I first met Sophie just after her mid-course exams. She's failed miserably, and needed my help as a tutor to improve and get the grades she needed for a place at university. But I never dreamed she'd repay my hard work the way that she did.
This is a much improved version of the story posted previously to ASSM as 'The Maths Tutor'
* * * * *
I met Sophie shortly after her mid-course exams. Her parents contacted the tutoring agency. The agency then contacted me. I followed my normal routine and arranged an initial meeting to assess her needs. Sophie, her parents and I sat around the dinning table at her home drinking tea while I evaluated her class notes.
"There are several Oxbridge candidates in her mathematics class," Sophie's mother told me. "The class teacher has left her behind rather than hold back the others."
"Clearly, that's unacceptable," said her father. "I know one or two of the school governors and I've persuaded them to help fund these extra classes. They don't make a habit of this of course." He tapped the side of his nose and gave me a knowing look.
Her parents did all the talking. Sophie sat opposite me looking overwhelmed. Her dark hair was high on the back of her head in a ponytail. Her green eyes, while bright and alive, looked down at the table.
"What do you think, Sophie?" I asked.
She looked up. Her eyes sparkled, and the way she looked at me sent shivers down my spine. If she hadn't already, this girl would break many a young man's heart.
"I don't know. I suppose Mummy and Daddy want the best for me. I know I'm not as good as the others, but I can do better than I am now."
"And you think if I help you, you'll get better?"
She shrugged. "Suppose so."
We settled on two hour-long sessions per week, with a review after three months. Sophie had just turned seventeen. I was twenty-five, teaching at a local high school, and living alone. Tutoring was a side job. Sophie's parents thought that the age difference was a 'good thing.' I was young enough for Sophie to relate to, but old enough to give her good advice.
I got up to leave. Sophie stood too and saw me to the door. It was all I could do not to stare as she walked in front of me. She had the sleek, toned body of an athlete, but with curves that could reduce a grown man to tears. She wore tight leggings and a hooded sports top, which did little to hide her body.
"I'll see you at the weekend then, Sophie."
She smiled. "I'll look forward to it."
In educational terms, the first session was a disaster. Sophie was at the age I would have expected her to take responsibility for her own learning. I wanted her to recognise her weaknesses so we could work on them. She should have dictated the program we followed.
But her experience at the hands of an over-zealous class teacher focused on his brightest and best had left her confidence battered and bruised. She struggled with even the simplest of problems, and became more frustrated with herself as the hour wore on.
"This is pointless!" She threw her pen on the table. It bounced and rolled onto the floor. "I'm less than useless at this. I'm wasting my time and yours."
"You can stop that kind of talk, right now." I used my teacher voice to get her attention, and then continued in a softer tone. "You're not useless, Sophie. Just under-confident. All you need is some encouragement and a little push in the right direction every now and then."
"Easy for you to say, you've got brains and the certificates to prove it. What do I have? A bunch of 'F's, that's what. I'm just no good at this. We may as well give up."
"Rubbish. First off, you've got plenty upstairs. I've seen enough today to know that. Once you realised you knew how to deal with a problem, you rattled through it. Second, you've committed to these sessions for at least three months; you have to see them through if for no other reason than your parents have already paid for the time up front. I'll be annoyed if I have to give you a refund. I had plans for that money."
"Really? What plans?"
"Never you mind."
She pulled a miserable face. "Well, I hope it's something really nice you're going to buy with my suffering."
"Humph!" She folded her arms, inadvertently pushing her chest up and out. She had on a tight, low-cut, summer T-shirt. It suited her.
"I tell you what," I said, trying not to stare at her chest. "By Wednesday's session, I'll draw up a program that'll cover the basics of the course. Give you a solid platform to work from. Then after that, we'll see where we go next."
She nodded in agreement, and we brought the session to a close. She saw me to the door, and again I had trouble not staring at her body.
I devised a program designed to do two things. I wanted to ensure she could do the simple things well and to build up her confidence. She had the ability - that much was clear. What she didn't have was belief.
It worked. After three months, Sophie's confidence had grown. She was back at the level she should have been when I first took her on. I arranged for her to re-sit the exam that had prompted the extra lessons. Her mother sat with her to ensure she didn't cheat, then delivered the paper to me for marking. By the next session, I had her result.
