May 3, 2012 – Students
A few evenings ago, Katrina and I are sitting at the kitchen table when the house phone buzzes. As Katrina stands to get it she looks at me and I shrug. Neither of us is expecting anyone, we don’t have laundry being done, and there aren’t a lot more reasons why the apartment deskmen would call up. I listen in while she talks first to the front door guard then to another person. “Why don’t you come up and we’ll talk. It’ll be easier to discuss this in person,” she says in Spanish.The phone clicks back into its holder and Katrina come out of the kitchen. “It’s some guy that wants classes for an exam he has to take. I don’t have time for a new student. Do you want him?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Not really.” It’s not exactly that I’m lazy; it’s more that whatever time I teach detracts from my writing. I’m jealous of those hours and don’t want to share them. It’s the time I’ve worked my whole life to have. But I hang around to see what’ll happen. It’s nice to have money to buy groceries with. The students I’ve been teaching have cancelled on me the past two weeks; one student for work-related reasons, the other because his wife had their first baby. My meager cash flow has trickled into a very slow, unpredictable drip.The doorbell rings and Katrina lets him in. His name is Lorenzo. He’s in his forties, dignified, solemn, serious, and quiet. He explains that he has to take an exam for basic level English and would like to have series of classes to brush up on the language.
“I’m really sorry,” Katrina tells him as she pulls out her scheduler, “but I don’t have any free time in my schedule at the moment. But this is my roommate and she also teaches English.”I step forward from where I’ve been skulking in the shadows and try to look scholarly despite the ratty T-shirt I’m wearing and my unbrushed hair.
“How many hours are you thinking? How many classes would you like? What kinds of things will be on the exam? What do you think you’ll need to focus on?” I ask him.I’ve been editing and reading all day in English and I’m feeling insecure with the Spanish language so when I get to the end of that barrage I ask Katrina to field the technicalities for me and translate my harder questions. She’s kind enough to do so.
Then we get to the question that invariably comes. “How much do the classes cost?” he asks.I tell him my rate. Katrina and I both watch him to see if he flinches at the price or if he goes with it. She and I charge the same amount. His flinch is a soft intake of his breath. I can see him adding up the twelve hours he’d wanted to have into nuevos soles. I’m thinking those twelve hours of work would pay half my entire month’s expenses and that’d make my future less of a financial burden. It’d be that much longer I could go until I have to get a real job (which I hope to delay for as long as possible). And then, seeing his hesitation and before I can stop myself, I ask, “What had you hoped to pay?”
“If that’s the cost,” he says, looking as if he’s seeing his children’s college funds turn into moths, “then that’s the cost.”“I could knock off a hundred soles if you could pay it all up front and don’t cancel the classes on me,” I tell him. “How do I say ‘in advance’?” I ask Katrina, blanking on things I know.
“Adelante,” she says. “Can you pay in advance?” she asks him.In proper haggling fashion, he asks, “How about four hundred?”
Two hundred soles off my normal cost? “How much is that per hour?” I ask Katrina and she brings up a calculator and figures it for me. I stare at the numbers. She stares over her shoulder at me. Lorenzo waits. Well, it’d be more money than I’d have not teaching him, that’s for sure, and it’d make up for the classes I didn’t teach my other students. “Sure,” I say. “Why not? Deal.”I’d be happy enough if he’d pay me after the first class, but to my surprise he pulls out his wallet, takes out some bills, and says, “I could pay half now and the other half at the end.”
There’s cash money on the table. I go grab my receipt book and start to fill it out.“Where do you work?” Katrina asks.
“I work for the police,” he says.Suddenly I imagine both Katrina and myself in prison for working illegally and selling classes to an officer of the law. The newspaper headline in my head reads “Undercover cop ends wild teaching spree by American girls!”
He doesn’t arrest us. He stands, solemnly shakes our hands, and departs.Pilar, the lady who comes in to clean the apartment, peeks out from the back room, broom in hand. “And that’s how you get students?” she asks. “That easily?”
“That easily,” Katrina says, even though it’s her first front deskman referral.That easily, I think. Easy. And then I panic knowing I’m bound by those bills to come up with twelve hours of teaching material. “I’m a writer not a teacher,” I try to whisper. But for now, it’s not entirely true.