Brendan Mernin

Brendan Mernin

A weeklong electronic journal.
Sept. 28 2000 6:00 PM

Brendan Mernin

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Last night I taught a girl in the city. After I'd sat at the dining room table with my calculator, after her father had brought me my usual tall glass of orange juice with ice and a straw, my student mentioned casually that a friend had developed an ulcer. I wasn't all that surprised. For seniors, it's an ulcer time of year. First-term grades count a lot, there are SATs and SAT IIs to retake if your scores aren't what you want them to be yet, and there are essays to write and applications to fill out. On top of that, there's the recent push for early admission.

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Kids are under more pressure than they were even a few years ago. Because so many people apply early, things need to get done earlier. Test scores need to be in place, essays need to be written. The kids can't afford to be like I was senior year, when my buddy Billy Rodriguez and I sat down at his mother's kitchen table with a borrowed electric typewriter on New Year's Eve. I dictated, he typed, and at 11:45 we drove through a snowstorm to the loading dock at the post office, where we begged the guy to postmark them.

Today's ambitious high-school students need to be organized. They have PalmPilots, Filofaxes, and their own T-1 lines. Still, despite their seeming maturity, they're still adolescents, going through a lot of changes. And when you show up at their houses and apartments week after week, you get a good feeling for what's going on. Kids share things with you. One played for me his white-boy rap tape, complete with earnest, thoughtful rhymes about social inequality and racism, with skillful guitar accompaniment provided by his friend, another student of mine. Another showed me her paintings, which were so skillful for her age that I thought, I ought to buy one of these before this kid gets famous. Last year one student of mine got so hung up trying to write her college essays that she decided on a radical approach: She spent three weeks creating a comic strip that explained who she was, where she had come from, and what she was about. She carved the woodcuts herself, using the captions as the text of her essay. One girl showed me an album of photos of herself posing with the original Broadway cast of Rent. When I told her that I once met Jesse Martin and that I had even seen Adam Pascal on the No.1 train, she nearly perished. One boy, whose mother, a quirky heiress, used to answer the door to their Fifth Avenue apartment in a robe and slippers at 3 in the afternoon, liked to show me how many push-ups he could do (150, I think). Once, in relating his adventures with Outward Bound in Colorado, he admitted to me that he hadn't moved his bowels in over two weeks of hiking. He just didn't feel comfortable doing that kind of thing outside.

Every year I see children who range from happy and well-adjusted to those who—well, let's just say that memoirs will probably still be big a few years from now. Years ago I taught the son of a noted film director and author. This boy could only meet with me on Sunday nights after 6. The reason? He spent his Friday and Saturday nights at trendy West Village and Chelsea clubs. I'm not talking about 3 or 4 in the morning. I'm talking about dancing and drinking and better living through chemistry until 10 the next morning. Twice a week, every week. I had no idea how this boy could keep it up. I couldn't relate; my wild nights in high school started at dusk in the bushes near the liquor store, where we shivered in the cold and whispered, "Hey mister, will you buy for us?" over and over.

Perhaps the worst case was a girl on the Upper East Side. Nice address, nice school, sounded fine over the phone. But I knew something was wrong when I opened the door and a giant poodle jumped up and licked my face. The mother asked him to stop, then asked him, and asked him, and asked him, until finally she let out a scream that hurt my eyeballs. The dog stopped. And the stuff in this apartment: newspapers, children's toys, dog toys, tools, old board games, swords, ceramic sculptures that were supposed to play tricks on you, like the one with the can of Coke suspended in the air above the glass, held there by the stream of soda pouring down. Only you'd never be fooled because it had never been dusted. So, we sat down to work, and the dog barked some more, until the girl screamed, "Mom, could you get rid of the f**king dog?" and Mom dragged him out to the deck, where he barked at the city buses below. The mother picked up the phone and called her friend to talk about the girl's hopeless grades and terrible scores. I know all this because she was standing right behind me, shouting into the phone as if she were calling in the right coordinates for the napalm strike. I tried to settle into the lesson, but my student couldn't concentrate, so she stood up and yelled, "Mom, get off the f**king phone!!!" It was then that I noticed that she weighed no more than 80 pounds, not ideal for a tall girl, and that her fingernails were no more. I needed solitude, so I feigned a need for the bathroom. The mother said, "Oh, wait, just a minute, I need to fix it up." She fished from a large pile of things an old, dusty can of paint and a brush and went into the bathroom. After a time she pronounced the room ready for use. Turned out she had painted the room for the first time. I could tell because the haphazard streaks of wet, unmixed beige paint left exposed much of the bare sheetrock, which looked to have been put up in about 1966. After that, we settled in to the lesson. I don't think the girl got it all together before the SAT, but I tutored her brother, and he did very well. He was pretty motivated to get to college.

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So, if you, like all Americans, describe yourself as middle class, take heart. The rich really are very different from you and your kids: They have more tutors.