Indirect Object (Part One) by Susan McCarty
The ACT tutor selects a binder from the shelf. On the spine of the binder is his student’s name: Mackenzie H. Currently, there are three Mackenzies attending the tutoring center, the others being Mackenzies S and G. What can account for the popularity of the name? He can only think of Spuds Mackenzie, the beer dog from the eighties. Surely this is not the Mackenzie fountainhead. It’s an ugly name—unlyrical, masculine, ahistorical. Later, if he remembers, he will Google it.
In the front of Mackenzie’s binder is the subject and the book chapter he’s assigned to teach her today: Reading 2. This is their fifth meeting. He’s also teaching her English and Science, although “teach” is maybe not the right word. He reads to his students from the book that the for-profit testing center he works for has developed, though “reads” is not the right word either because the tutor goes to pains to disguise the fact that he’s reading the book aloud. What he does is he speaks aloud the things the center wants his students to know about taking the ACT. He does this while looking at the side of his students’ slack and zitty faces. The things he says are his own words but the ideas are borrowed. The sessions vacillate between speaking (the tutor) and taking timed practice tests (the students).
Sometimes, the tutor asks a student a question:
“What’s the main idea of this passage?”
“Like, there’s…um, there’s the independent…the Declaration of Independence and it…”
This is one kind of silence. The tutor is intimately acquainted with it by now.
“What about it?”
“Um, it’s the Declaration of Independence so it’s about independence and how it’s declared for our freedom.”
“Well…okay, the passage is about the Declaration of Independence but in what way?”
“Like for our freedom in the revolutionary war?”
“No, that’s not…Look, in your own words, what’s the passage about?”
“The Declaration of Independence.”
“And…our freedom to have independence to be declared?”
“The passage is about how the Declaration of Independence was moved to a bunch of different locations and now it’s where?”
“That last paragraph?” He taps on the paper—tap tap tap—to crowd out the silence.
“Oh. Um. It’s. At the Nat—the National Archive.”
Chive, like the herb.
It’s not that the students are stupid. Well, maybe some of them are, but he can tell that a lot of them are quick from the way they stumble through the swamp of the language, the way they blindly string together words from the text, the way every sentence ends in a question mark because of the panicked question implicit with each answer: “Does what I’m saying even make sense?” He can tell they just don’t read, and because they don’t read, language does not illuminate for them: it befuddles. So far, not a single one he’s asked can remember the title of the last novel they read. He used to ask what they read for fun but got nowhere with that. Now he asks what they read for class, but it’s as if he’s asked them what they think of Wittgenstein’s truth function for all the blank looks they give him. Sometimes he wants to ask that instead. If he did, if he asked them, they would try to answer. They always try to answer. They don’t want to think about anything—in fact, he sometimes doubts their ability to think at all, these children of the internet—but they all, always, attempt to answer. For Wittgenstein, the opacity of language was a problem to be solved. The tutor had been writing his dissertation on Wittgenstein. An impossible task, his committee had warned him, given the time and funding available. Wittgenstein would have hated these children—probably would have hit them as he was wont to do in his day—but he might have understood their fear.
And why should these kids know how to think if no one has ever taught them? That is not his job. His job is to help them score an average of five points higher on the ACT so that they will be eligible to go to college where their academic, if not intellectual, handicaps will become someone else’s head-slapper.
Some version of this narrative unwinds itself in the tutor’s head every day he works, which is nearly every day except for Sunday when the center is closed because the franchise owner is an evangelical Christian, but today it feels as though the tutor’s resentment is really given the room to bloom and grow in his soul. His first client (the franchise owner does not like this word, but it is more honest than “student,” so the tutor thinks of them as clients, even if, at work, he refers to them aloud as students), Peter M., is a greasy, stooped boy, who makes a game of underenunciating his answers and then, when the tutor asks him to repeat himself, Peter rudely (it seems to the tutor) and loudly overenunciates, which gives the tutor the odd feeling of being embattled, but instead of arguing about anything, Peter is only, for instance, defining the scientific method, furiously and with the sibilance of a snake. By the end of their session, the tutor is fantasizing about smacking an expression onto Peter’s sacklike head. After Peter comes Mackenzie, in a pair of gold-sequined Uggs. The tutor makes a little hatch mark on the first page of her file. According to his count, this is the ninth different pair of Uggs she has worn to her sessions. When it had become clear several weeks ago that his student was wearing a different pair of puffy, aesthetically displeasing boots to each session he had with her, and coordinating her outfit based on each pair, he performed a cursory internet search, and from what he understands, Uggs (how strangely appropriate the name: that comic-book sound of disgust, that premier syllable which begged for its suffix, -ly) were very expensive. Even the knockoffs were nearly a hundred dollars. The tutor did not suppose he had bought a thousand dollars worth of shoes in his entire adult life. Certainly not since becoming a graduate student, ten years ago. Since the problem with his funding last year, he was, in fact, struggling a bit to buy meat, now that gas was on the rise again. He lived a half hour from the testing center when traffic was light.
And this was probably just a sampling of her entire shoe wardrobe. Surely she did not wear the things through the wilting Midwestern summers. Mackenzie slumped into the green plastic chair beside him. “Hi,” he said and one side of her face went up as if he’d just given her news about which she was highly skeptical.
“I didn’t do my homework. I was just too busy. It was like I had cheer tries and this city college scholarship thing I had to write a whole paper for, so I just didn’t get to read about the different kinds of passages or whatever.” She manages to sound accusatory, as if the tutor is to blame for this. He makes another tick mark on the first page of her file. They are never to castigate the students themselves. He would tell the center director, instead, who would tell the parents who could then choose to punish or not, since they were paying for the whole setup in the first place. The tutor makes his face a mask and does not give her the satisfaction of his own penal impotence. Penal impotence he thinks and coughs into his fist.
(End of part one. Check back tomorrow for part two!)
Susan McCarty‘s stories and essays have appeared in The Iowa Review, the Utne Reader, The Collagist, Conjunctions, Indiana Review, Willow Springs, and other journals. Once upon a time, she was an assistant editor at Penguin and Avalon Books. More recently, she’s been an administrative fellow for FC2, an artist-in-residence at VCCA, and a Steffensen-Cannon scholar. She has an MFA from Vermont College and a PhD from the University of Utah. She teaches creative writing at Salisbury University.