An Educator Becomes the Educated

Helping my 12-year-old son with his homework is often like shoveling water uphill: I soon grow weary and find myself awash in frustration.

I think it's that Alyosha has a hard time seeing me as anything other than a parent and is impatient with my attempts to play a pedagogical role. If I should - gulp - question one of his teacher's assignments for the sake of my own understanding, he's liable to shake his head in annoyance that I "just don't understand."

As a result, homework can consume an entire evening, and I sometimes wonder if I am the cause of it, simply because I've forgotten what it's like to be a student.

Recently, however, a change of events has thrown me into the role of being my son's student. It has to do with a knowledge he possesses and of which I am all but devoid.

My son arrived from a Russian orphanage a little more than four years ago. In the interim, I have maintained a string of tutors - native speakers - to assist him in retaining his mother tongue. He has not always gone to his Russian lessons with alacrity, but he recognizes the importance of not letting the language slip away. And so he has persisted in his reading, writing, and translating, developing a habit that he has come to accept as part of his life.

Perhaps not realizing what I was up against, I recently decided to begin Russian lessons myself. One evening a week, I walk to the home of a grandmotherly woman who is a native speaker as well as a professional teacher. The first few lessons went well, and I was surprised how quickly I was able to translate the Cyrillic alphabet into useful sounds.

But within a month I was mired in a language whose grammar is measured in pounds and which uses endless sentences to express the most succinct ideas. To hear it spoken by a native is to witness breathlessness. Perhaps the Russian Bible reads, "In the beginning was the Paragraph."

In time I found that I was getting further and further behind in my homework as I struggled to acquire new vocabulary and a strange syntax. My son observed my intense study sessions with a cool detachment. Every so often I'd look up at him, knowing that the knowledge I needed was tucked neatly away in his little head. And so, swallowing my pride, I asked for his help.

Alyosha came right over to me and put his hand on my shoulder. "Don't worry," he said, "I'll be your teacher."

At that point, I discovered a side of my son that was a revelation to me. Patiently and deliberately, he escorted me through the lessons in my primer. One of the hardest tasks was getting Russian pronunciation right. My mouth muscles seemed too set in their ways, and I had a tremendous time making sounds that have no equivalent in English.

He was adept at reassuring me. "Watch me," he'd admonish with the gravity and soupon of weariness normally associated with professors emeriti. I'd watch as he exaggerated the sound I was after, projecting it as effortlessly as a, well, as effortlessly as the native speaker he is. On those occasions when I still couldn't come close, he'd take hold of my face and literally mold my mouth into the correct configuration. "Now say it," he'd command.

With his hands still clutching my face, I'd once again attempt the sound, and, by gum, I'd usually succeed. Of course, once released from his sculptor's grip, I'd revert to my errors of tongue, watching abashedly as my son shook his head in disappointment, the look on his face saying, "What am I going to do with you?"

What indeed. I have been under my son's tutelage for several weeks now, and despite his occasional frustration with the thick-headed student his father has turned out to be, he has stuck with me through it all. Last week he even accompanied me to my lesson with Mrs. Markowsky, like a parent visiting his child's school to verify the quality of the instruction.

DURING that session I was attempting to pronounce a list of words ending in what is known as the Russian "hard L." This requires one to half-swallow an imaginary potato and then speak around the obstruction. I just couldn't seem to get it, despite the pressures brought to bear by the formidable Mrs. Markowsky, master of no less than five languages. Finally, I looked to Alyosha, sitting across from me in an overstuffed chair, who urged me on with a nod of his head and a squint of his eyes. And then he spoke up. "You can do it, Dad," he encouraged.

Tapping into his confidence, I did eventually do it. After the lesson we walked home together. I was experiencing a modicum of pride in my accomplishment, but beyond this I was filled with the warmth of feeling that I was not letting my son, my teacher, down.

It's not easy being a student. The task of having to constantly meet other people's deadlines and standards is daunting enough, but the drive to please the parent can rule a pupil's life.

If I can master the Russian hard L, then I'm sure I can keep this small truth in mind.

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