Every kid is a little bit different. Yulisa likes to hold my hand and take the stairs two at a time on the way down to the library for our forty minutes of tutoring. Once we reach the bottom of the stairs she declares herself the winner. Sometimes I protest. “No I won,” I say. “No,” she says. “You never

win.” I tell her that one day I might. She just laughs and shakes her head: clearly I have no idea how this game works. She is in second grade. Today in class we are playing Jeopardy. The categories are multiplication, subtraction, division, and multiplication tables. She chooses a category and a value, and I give her a math problem of corresponding difficulty—if she gets the answer right, she wins the points; if she doesn’t, or if she needs my help, we share the points. It’s not an exact science. She asks for division for 400, and I have to do most of the work for her. Afterward I propose that we share the points: 50 for her, 350 for me. This idea doesn’t quite do it for her. We enter into negotiations.

            “It should be 150 for you and 250 for me,” she says.

            “Hmm, but I did a lot of work for that one,” I say. I nevertheless offer her a 50/50 split. This also fails to satisfy, at first. I’m in the process of thinking of a good way to say “Meet me in the middle,” in Spanish when Yulisa accepts the deal. She ends up beating me by 1,000.

            At the end of our 40 minutes, Yulisa stacks up the whiteboards and markers we’ve been using and slides them to the corner of the table. Then she tucks in the chairs we’ve been sitting on and, finally, turns to me and holds out her hand, ready to be walked back upstairs to her classroom. On the way to the stairs we walk with playful caution—mine over-exaggerated—to avoid stepping on any of the grout lines in the tile floor; this, too, has become part of our routine. We take the stairs two at a time on the way up, too, and she giggles and yells, “I won!” even before she’s reached the top.

            “You always win,” I say, and she giggles and repeats her declaration. Her classroom is at the top of the stairs; I tell her goodbye, and she walks to the door. Before going in she turns and waves to me. “Adios,” she says, smiling, one hand in her mouth.

            Sometimes on the way home from work I’ll see Yulisa walking down the street alone, wearing a backpack. She walks past storefronts and houses with decaying facades, past stray and dirty dogs, past tired men and women with worn faces; she navigates streets that I have never known and probably never will. And yet during the 80 minutes of tutoring we have each week (40 minutes, twice a week), I completely forget about all that—she’s just a little kid. She likes to laugh and play games (and win) and talk in silly voices and put the plastic ends of dry-erase markers in her mouth. She likes to have her hand held.

            Yulisa makes childhood seem universal, invincible.

            If only it really were.

-Drew Zagami

Safe Passage tutoring volunteer