Wednesdays are 826 Valencia days, and that puts me in a good mood. 826 is named for the address of the tutoring center, and it has a pirate store in the front of it. At the pirate store you can buy anything from eye patches to spyglasses to lard to a map of Davey Jones’ Locker. Also, if you stand in the wrong place, you get ‘mopped.’ This means: there’s a box on the ceiling, and there are about a dozen stringy mop heads in there. If you stand under the box, the person behind the counter pulls a string, a trap door swings open, and all the mop heads fall on top of you. This tends to scare the heck out of some people.

I go in through the pirate store, and then back to the tutoring center. It’s a long room, about the size of a basketball court. There are five or six long tables and about forty wooden chairs. There’s a dry-erase board, where your name goes if you’re a tutor, and the names of your kids go under your name.

It’s about 2:30pm, and the place is filled with kids. They’re age seven to age fourteen. They’re working on homework or reading. The writer Jenny Traig is there, and she’s in charge of the room today. She’s knitting a sweater for a friend of hers. I sit down next to her.

“It’s Tom Kealey,” she says. People tend to call me by my full name. I’m not sure why this is.

“What’s up?” I say.

“You don’t even want to know,” says Jenny.

“I do want to know,” I say.

But before I can get a response, Jory John comes out from the back office. Jory is in charge of drop-in tutoring at 826. He’s the most enthusiastic person I’ve ever met. He sees me and says, “It’s Tom Kealey.”

“It is Tom Kealey,” says Jenny, even though she just said this ten seconds ago.

“I can’t believe it’s Tom Kealey,” says Jory.

“I can’t believe it either,” says Jenny. “Tom Kealey, right here.”

“I’m always here,” I say. “I’m here every Wednesday.”

“That’s what makes you Tom Kealey,” says Jory.

“I agree,” says Jenny. “That’s what Tom Kealey does.”

I’m not sure if I’m being celebrated or mocked here. With these two, I wouldn’t put either past them. “Could you stop that please?” I say.

So, here’s how 826 works. Or rather, this is how I work at 826. This is what happens on this particular day:

I sit down. I get matched with a kid. Sometimes two. Sometimes three. Today we’re short-staffed, so it’s three. They’re usually a little shy, and when I ask them their names, they mumble into their shirts. I’m not much of a natural with kids. I’m the youngest person in my family. I rarely had to deal with anyone younger than me. But I’m stubborn, too. I keep at things. We open up their homework. It’s usually math homework, which came as a shock to me when I first started tutoring here. Math takes me a little longer.

So, it’ll be a math word problem. A Tyrannosaurus Rex has eighty-eight teeth. There’s a photograph of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. I draw a little dialogue bubble coming out of his mouth. I turn to one of the kids. “What do you want him to say?”

He thinks about that. “Boo-ya.”

So okay, I write “Boo-ya” in the dialogue bubble. Then I remember one of the 826 rules. The tutor doesn’t use the pencil, the kids use the pencil. This keeps you from doing their homework for them. I put the pencil down.

Okay. A Tyrannosaurus Rex has eighty-eight teeth. If there are five Tyrannosaurus Rexes, and they have 410 teeth total, then how many teeth, on average, is each Tyrannosaurus Rex missing? Please include your calculations next to your answer.

We read that out loud. Then we read it again. I know how to solve this, but I’m not sure yet how I’ll explain it.

“What’s your name again?” says one kid.

“It’s Tom,” I say.

“My name’s not under your name on the board.”

“Mine isn’t either,” says another kid. There are actually four kids now. Where did that fourth kid come from?

I get their names. I get the marker from Jenny Traig. She’s a little hesitant to give it up. She who yields the marker yields the power at 826. She hands it over, though. I write my name on the board. Then I write their names: Marcus, Emily, Juan, and Samantha.

But when I get back to the table, Samantha is gone. I look around. She’s over at another table now. That’s okay with me, I’ve got enough to worry about.

But Marcus, Emily, Juan: they’re into this now. Writing their names on the board is important to them. They lean in a little closer.

