I was not enthusiastic about the day I had ahead of me. It had been six months since I had officially retired from teaching and in that time I had grown accustomed to not doing very much of anything. I was retired, after all. And, retirement was a time when all you had was time and no pressing matters to occupy it. At least not pressing work matters, and I had always found that other concerns were not really all that concerning.
Near the end, I had found the whole ordeal exhausting. It was impossible to attend to my daily duties without returning home with a stress induced headache that pounded on for hours and hours. People had assumed that this was because the students were “bad”, but that was almost never the case. Students, for the most part, are good. Even when they are in bad situations, they are not yet hardened against the world and so you can still reach that part of them that was meant to shine if you take the time to do so. Everyone can shine.
One thing I was forced to admit was that retirement could be profoundly boring. I had already fixed everything at home that had ever needed fixing. I had already installed the water feature in the backyard. I had already taken in countless afternoon soccer matches and attended friendly lunches in all the local spots. I had done puzzles and binge watched just about everything I could stream.
So it was that when I received the call from a neighbor inquiring if I might consider tutoring, I considered it. That’s how I ended up here. Unfortunately, the details of their challenges were all too common. Single parent home, working multiple jobs, long stretches of time spent alone, failing to perform up to his potential and more than a little bit of a handful.
Although I was retired, I could hardly be considered an old man. So it was that when I readied myself for the day I had chosen a pair of jeans, a loose fitting t-shirt, and my favorite pair of sneakers. I threw my tablet into my backpack with the charger, threw in a few mechanical pencils and my notebook, added a few snacks to the mix and clipped my water bottle to the outside.
I called a brief farewell to my wife, who had been getting ready for the job from which she refused to retire. She loved working. She hated being idle. And so, when I had decided to become a tutor she was ecstatically happy. She called her farewell in return and I jangled my keys as I closed and locked the door behind me.
I turned to face the car, surprised that I once again regarded it as an enemy. It had been six months since I was forced to endure a daily commute. It had taken a long time for me and the car to become friends again. At that moment I looked upon it with the same loathing I had always done while on the job.
I placed the keys in my pocket and decided to walk. It was only a few blocks away, after all. My music pulsed from my earbuds and it kept me moving along at a steady pace. I waited at corners, waved cars along, and greeted passers by. This was the first time I could ever remember enjoying a trip to work. Despite the workout, I was enjoying myself and was saddened when I had arrived too quickly at my destination.
I stood for a moment at the walkway to the single story home that looked exactly like mine once had, before the extension was built. I knew the exact layout even before entering. All of the homes in the neighborhood had been built by the same developer at the same time and so they were identical inside unless the owners had made a change after purchase.
I took a deep breath and started up the walkway. The grass had not been cut, I noticed, in quite some time. There were two weathered chairs sitting on a cluttered deck built as an entryway to the house and connecting the concrete walkway to its front. Before I could place a foot on the bottom step the door swung open.
“Thank god you’re here! This is Steven! Steven, you remember Dr. Frakes? From last year’s block party?” A whirlwind of keys, lunch bags, and god knows what else raced towards me dragging Steven along by the wrist.
“There are cold cuts in the fridge and his tablet’s charged!”
“Wait…” I stammered.
“We’re so blessed to have you! It takes so long to find a good babysitter! Thank you so so much!”
“What?” I asked but they were gone. “Oh… no no no.” I thought.
Steven was left squarely in front of me. The car door beeped, swung open and slammed shut all in one frantic motion. The hiss of fuel injection signaled the ignition and the car pulled out of the driveway and drove away down the block. I looked down at Steven. Steven looked up at me. Our eyes both narrowed.
“I’m not a baby. I don’t need a sitter.” Steven argued.
“I’m not a sitter… and I certainly don’t need a baby.” I replied.
We stood there in silence, neither of us flinching. Steven finally turned away.
“This sucks.” He said, turning and walking back to the house. “Would you like to come in?”
“This is not what I signed on for.” I thought to myself. “Sure.” I shrugged.
The house was neat enough, in that weekday way that all working peoples’ houses are. You can tell it was straightened up just moments before you arrived and somewhere was a closed doored room behind which all the clutter was dumped unceremoniously upon a bed. Just as it always was in mine. But, it was neat and no one could argue that. Everything was clean and the fridge was full.
