TUTORING MOHAMMAD MOHAMMAD
After a few homework sessions I see
his most important questions
come when the textbooks are closed,
for he is the English-speaking prism
through which the rest of his family
experiences this newness, this America.
So he looks to me for social answers,
like, did Bill Gates really drop out of Harvard?
He wants to know what Hari Krishnas do.
And on this particular Tuesday afternoon
he asks, as though a friend is in trouble,
“Mr. Rupert, is it true Lil’ Wayne’s in jail?”
I respond with the full truth which, of course,
brings his next question, “What’s Rikers?”
And it’s somewhere during my description
of that bleak prison out in the East River
surrounded by New York City yet apart from it,
this is when the Head-Tutor-Woman’s at our back,
wanting to know what we’re discussing
at such length with the textbook closed.
And even though I try to give Mohammad
the universal let’s-keep-a-secret look,
the Ix-nay on Ill–ayne-way, the boy replies
with the most charming guileless lilt,
“Lil’ Wayne’s on Rikers. Mr. Rupert told me,”
yet this pleases me because it shows
he understood that Rikers is an island.
But the Head Tutor Woman is not pleased.
She’s giving me the look that conveys we’ll soon
be having a discussion about this,
the look that suggests she’ll soon be
reviewing my background-check file.
So okay, okay, we open his Psychology book
that dulls the boy’s eyes like silver polish
left on too long, and as we turn its pages
he sticks his arm out, wham, a human bookmark
on this picture he showed his mother last night.
It’s that famous photograph of Konrad Lorenz,
the German behaviorist, swimming in a lake,
a line of six ducklings right behind him –
Imprinting – these newly hatched ducks
think the swimming man is their mother,
the case for nurture in Nature v Nurture.
Mohammad looks to me, “Is that man still alive?”
And in this still moment it no longer
matters how disparate our worlds are –
our dreams are common – we both want to be
the swimming man in that picture,
we want small animals to love us hard, unconditionally.
And even though I’ve been told not to,
I open my laptop, “We’ll Google him and see.”
“Yes,” Mohammad says. “Google.”
Ah, he died in 1989, but poor Konrad Lorenz,
what a life he led, a medic drafted by the Nazis
then captured by the Russians, four years in Siberia.
“Why the Russians?” Mohammad asks.
The boy, it turns out, does not know
who was on whose side during World War II,
so we have to discuss that, we have to discuss
how the swimming man with the ducklings,
oh, how he must have suffered in those prisons.
“Like Rikers?” Mohammad asks.
“Yes!” I nod, give a thumbs-up. “Yes, like Rikers!”
“Hitler,” the boy repeats after I say the name.
“He had the crazy hair, and stuck his tongue out?”
“No, no! That was Einstein. Hitler had the moustache,
but Einstein was a Jew, afraid of Hitler
so he escaped to America, taught at Princeton.”
The boy tries to take it all in, so much information.
I see this could go on forever – Eisenhower, the ‘50s,
Cold War, Hula Hoops, Civil Rights,
Dr. King, Elvis, the Infield Fly Rule!
“But Einstein made the bomb.” Mohammad says.
“Well, I think that was more Robert Oppenheimer.”
I spell the name as Mohammad taps the keys
then hits Images faster than I thought possible,
what brings up a schematic diagram,
lines, numbers, colorful equations filling the screen,
a picture of a centrifuge, which is when
the Head-Tutor-Woman is again at our back,
“What are you showing him? What are you showing him?”
And then she’s acting like I’ve done a really bad thing,
she’s acting like it’s some kind of huge deal
to show Mohammad Mohammad
detailed instructions for building a nuclear weapon.
And this, as it turns out, is the last day
in my short history as a tutor.