"Sixty-five percent still isn't great, is it James?"
"It'll do, for now. Take a good look at it. Notice anything?"
Sophie looked through her paper, shaking her head.
"Look at the ones you got right, or rather the ones you got wrong. Notice anything now?"
"Everything we've covered so far, you got right. Well, near enough everything. Enough to call it a pass, at least. Most of what you got wrong, we haven't touched yet."
The sessions were working. Sophie and her parents agreed to retain my services right up to the final exam. Her confidence wasn't quite soaring, but it was better than before. And while she was still behind the others in her class, she wasn't falling any further behind.
Over the next couple of months, Sophie made some rapid progress. Her test scores at school improved, and she needed less prompting from me. She also took charge of her own program. She was starting to realise where we needed to focus our efforts. Every day that we were due to meet, she would ring me an hour or two beforehand and tell me what she wanted to work on, giving me just enough time to find the right books and papers.
The arrangement was a hassle for me – one that could have been eased if Sophie had been more organised. But the problem was resolved in a way I didn't expect. She'd been distracted throughout one of our sessions at the end of October. When we finished, she said there was something she wanted to show me.
"In the garage. Come on!"
Sitting in the garage was a brand new Renault Clio.
"What d'you think? Daddy got it for me." Her smile was the width of her face. Her emerald eyes always sparkled, but now even more so.
"I didn't know you could drive."
"I passed my test on Monday. This is my reward. Isn't it great?" She was quite literally bouncing with excitement, at least, bits of her were.
"It's very nice. What size engine does it have?"
"I don't know. I don't care either. Come on, get in."
It was an expensive model - chock full of the sort of toys I would have loved. "Is this a satellite navigation system?"
She smiled again and nodded. "Daddy says it's so I can always find my way home."
"Well, all I can say is, you're a very lucky girl. I wish my parents could have brought me something like this when I passed my test. All I got was a clapped out Ford Fiesta."
"James, you still have a clapped out Ford Fiesta."
"So? I grew quite fond of it."
She giggled, something she did a lot when she wasn't hard at work.
"James, I've been thinking – this car could make life easier for you. For both of us, really."
I was confused. "I know it'll make your life easier, but how will it help me?"
"Well, you always seem to forget to bring something or other with you. And, I was thinking. What if I came to your house instead?" She turned on her sweet smile. It was probably the smile that secured the car. If I had trouble not giving in to her when she smiled this way, what chance did her own father have?
"I'm not sure, Sophie. The nights are drawing in and the weather's getting bad. You're an inexperienced driver; it could be dangerous." I don't know why but I wasn't entirely comfortable with her coming to my house.
"But we'd have all the materials available. That's got to be better for my studies. Hasn't it?"
"That's true. I suppose. But I'm not sure your mother would think it is a good idea." I was running out of reasons to stop her.
"I can persuade Mummy. It's you I need to convince. And I have the perfect way. If you don't let me come to your house from now on, you won't get this." She held out my payment.
"That's blackmail, Sophie."
"It is. What're you going to do about it? Report me?"
"There's not much I can do, is there? I guess we'll meet at my place from now on. Here, I'll give you the address."
Sophie was due at my house at three on Sunday. I normally slept in on Sundays, but I got up early and went over the house like it was springtime. I vacuumed everywhere, and tidied up the spare bedroom, which I used as my office. I even did the previous night's dishes and then got a take-away for lunch so there weren't any more to do. She pulled up on my driveway a little before three. Early.
"Hi, James," she said as I opened the door. "I got us some Coke and chocolate on the way here. Mummy was around to make sure we had refreshments at my house, but I wasn't sure that you would have anything."
"Coke and chocolate is all that is in my fridge sometimes."
"Oh. Never mind. Look, I've got a test on Wednesday on elastic collisions, so can we concentrate on that."
"Sure. I normally work at the desk in the back bedroom; top of the stairs, on the left. Go and find a spot, and get my Nelson, Longman and Wall book off the shelf. I'll get us some glasses and ice for that Coke."