Steven went to a cabinet and pulled out a purple bag. He tore it open and began to eat furiously. Red powder had accumulated upon his fingers almost immediately.
“Breakfast?” I asked.
“Takis” He said, holding up the bag to me with his red, dust coated fingers.
“Sure,” I said.
I took one between my thumb and forefinger. Made a show of holding it up and inspecting it. I looked skeptically to Steven who nodded and smiled encouragement. Now, of course I’d heard of Takis. Of course I’d eaten Takis. But, Steven didn’t know any of that. All he wanted was to get the better of me. And so, I let him.
I put the rolled chip into my mouth. No doubt, it was hotter than was comfortable, but in no way unbearably so. I crunched down once… twice… and opened my eyes wide. Steven had begun to snicker. Knowing the layout, I made a show of walking directly to the sink, picking up a recently washed glass from the drainboard and filling it with water from the tap. I guzzled it down, dramatically gulping both water and air at odd intervals and in equal measure. I think he knew I was acting. He knew I knew he wasn’t nearly as delighted as he appeared.
“Did you know that Takis are between 8,000 and 9,000 Scoville Units? That’s why they’re hot.” He said clinically.
“What a strange thing for a kid his age to know.” I thought to myself. “What’s a Scoville Unit?” I asked.
“It measures heat.” He said, chomping away on another.
“Like a thermometer?” I asked. “I thought that was degrees?”
“Not heat like hot.” He said dramatically, rolling his eyes. “Heat like spice.”
“So it measures spice?” I asked.
“You’re the teacher.” He said. “Shouldn’t you know?”
“I don’t teach about spice.” I informed him. “Is 8,000 to 9,000 Scoville Units the hottest there is? It seemed pretty hot.”
“I don’t think so.” He took out his phone, engaged the screen and was off typing, thumbs flying.
He was incredibly fast on that phone. He was clicking and zooming along, thumbing past pages and zeroing in on the info he wanted before I had even gotten my screen to the search engine.
“It says here that the Carolina Reaper pepper is the hottest pepper you can get. It’s two million Scoville units!” He said in awe.
“That seems dangerous.” I said cautiously, my fear causing his eyes to come alive.
“Do you think we could find one?” He asked me.
I thought for a moment. Honestly, I had no idea where you could find a Carolina Reaper pepper. I didn’t know very much about peppers. But, of course I know where you can get other peppers. I washed the glass and returned it to the rack to dry with the others. I walked to my bag and slung it over my shoulder.
“Grab your gear!” I said. “Lock up! We’re going on an expedition!”
“Where?” He said excitedly, scrambling for his keys and running to the door.
Soon, we were walking along the street in the warm summer sun. Steven was uncomfortable about seventeen seconds after leaving the front porch. Sweat had started to form before we had reached the corner and Steven began to look around.
“Where’s your car?” He demanded. “Why are we walking?”
“We are out to discover. Cars move too fast. We might miss something.” I replied.
He didn’t argue, he just fell into step beside me, actively hating the combination of heat and exercise. He was trying to work out our destination in his head. As we approached the corner store he screwed up his face. He’d been so busy paying attention to small details that he had no idea where we had wound up. He looked up and the sign for the store was in a different language he couldn’t read. The strange strings of symbols were familiar though.
“It’s like my video game. What is that?” He asked, pointing to the sign.
“A sign.” I said without pause.
“What language?” he said, not appreciating my response.
“It’s written in Korean.” I said. “Go find the peppers.”
As he ran off into the store I stopped to look at the fresh cut flowers that were always on display by the open storefront. I picked up a small bouquet and entered. I waved to the woman behind the counter. I knew her face and she knew mine. After retiring this had become one of my favorite spots. I had always been embarrassed to ask for her name.
“Here!” Steven called from a little further back.
There were bell peppers and poblanos and jalapenos and habaneros and we took one of each and one bag to place them all in once they had been weighed.
“A lot of peppers.” The woman observed with a smile and an arched eyebrow. “Cooking something spicy?”
“We’re testing heat.” Steven said.
“This is Steven.” I said, using the opportunity to try and get her name. “And I am Jasper. We are exploring Scoville Units.” I smiled.
