worked really hard in college, as did most now-out-of-work graduates I know, all in the name of Logical Next Steps. I interned, I networked, I had a paid internship lined up before graduation, only to realize that J-O-B was the destination, not the journey. Now, J-O-B-free, my destination is unclear and my journey less than fulfilling.
Interest was the guiding light of my undergraduate years, to an almost capricious degree—“Why not take a class on the Japanese tea ceremony?”—but these days Ability is my bread and butter, rice and beans if you prefer. (Probably it’s healthier. Is butter a carb?) I can tutor (that is, someone will pay me to), so I do. In college, Sink or swim was almost immaterial, superseded by Swim. Where to? Those were the days of being asked, “What are your interests?” and “What do you want to do?” These are not always easy questions, mind you—it can take a lot to realize what you want to do, instead of what you want to want to do.
Failure to attain what one only wanted to want is a loss of nothing—the goal of having a goal, rather than any goal itself. By the same token, attaining what one merely wants to want is an entirely hollow gain. (This I learned, among other lessons, in my first and last job in an art gallery.) How could a person expect to be happy, fulfilling aims begotten only of aiming?
Perhaps all this is sour grapes on my part, my ROI for four years at an unencouraging -99%. Easier to cry, “I don’t need a job, I know what I want!” than to sigh and send another résumé. Earnest wanting is a risk. I have wanted to want to do and be a lot of things, each perhaps an unacknowledged means to the unacknowledged end of writing. Now, acknowledged, my chips are down. Meanwhile I cross my fingers that Interest and Ability might align for me in something a bit more lucrative.
But so for now I tutor, and when I come home I write. This week I only had one student. Twenty dollars later and I can at least afford a little cerveza.