The industry of the under-motivated


“How do you do?” The man greets her in Japanese and bows in his doorway. He wears the same teasing grin and the same rumpled shirt as always. Even the cookie crumbs on his collar seem the same.

“My name is Stanley,” he says as he rises. “How nice to meet you.”

What can she do? She laughs. She says it is nice to meet him too. Even though he’s had more than 20 lessons. Even though he always greets her the same.

He invites her in. His apartment looks like a training gym for poltergeists. The only spot clear from clothes, books and wrappers is the kitchen table. Which is where he leads her.

“I didn’t have much time to study,” he says — in English.

Which is what he always says. Does he think she can’t see the stack of DVD rentals by the TV? Or the cords to the video game controllers leading straight to his unmade futon?

But at least he didn’t cancel. At least she didn’t wake up to find the e-mail saying he had a stomachache or a sudden meeting. After she had sunk an hour into preparation.

No, at least this way, she got to stand through packed rush hour transit to be met by the fumbled greeting of someone just out of bed at 9:00 a.m. At least this way, the class would count. And she would get paid.

She makes small talk. It is part of her lesson plan. She asks about his weekend, his work, his family. She pins her tongue between her molars as he takes a club to the Japanese language. Verb forms, pronunciation, particles. A ship with this many holes would plunge straight to the ocean floor.

“Good,” she tells him. “Very good.” A comment tied closer to her teacher training — she believes in positive reinforcement — than to her actual comprehension.

Then he can’t find his text. “Maybe the roaches got it,” he says.

So she creases her own copy to the chapter he was to work on, the same one she has assigned for the last two weeks. He reads for her . . .

“I . . . am . . . book . . . Uh . . . What’s this kanji?”

“It’s not a kanji. It’s an object marker.”

“Object marker?” He bends his wiry brows. She has to read for him in places. Many places. Most places. In the end, she reads almost everything.

“Hey, would you like some cookies? A coke?”

No, she wouldn’t. She pulls out picture cards and runs him through grammar patterns. The room is cool but the man still sweats.

“Listen, I need a break.” It’s been but 30 minutes.

“No, two more patterns. Plus vocabulary cards.” She almost adds, “And then the next chapter,” but already he is on his feet.

“I found this bakery that packs in the chocolate chips, just like home.”

She sighs and thinks of other students. The good ones finished the same text in no time at all. And then stopped. For they would be scrambling for jobs and would have no employer — like this man — willing to bankroll further lessons.

A dead fact of the tutoring life: The worst students are always the better funded.

“You won’t pass your test,” she tells him in reference to the national exam, the second-lowest level. Which he has said was his goal.

“Oh I don’t know.” He grins with American bravado. “I’m good with tests. Now taste this cookie!”

The rest of the time he shows her photos that he’d received from his mother in Arizona. She ends by making him promise to study for next week.

“Oh, I will, I will!”

“No you won’t,” she thinks.

In the train, she considers quitting. Mr. Cookie wasn’t worth her time. Yet . . . so many students weren’t worth the time. They came, they dabbled in Japanese and they left. It was a cottage industry of the under-motivated and she was the cottage caretaker.

“If he’s not gonna try,” says her husband when she arrives home. “Then why should you?”

“But then I wouldn’t be a good teacher.”

She pauses, wondering herself what she means, as if to give less than her best to one student — even a poor one — would mean to give less than her best to all.

“But why keep knocking yourself out? And only for peanuts.”

“No,” she says. “Not just for peanuts. Here . . .” From her book bag, she hands her husband a napkin of cookies.

“Well! If this is how he pays, don’t you dare quit!”

“Please. I’ve had enough American jokes today,” she says.

He bows to her. “How do you do? My name is Tom. How nice to meet you.”

What can she do? She laughs.

And she decides.

Despair is a high wall to climb, but . . . maybe Mr. Cookie would get his act together somehow.

Until then — or until he left — she would do what all good teachers do.

She would keep the lessons coming.