It was a very good lesson. Sophie seemed less distracted, and she picked up the techniques for the questions quickly.
That went on for several weeks. Wednesday evenings and Sunday afternoons, Sophie would pull up outside my house with chocolate and Coke, and we would get through plenty of work. One particular Wednesday, just as we were finishing the lesson, she had something to say.
"I really appreciate all your help and everything. I don't think I would be able to get through this exam without you."
"I wish there was some way I could repay you."
"You do that at the end of every lesson, with money."
"Yeah, but ..."
"No buts, Sophie. You pay me to do a job, and I do it. It's that simple. If you really want to repay me then you'll get the grade you are capable of in the summer. One of the reasons I do this job is to see people I've helped succeed"
"My grades will probably be better because of you. And not just maths. You've taught me how to look at what I know and don't know, and then learn from it. You know that, don't you?"
"Yes. And knowing that will be thanks enough."
"You went to university, didn't you James?"
"Yes. Why'd you ask?"
"We have to get our applications in soon. I'm still not entirely sure I want to go."
"D'you want me to be honest?"
"You'd be a fool not to. I had a wonderful time. I know things are even harder now than when I went, but I'm sure your parents would look after you financially."
"Daddy said that." She looked down, as if ashamed of her family's wealth. "He even said that I needn't get a loan."
"So go for it. It'll be a shame to have worked so hard and then miss out on an experience like that."
"Where did you go?" She looked up and leaned towards me.
"So you moved away from home?"
"Yeah. You feel less guilty about staying out until three and four in the morning if your mother's in another city."
"Daddy wants me to stay local."
"What do you want?"
She sat back in her chair and shrugged. "Dunno."
"Sophie, my cousin gave me the best advice when I was making up my mind. Want to hear it?"
"Listen to everyone. To your parents, friends and teachers. Then ignore them and do exactly what you want to do."
She smiled. "Thanks, James."
It seemed to me that Sophie saw me as a big brother, or at least a big brother's best friend. After she asked me about university, she started to confide in me more. I heard all the gossip from school, and I always knew who fancied who. She even told me about parties that her friends were having, and hinted that I might want to go. I never did. I didn't think it was right, and besides, a group of teenagers wouldn't want some mid-twenties teacher type hanging around.
I cared a great deal about Sophie. I wanted her to get into university, and to get into a good one. She was a sweet girl and deserved the very best.
We took a break from lessons for Christmas and the New Year celebrations, but started up again in early January. We still had the sessions at my house; the arrangement had become too convenient to change. She arrived, as always, a few minutes early, and thrust a bottle of Coke into my hand when I greeted her at the door.
"What are we working on today?" I asked.
"Oh, surprise me. Pick me some hard ones, and let me get on with them. Let's see how I do."
"Sure. Do you want to get the glasses while I go and find something?"
She met me upstairs with two full glasses of Coke and a plate of biscuits. The cheeky thing had raided my larder. I didn't have very much to do that session; she wanted to test herself. She worked hard and, after I had marked her work, she had done better than either of us expected.
"What's gotten into you?" I asked.
"I've got some motivation."
I didn't say anything.
"I've been offered places at all the universities I applied to."
"That's excellent news, Sophie. Any thoughts on which one you might take up?"
"Daddy wants me to go to Leicester, because it's closest, but I quite fancy Cardiff. I've always had a soft spot for that Welsh accent."
"Well, you know what I think you should do."
I nodded. "Cardiff."
Sophie's eighteenth birthday fell on a Wednesday. I expected her to cancel our lesson, but when she hadn't by bedtime on Tuesday, I thought I should get her a present. I tracked down a bottle of eighteen year old Bordeaux, and bought a small locket on a chain. I presented them to her after our lesson.
"James, you shouldn't have. This wine must have set you back a fair bit."
"My uncle bought me a bottle from my birth year when I turned twenty-one. I've still got it. It struck me as a unique sort of present."
She picked up the second present. "And what's this? Oh, James. It's lovely, thank you."
"It's for luck. When I went into my exams, I always wore a St. Christopher that my aunt bought me. I thought this might be your lucky exam charm."
"Thank you." She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek.
"Actually, James, I have something for you." She gave me two envelopes.