“Okay, how do you solve this?” I say. This is known as the Socratic method. This is the method used by both the best and the worst teachers in the history of the world. You ask the student the question, and they answer it for you.

The kids look at me. “You tell us,” says Juan. “How are we supposed to know?”

“Well, I don’t know,” I say. I’m hoping they’ll step up now.

They look at each other. Emily says, “Can we have a different tutor?”

Oh man. The ship is sinking. Time to take some serious action.

I draw a big Tyrannosaurus Rex mouth. “How many teeth is he supposed to have?”

“Eighty-eight,” says Emily.

I start drawing teeth. I’m not supposed to be using the pencil, but right now that’s not tops on my list of problems. We count them out as I draw them. They count them out with me. This is a small victory. When I get to twenty-two, I hand the pencil to Marcus. He draws twenty-two of them. Then Emily draws twenty-two. Not that this is going to help us with the problem, but at least I’m teaching them that eighty-eight divided by four is twenty-two. They seem to get that. Another small victory, but I’ll take it. Juan draws the last twenty-two. We haven’t left much room for the last twenty-two, so the Tyrannosaurus Rex has a serious teeth-crowding problem in his lower left jaw.

“He needs a name,” says Emily.

Of course he does. I should’ve done that to begin with. Always name the dinosaur first. I make a mental note. I ask them what his name is. They argue for a little while, then they settle on “Toady.”

“Okay,” I say. “Toady has eighty-eight teeth, but he’s actually got fewer than that, but don’t worry about that just yet, okay?”

They look at me. They’re already worrying about it.


“There’s five T-rexes total,” I say. “Toady and four of his friends.” We get another sheet of paper and draw out five T-rexes. I draw one and they each draw one, and Marcus draws another. He’s a good drawer. His two actually look like Tyrannosaurus Rexes. The other three look sort of like horses sitting on their back legs.

All right, we’re to the problem now. I’ve been buying time, trying to figure out how I’m going to teach this. I’m a little at a loss. Emily points to the four other T-rexes. “They have to have names too.”

Fine. We each name one. We each write their names next to the dinosaurs/horses. One thing is happening here: I have their complete attention, which is no small thing. There’s a lot of activity going on around us. Someone spills their water at the next table. Someone knocks over a chair. But these three kids, they’re all about the T-rexes. The names we come up with are Briana, Ronaldo, Super Killer, and Anton.

“That’s my dad’s name,” says Emily.

“That’s a great name,” I say. “Is he a dinosaur?”

She looks at me. “No.” “Are you sure? You should ask him.”

She thinks this over. She’s thinking very seriously on it. “I don’t think so,” she says. “But I’ll ask him if you want.”

Okay, down to business. Do they know how to multiply eighty-eight by five? No, they do not. Do they know how to multiply eight times five? Yes, they do. Okay, we’re off and running. We multiply five times eight, then we carry the four over the other eight, and we multiply it again. They do know how to do this. I must’ve asked it in a stupid way. We come up with 440.

“That’s how many they’re supposed to have,” I say.

“But they’ve only got 410,” says Juan.

Great. We’re on it now. We’re rolling.

“But, how did they lose their teeth?” says Emily.

Sigh. What I should say is: They just did. That’s what another tutor would say, but I tend to answer every question. This is a real problem. I look up at the clock. We’ve got five pages of problems to do. At this point, we might be done around midnight.

“You tell me,” I say.

They talk about that for a while. They come up with all sorts of ideas, but they can’t settle on anything. This is a real problem with democracy. It tends to move a little slow.

“What if they had cavities?” I say. “Maybe the dentist had to yank them out.” I make an imaginary wrench and pretend to yank one of my teeth out.

Juan doesn’t like this. “They didn’t have dentists back then,” he says. He says this in a helpful way, as if he’s teaching me something.

They finally decide that the T-rexes got into a fight. Then we’ve got to decide what they got into a fight with. This happens, thankfully, pretty quickly: another dinosaur.

“What kind of dinosaur?” I say.

