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Chicagoans: Tough Tutelage

Tutor Martin Breiner will teach just about anything—his way.

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Part of an occasional series of oral histories, as told to Anne Ford

I'm able to tutor any subject at any level to any age. It may sound like BS, but it's not. I go to people's houses. I work around people's schedules. I don't come out and say "Do this, this, and this," and leave. I roll my hands up and help.

I came out here from New York in 1964. Over the years I've had over 10,000 students, always individually. I don't run classes; I don't believe in classes. If you're sitting in the class and I'm the instructor, and you ask me a question I can't answer, I can turn to one of the better kids and say, "Well, Bill, how'd you do it?" And you'll never know I can't do it. But if you're seeing me one-on-one, you will know. You're not buying the emperor's new clothes here.

I've had people from every walk of life in Chicago. I had some lady who wanted help passing architectural certification exams. I had somebody who was writing a thesis for his PhD as a psychologist. The gentleman [Edward Genson] who was defending Governor Blagojevich—I tutored his kids. I've had Albert Berger, the producer for Little Miss Sunshine and Cold Mountain.

I have lots of kids who can't do anything without a computer. They can't write without spell check and grammar check. One kid said to me, "I don't have to learn this. It's on the Internet." I said, "You carry a computer up your ass? What do you do when there's no computer around?"

I've had kids whose parents have been ready to give up on them. I've had kids who were failing classes. You get people at a critical point, and you can sometimes help them get the confidence to turn the corner.

I help people select colleges for their children and do the entire application process. I don't charge a retainer, I don't charge a flat fee, I charge by the hour. And it usually comes out to be very inexpensive, compared to what some of these services do. The latest scam—you ready for this? They say to a parent, "I'm going to be booked up, so sign up your kid now, as a [high school] freshman. Pay me four or five thousand dollars, and I'll work with them." What are they going to do with the kid as a freshman? You can't do anything till he's finished his junior year. And people are paying it. I said, "Are you stupid?"

You don't want to hear it? Go find someone who's going to bullshit you. But ultimately, I'll be right most of the time. Not because I'm egocentric, but because I know what I'm doing.

I've reached the point where I'm not going to starve if I don't tutor your kid; I'm not going to retire if I do. I charge you reasonable rates, and I do a better job. If you don't appreciate me, find someone else. I'm not going to slash my wrists.   

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