Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sunday Essay #2: How I Got Fired From Kumon Math and Reading Center

<---Sunday Essay #1: Party Like a Writer! Party Like a Writer?
--->Sunday Essay #3: Who Wants to Be a Speed Dating Veteran?

"Did you get any sleep last night?" my boss asked with a prickle in her voice.

"I'm sorry," I muttered, fumbling with my timecard. It was 9:43 on a Saturday morning. At 9:30AM, I had woken up with an oh-shit-oh-shit-oh-shit! realization rousing me from a deep slumber. Thirteen minutes later, unshaven, morning-breathed, and sloppy-sweatshirted, I had stumbled into work. Thirteen minutes late. Could have been worse, right?

"Sorry," I repeated, but she didn't say a thing. She was hyper alert and well-dressed, as usual, in a black blazer and a baby blue button-down shirt, the colors popping brightly against her moisturized brown skin. The epitome of the woman in the workplace, her smile exuded a careful, temporary warmth that said I-am-your-boss-not-your-mama. I was intimidated by her when I was on time, but when I was late...

Did you get any sleep last night? What was she thinking? That I had been on a bender in an illicit massage parlor, downing shots of tequila and pull-snapping strippers' g-strings from sundown to sunrise? The reality was far more damning: I had spent the evening watching Dateline NBC with my mom. I was in bed by midnight.

To quote Sports Guy Bill Simmons, I will now light myself on fire.

After I clocked in, I turned away from my boss and trooped on to my "desk," an Office Depot cardtable bedecked by a plastic chair, a rolodex of answer books, and a cradle of red pens low on ink. I sat surrounded by a batallion of fourth through ninth graders armed with pencils scribbling through thick piles of math and reading worksheets. Most of these students were Indian or black, but one kid looked like a miniature Conan O'Brien, all freckles and a blaze of orange hair. His name was Tariq (?) and judging by the two women who picked him up each day, I suspected that he had two mommies. Otherwise, he was just like the rest of his worksheeting comrades: he'd finish a pile of problems, turn them into me, and wait for his score while I flipped through answer books. He'd correct the ones he got wrong, turn them in again, and wait for his new grade. This process would repeat itself until he answered all the questions correctly.

I was the grader. That was my job. Few students knew my name, and even fewer treated me as anything more than a robot with a red pen. They knew I had the answer books, so the questions they posed were meant to elicit an A, B, C, or D and nothing more. What was their rush? Did they realize: there's always another worksheet. There's always another worksheet. They wrote and bubbled and circled with the on-and-on momentum of Bangladeshi kids stitching decals into soccer balls.

Welcome to Kumon Math and Reading Center, where fun comes to die.

How I got the job was an accident, a happy accident, I thought. It was Christmas Day, and my parents and I were in line at the movie theater when we happened upon a girl I knew from my high school days. Anu Parikh was now an attractive young woman - an academic superstar, an Ivy League senior with one sister at Harvard and the other a soon-to-be valedictorian. Her dad was an accomplished but unpretentious businessman, and her mom, well, her mom was the queen bee at two Kumon Math and Reading Centers. While I flirted cautiously with Anu, the rest of the Parikh family circled the ticket counter. My mom sprang into action, articulating my credentials to my future boss and doing everything short of negotiating a contract.

I was reluctant to push the issue. Getting a job in Memphis would mean staying put at home, at least for the next eight months. (Grad school was on the horizon, but by no means a certainty.) I harbored thoughts of trying life in Atlanta, but I had no clear prospects there. What I did have was teaching experience and a desire to make immediate coin. My mom was Jerry Maguire, and Anu's mom was showing me the money... at eight dollars an hour.

"How do I do this?" asked a ten-year-old Indian boy in college professor spectacles. He pointed to a math problem:

3 (x + 9) / 12 (y -4)= 42

that to my eyes looked more like:


"Well, did you try process of elimination?" I asked, buying time.

"Why's that important in this problem?"

Um. Uh. I studied the numbers, but they blurred into each other like The Matrix. "Look at it a little more closely," I said.

"Oh, I got it."

Whew. Close one.

Every grader at Kumon was responsible for scoring both reading and math, but when I was called upon to answer a question about an advanced equation, I felt like I was wearing a stranger's slippers. My enduring memory of math class in high school was not nailing the Pythagorean Theorem; it was Charity Rogers, who sang Nelly's "Hot in Herr'e" every time somebody would ask Mr. Stalls to turn on the air conditioner. I wasn't bad at math, but I didn't have the swagger to teach it.

When Ms. Parikh stripped me of my math duties, I was relieved...until I realized that I had become half an employee. After all, I wasn't working for the Kumon Reading Center; I was working for the Kumon Math and Reading Center. I was a pilot who could fly but couldn't land. A sprinkling of reading worksheets would engage my red pen, while an avalanche of math would be sent to my colleague, 14-year-old middle schooler Vijay Nunley. Vijay outworked and outhustled me, and he didn't even shave.

"You can go now, Alex," my boss told me on one particularly slow day. "Don't forget to clock out."

IN: 4:30PM
OUT: 4:31pm

Thirteen cents. I made thirteen cents that Wednesday. Not bad...if only I was Alfalfa selling lemonade in 1932.

By the end of February I had worked at the center for two months. I had been late, sent home early, and corrected on my grading. ("I don't see what's wrong," I'd said. Ms. Parikh pointed to the end of the student's sentence. Shit. No period, and I hadn't caught the mistake.)

"Everybody, please listen," my boss announced. "Salim Bandiopatay has just completed Level H, and he is only a fifth grader!"

We were supposed to applaud. Perhaps thimble-sized Salim was dunked into toilet water during school hours, but this was no time to speculate on his nerddom. This was his moment, his hour. I tepidly smacked my hands together, as if I had just joined a cult by accident. Level H? Was that a Scientology workshop?

Ms. Parikh fired me on a Saturday. The whole episode was politely anticlimactic: she blamed the economy, but the economy didn't axe Vijay Nunley. It axed me.

Though I'm gone, I still wish good luck to Salim. Get ready for Level I, man, where shit really goes bananas.

We talkin' bout' FRACTIONS!

<---Sunday Essay #1: Party Like a Writer! Party Like a Writer?

--->Sunday Essay #3: Who Wants to Be a Speed Dating Veteran?



Cecilia said...

Bummer you lost the job, but it sounds like it wasn't such a bad thing.

Love that your back to posting.

Alex Pollack said...

The story has a happy ending: I landed a better job with better pay a couple days later. ACT Tutoring. More student interaction and just a better fit overall.

Leather Diaries said...

Good information...keep it flowing