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 attributes.
"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 own 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 programme. 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 last 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 in 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."
.... There is more of this story ...