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A question from my 12-year-old tutee’s homework: “Why is life worth living?”

Since last year, I’ve been a tutor for the West Philadelphia Tutoring Project, a volunteer organization based out of Civic House whose members conduct weekly one-on-one sessions with students from local schools. This means that the kids who participate get the chance to have someone — even if it’s just for an hour a week — giving them their complete, undivided attention while the tutors get the chance to experience the West Philadelphia community in a much more significant way.

After some very satisfactory experiences as a tutor, I can honestly say that I’m a big believer in the effectiveness of the program. But the day my tutee encountered the question about the value of life marked the first time I had doubts.

How would anyone respond to the question “Why is life worth living?”

Clearly, there is no obvious answer. In fact, this is about the grayest question one can ask — full of possibilities, just as likely to prove inspiring or depressing.

This was going to be good. My tutee was going to enjoy being challenged in new and interesting ways. This question was a tutor’s dream. So I asked it, hoping to get the fascinating conversation started.

An awkward silence later, all I got from her was, “I don’t know, and I don’t care.”

I was taken aback as she shut her textbook and told me in the way that only a 12-year-old can — sounding both condescending and childlike — “Don’t worry, I’ll ask my mom to help me with this later.” And as I continued to push her to answer the question, I was shocked by her complete lack of curiosity.

Just like that, my problem stopped having anything to do with the answer to one of life’s biggest questions and became all about my inability to make her want to know. This was not the first time that I had encountered this attitude from her, but seeing that she was unwilling to attempt to answer such an open-ended question made it painfully obvious.

With more than 300 tutors enrolled in WPTP, these difficulties are not unheard of.

As Shani Weerakoon, a board member of the program, explained, one of the most intimidating challenges for tutors is “realizing that you can’t do things overnight.”

“You have to take baby steps,” he said.

Wharton junior and current WPTP chairman Zachary Browne argued that a big part of the challenge stems from the fact that “a lot of the tutors come from extremely different backgrounds — private schools or public schools in wealthy suburbs.”

They have to make an effort to “understand where the tutee stands given their educational backgrounds and adapt their tutoring styles accordingly,” he said.

As generally overachieving Penn students, we are accustomed to getting things done and excelling at what we do. But tutoring is not about excelling in the way in which one would excel in a class.

Just like there’s no apparent answer to the question of why life is worth living, there’s no apparent way to instill a sense of curiosity in someone who resists it.

Ultimately, tutoring is not something that you can clearly fail or succeed at. It’s a constant struggle between accepting frustration and deciding to continue in spite of it.

Sara Brenes-Akerman is a College junior from San José, Costa Rica. Her e-mail address is A Likely Story appears every Wednesday.

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