“I’m Myung.” She smiled. “You better get some milk.” She advised.
“Milk?” Steven and I demanded simultaneously.
“Milk and peppers?” Steven went on. “Disgusting!”
“It’s not good.” Myung agreed. “But you don’t eat them together. Milk washes the capsaicin away.”
“Capsaicin?” Steven repeated.
“It’s what makes peppers hot. The milk washes it away. Kind of.” Myung explained.
“Go get milk. Small milk.” I said.
He ran and was back in the blink of an eye. We paid for our items and placed them all in the clear green bag we had taken from the produce section. We thanked Myung for her advice and she offered us one last bit of wisdom.
“The hottest part of the pepper is the white part inside.” She explained. “That’s where you’ll really find out the heat of each one.”
I picked up the bouquet of flowers from the counter and thanked her again.
Steven was practically running back to his house.
“Slow down.” I said. “Next time I’m going to expect you to lead the way. Do you know where you’re going?”
He stopped. He looked around.
“I’m a kid.” He said, his arms gesturing to the obvious.
“So?” I replied. “You’ve got eyes and ears and a nose. Take a look around. What do you see? What can you hear? What are the smells? The rest of your senses tell you just as much as your eyes do, don’t rely on your eyes alone.”
Steven looked around, then closed his eyes and raised his chin a bit. He heard the cacophony of dogs that had been accompanying every interaction we had since leaving the house. He turned and faced the direction from which we had come.
“Is that the dog park?” He asked. “I’ve never gone past the dog park.”
“See,” I said. “Our first discovery! Myung’s grocery is just two blocks from the far side of the dog park!”
Steven paid close attention after that. He had been shown a whole new world just fifty yards beyond that imaginary boundary. He took everything in and carefully traced his steps until they had returned home.
“Cutting board. Knife. Two glasses of milk.” I said and Steve nodded, dashing around the kitchen to gather all the necessary materials. “And two napkins, in case we need to spit something out. And a vase for the flowers.”
I opened my notebook and took out a pencil. I opened to the next clean page, quickly scribbled a chart and drew a sad face to indicate spice. I cut the poblano, jalapeno, and habanero each into four small slivers. Two I left as they were and from the other two I removed the white parts and seeds.
“What’s that?” Steve pointed to my pictograph.
“That’s how we’re going to keep track of the heat. We’ll make a graph.” I said.
He grabbed his tablet and opened his app for school. He created a new file, inserted the table and grabbed my notebook. Before I placed the flowers in their vase and was done with the cutting he had perfectly recreated what was in my notebook.
“We can use emojis!” He explained, showing me how he dropped the tiny faces into each row of the chart.
“Good thinking!” I said, excitedly.
“Your turn.” I offered him the knife and the bell pepper, having saved it for last because I knew it wasn't hot at all. “Do just as I did.”
He tried as best he could to recreate the thin slivers and had done a perfectly fine job of removing the white parts and seeds.
We each took a fork and tested each type first with the hollow piece, then the one with the seeds and white parts. After each we’d decide how hot they were and how they compared to each other. Then we each took a slow sip of milk to make sure we washed the capsaicin away.
“We’re lucky we ran into Myung.” I said after eating the jalapeno. “We’d be in big trouble if she hadn’t taught us that milk trick.”
Just then, Steven had slipped the seed filled sliver of habanero onto his tongue. He flushed and closed his eyes, tears forming in their corners. He opened them and smiled, laughing. He didn’t even dare to bite down on it. He spit it into the tissue and laughed.
“That was hot!” he said.
We looked at the chart we had made, angry faced emojis indicating the heat of each pepper. I asked him to add a column and he did so in the blink of an eye. In that column we placed the Scoville Units of each. At the end I asked him to add a row and put Takis.
He went off on his own and finished inputting data into his chart. I opened the refrigerator and was pleased to find a tomato. I diced it and added it to the bell peppers and a bit of the jalapeno. I looked in the cupboard and was glad to find tortilla chips.
When he returned his eyes lit up. He sat down and voraciously attacked the snack. After a few mouthfuls he handed me the tablet. All of the data had been input and formatted.
“How’d you do that so quickly?” I asked.
“Come here.” He said, indicating the chair at the table. “I’ll show you.”
Everyone has something to teach.