At the beginning of 2008, I was a graduate student at the University of Southern California with a full-time teaching job, a new house and a manuscript ready to sell. I had my college sweetheart, a well-stocked savings account and a five-year plan. By the end of that year, I had lost it all. I moved back in with my parents at the age of 28, to start again.
After failing to find the kind of job I thought I wanted, I became a full-time tutor at a learning center in my hometown in Marin County. Every day, I woke up in my childhood bedroom, drove to the center and funneled my expensive education toward helping teenagers who were just where I had been ten years before.
On first impression, my students were wealthy, entitled and loud. They’d speed through our parking lot in the BMWs their parents had bought them. They’d insult one another, throwing around brutal language with gleeful indifference. They’d stare at social media on their smartphones while I asked them about their homework. I wondered: Was I like this at 16?
But then I began to listen. I noticed that many of my students were exhausted by relentless schedules. They raced from school to practices and from rehearsals and to our sessions, and did four or five hours of homework a night. They ran their high school lives like CEOs whose shareholders demanded higher and higher returns. Other kids surprised me: Just when I’d pegged them as lazy or angry or hard, they’d reveal unexpected creativity, sensitivity or strains of deep kindness.
Yes, they were self-centered. But their self-absorption was a relief to me, because it relieved me of my own. They didn’t care if I had a master’s degree, or if I lived in my parents’ house. They cared if I could help them with an English assignment or teach them how to crush the SAT. They cared if I would listen to them without judgment. This was what my teenage students needed most, what no amount of money could make up for: time, attention, presence.
These kids were so much more than what they seemed. They were three-dimensional, deeply feeling individuals just trying to find their place in the world. Soon, I grew to love them, even the ones I didn’t like. I loved them because they were interesting, and because they were trying, and because they helped take me out of myself.
I had spent the greater part of the Great Recession lamenting all that I had lost. Since high school, I’d followed the path that my early advantages had set me upon. I’d left college with a high GPA and a similarly well-educated partner, landed an impressive-sounding teaching job and jumped headfirst into the housing market. By thirty, I was supposed to be successful. I was supposed to be impressive. I was not supposed to be single and houseless and working until midnight with a surly ninth-grader, writing yet another essay about 1984. And yet, there I was. And there, I learned to be grateful for all I had: grateful for my generous parents and friends, for an education that allowed me to help other people and even for the surly ninth-grader, who, in the thick of first-draft hell, still made me laugh.
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When I eventually moved away from the tutoring center — and toward a new apartment, a new job and a new love — I was surprised to realize that what had started as a temporary set-back had become one of the happiest and most fulfilling times of my life.
I have the teenagers to thank for that.
Lindsey Lee Johnson is the author of The Most Dangerous Place on Earth. She holds a master’s degree in professional writing from the University of Southern California and a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of California, Davis.
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