I was sitting at Starbucks, biding my time waiting to pick up a friend to drive back to the Hamptons from New York City. A man and his ten-year-old son came in. The son was eye-catching, with large, inquisitive eyes and a big smile, and he was asking his father a lot of questions.
“Dad, if you wake up on a sleepover date and they say they are having eggs and toast for breakfast, and you hate eggs, what do you do?”
I didn’t hear his answer.
Then there was some talk about dad’s boots. Not sure what that was about.
The mother arrived.
Another man arrived.
I pretended to be engrossed in my computer. I wasn’t.
“Well, I’m glad you called me. Getting an early start on tutoring and testing is a good idea. All the tests are made up to trick you into getting it wrong. He’s smart, but it’s not enough.”
My new favorite young boy’s eyes lost their glow. His smile disappeared, and his brow furrowed.
“Let me give you an example,” the man said, and he pulled out some ridiculous piece of paper with some ridiculous question on it and spent the next few minutes walking through its perils.
His father praised his son’s math acumen, but I could see the son wasn’t as sure anymore, and the weight of his future sat way too strongly on his little shoulders. I liked it better when his biggest worry was how he could gracefully get out of having eggs for breakfast.
I saw twenty years into the future — him telling his wife that he’d thought he was a smart boy until an encounter with a tutor in a Starbucks on a cold January evening when he was ten.
Me being me, I couldn’t do nothing. I took out my notebook and wrote the following note.
I know you saw me smiling at your son’s conversation before the potential tutor arrived. I have never done this before, but I want to tell you that I watched your son’s confidence heading down the toilet. My daughter went through the New York City private school system and went on to Princeton and Harvard Law School. [Note to my readers: I recognize that I was name dropping and trying to legitimize my point of view to prove that I wasn’t a crazy person. I acknowledge that my daughter’s successes — which anyone who knows and loves me will tell you had nothing whatsoever to do with me — don’t speak to my mental stability, but we lean on whatever we have when doing risky things that may make us look coo-coo for Coco Puffs.] Please don’t hire this man. He isn’t even speaking to your son, and he’s trying to instill fear in him and seems to be doing a good job. Here is my number. Call me if you want some other numbers to call. — Christine [and I added my phone number] P.S. Please tell your son I will remember him for a long time to come because I thought he was just amazing!
I had to leave. How to get it to them without being shot by the tutor?
I walked over to the table. I still can’t believe I did this.
I said, “Hi, you don’t know me but I have pretty good hearing and I was listening to your conversation, so I’m sorry if this is an intrusion, but I wanted to say two things.” I turned to the boy, whose name I now know is Samuel.
“I think you are really smart. I could see it when I was listening to your conversation with your dad. Don’t you worry, any school would be lucky to have you. Remember my words tonight, okay? And I just want to say that it’s not an easy process, but it all works out in the end.” I dropped the folded note into the dad’s hand and walked out.
I picked up my friend to drive to the country, and she said, “You absolutely did the right thing! Of course you did. I remember when I told my college advisor in high school where I wanted to go, and she said, ‘You will never get in there. What SUNY schools are you applying to?’ I got into all the schools I applied to. I was almost a straight-A student. Class president tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade. Cheerleader. Horseback rider at a national level. But I still remember her words.”
Of course she remembers her words. We mark our lives by the terrible things that happen. After my mom died. After 911. We have the voices in our heads that create doubt, and we tend to discount the voices that might raise us to higher levels. Note to self: Listen only to those voices that raise me up.
The story has a happy ending. John, the father, called later that night. We had a lovely conversation. I sent him an article I’d written about the application process. I sent him some phone numbers: Sarah’s math teacher in middle school, and her SAT tutor in high school. I am glad I stuck my nose into someone else’s business that day. There, I said it.