They look at me. “Who cares?” they say.

So, fine. Emily writes down 440. Then Marcus writes down 410. They do the subtraction. Thirty. I can actually see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“So they lost thirty teeth, right?” I say. “And if there are five dinosaurs, how do we figure out how many they each lost?”

“Division,” says Marcus.

Thank God. We draw out the division. Thirty divided by five. We’re almost there.

“Wait a minute,” says Emily. We look at her. “How did they each lose the same amount of teeth?”

I consider this. “I don’t know,” I say. “I guess they just did?”

I phrase this in the form of a question. She thinks on that. “Okay.” We come up with six. They write it in their workbooks.

Actually, Marcus and Emily write it in their notebooks. Juan just sits there.

“Are you okay?” I say.

“I’m okay,” he says. “Are you okay?”

“Where’s your book?” I say.

“I’m not in their class,” he says. “I don’t even go to their school.” As it turns out, he’s already done his homework. He just likes math problems. So, we keep working. These kids are smart. The next problem is about a train with fifty-four passengers. It makes three stops, and then there are eighty passengers. If the same amount of passengers got on at each stop, how many got on?

Somehow, miraculously, we don’t have to draw the trains. The kids figure out the addition, then the division. We move on down the page. There are questions about lollipop factories, ice cream cones, and apple seeds and trees. They get it. I say, “That’s right. That’s right too. Okay, that one’s not right. Try it again. Good. You’re doing great.”

This is mostly what you do at 826 Valencia. You pay attention to them. You cheer them on. You offer a little guidance. Mostly, you’re there, and that goes a long way. Even if you’re not particularly good with this age group (like, say, me), if you’re patient and a little stubborn, you can make a difference, even in a small way. And to be honest, that’s what I like most about these Wednesdays. I learn I can have some power, in a positive way, over other people’s lives, and that makes me think I can have some power over my own life, too.

We work till five. We finish up, with a little time to spare. They ask if they can play games on the computers. I’m not sure if they’re supposed to do this or not, but I’m really wiped out. “Whatever you want,” I say.

A half hour later, parents start to come in. They pick up their kids. I help clean up the scrap paper, the plastic cups, the candy wrappers, the overturned chairs. Emily comes up to me. She’s got our paper with the dinosaurs on it. “Are you going to be here tomorrow?” she says.

“No. I’ve got my job tomorrow. But I’ll be back next Wednesday.”

She put her things in her bag. “Okay,” she says, then she’s out the door with her mom.

It’s almost emptied out now. But there’s Arturo in the corner. Arturo is one of the first students I ever worked with. He’s working on his comic book. Arturo is ten. The comic book is called The Unknown Ninja. He’s been working on it for months. The Unknown Ninja has an arch enemy. His name is The Known Ninja.

I go over there. “Hey Tom,” he says.

“What’s up?” I say.

I sit down and look at what he’s drawing. The Unknown Ninja has hit a time warp, and has to battle a group of people called The Apostles of Anarchy. They have antennas coming out of their heads. The Unknown Ninja is having a tough time of it today. He just got kicked through one side of a moon base and out the other side. I feel a little special actually. Arturo doesn’t show this to everyone.

I look down at the page. “Man, how’s he going to get out of this one?”

Arturo stops drawing. He looks at me. “You always worry too much,” he says. Then he goes back to his drawing. After a little while, he hands me a gray marker. “You can color in those asteroids if you want,” he says.

I sit down. I color them in. I’m thrilled. It’s probably a reflection of the current state of my life, but this is the most fun I’ve had all week. I color them in. I try to stay within the lines.


This story appeared previously in the 826 Valencia Quarterly.

826 Valencia is a San Francisco institution, dedicated to supporting students ages 6-18 with their writing skills, and to helping teachers get their students excited about the literary arts.

Rumpus original art by Sara Sisun.


Tom Kealey’s short story collection Thieves I’ve Known won the Flannery O’Connor Award, and was released in September 2013. He teaches creative writing at Stanford University. More at tom-kealey.com. More from this author →