"Open this one first," she said, pointing to the larger of the two. It was a party invitation for that Friday night.
"Mummy insists on throwing me a birthday party. It will probably be ghastly with all my family there, but she would like you to come. She wants to thank you herself for helping me."
"Okay, I'll be there. What's in this one?" I opened the other envelope.
"The Dome nightclub in town sent free tickets and vouchers for Champagne to the school. It's for a post-exams party."
"I don't know, Sophie."
"I'm not taking no for an answer. Not this time."
"OK, whatever you say. I guess I'll have to show you kids how it's really done."
"I'm counting on it."
I spent most of the birthday party with Sophie's parents. They insisted on buying me drink after drink as thanks for my work with Sophie.
"You've done a marvellous job, James. Truly marvellous. I can barely recognise the girl; she is so much more confident. Here, let me get you another whisky," her father said. We were at the bar and he was telling his neighbours about me.
"Really, Mr Harris, I couldn't."
"Nonsense, it's the least I can do. Barman!"
Her mother was the same. At one point, when she had cornered me at a table, I felt as if she was showing me off to her friends. I didn't get to speak to Sophie at all because she spent all of her time with her friends and younger relatives. Around half past ten, I made my excuses and collected my coat. Before I left, Sophie came to say good-bye.
She gave me a small hug and peck on the cheek. "Thanks for coming. It must have been awful spending all night with my parents."
"It wasn't that bad. At least I didn't have to buy any drinks."
"See you tomorrow?"
"If I'm not too hungover."
A few weeks before the exams, Sophie stepped up her lessons to three a week. We spent a lot of time doing past exams papers, working out what to expect. By the eve of the first exam, I was convinced that Sophie was as prepared as she could possibly be. She, on the other hand, wasn't quite so sure.
"I'm nervous as hell," she told me before she left my house.
"That's perfectly normal."
"But it's not very good for me, is it?"
"Yes, it is. I'd be more worried if you weren't nervous. Being nervous will get the adrenaline pumping, and that will keep you alert and on top of your game."
"If you say so."
"I do say so. Now remember what I've told you. The exam is three hours long, that's one hundred and eighty minutes. With a hundred marks on the paper, that's over a minute and a half per mark. Take ten minutes at the start to read through the paper, mark the questions you know you can do, and then do those first. The confidence will help you with the ones you find more difficult."
"I'm not looking forward to this."
"No one does. But you are ready. You'll do well."
"I'd better go and get a good night's sleep."
"Good idea. Best of luck."
"Harry, it's me."
"James, you prick. Do you have any idea what time it is?"
"Exactly. What d'you get me out of bed for anyway?"
"Are you busy tonight?"
"I'm going to The Dome with some mates. Why?"
"I thought you might be. It just so happens that I've got a couple of free tickets."
"Free tickets? How?"
"This girl I tutored gave them to me. They're having a post-exams party there. One of them is yours. If you can stand being seen out with your nerdy older brother."
"You? At a night club? Dancing and everything? That is something I've got to see."
"But I need to ask a favour first."
Harry met me in town two hours later. Whenever people found out we were brothers they had trouble believing it – we couldn't have been more different. I was the nerdy one – studious, serious. He was Mr. Cool – good at football, always up for a laugh. He was the blonde haired, blue eyed boy; I had an uncontrollable mousey mop and muddy brown eyes. Even our careers had taken a different path; I was a teacher, he was a car-mechanic.
"You really mean you don't have any going-out clothes?" Somehow his face managed to show his surprise, amusement, pity and disgust all at the same time.
"H, my wardrobe got nothing in it but white shirts and grey suits."
"Are you sure you're my brother? There wasn't a mix-up at the hospital?"
He took me to his favourite shops and we gave my credit card a bashing. He'd only agreed to help me dress right for the club if I brought him a new outfit too. He insisted I buy him dinner that evening as well. We agreed to meet at my local at seven.
Later that evening, after showering, shaving and cleaning parts of my body that never normally got cleaned, I got dressed and admired the result in the mirror. I looked pretty sharp; my brother had good taste. I walked to the pub, where Harry was already standing at the bar with a half empty glass in front of him.