Small Business

05/14/2015 05:18 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2016

"Straight up, or a cocktail?" I ask.

"Straight up," I hear, a reply voiced not in some darkened dive but at the dining table, now work table, in my apartment. The other speaker is not a barfly but a teenager come for learning. If "straight up," the request is for lemonade; as a "cocktail," lemonade with raspberry juice. Once in a while, it's for ginger ale. I offer the drink cold, and we set to work.

This practice has been going on for years, and long past high school, kids remember that when they came to Mr. Ely's, he had lemonade. All year long, in seasons cold or warm. Some students thought I brewed the drink from scratch, the way we used to do in the old summer days in Texas when you brought home a pile of lemons and cut them open in the kitchen and stirred them in a tall pitcher with water and a little sugar and ice and carried the product out to the screened porch, hoping for a breeze. Maybe that explains my addiction to lemonade, but I can't lie; today I buy it frozen in a can. No romantic tale.

This is my small business, not selling magazine subscriptions, but tutoring high school kids, in my living room. Parents tell other parents, and the result is a modest bump in my income with no start-up expenses or dress clothes involved. It's a business that cannot be counted on; the years fluctuate between lean and full. I keep a record and dutifully report the income to the IRS. For me, the principal drawback is the growing gap between my age and that of the students, something well known to every teacher. That does leave me sometimes depressed.

The lessons focus on French or Spanish, which I come to as a former full-time teacher, frequent substitute teacher, and traveler to Spanish and French-speaking lands. We untangle knots in grammar and writing, especially writing that they get little practice with in class.

I like to create stories, so we do that, in Spanish. Recent example (using prompts from me): "I took my little brother to the baseball game, we left home at one o'clock and rode the subway, our team won, but then my brother lost his Metrocard and started crying. 'Don't worry,' I told him. 'It's not serious.' 'You're a good brother' he said." End of prompts; the student has filled them in.

This somewhat unconventional exercise produces wrinkled brows and guarantees errors in a student at the end of ninth grade, but the mistakes don't matter. What we're doing is what I call "putting it all together," more interesting by far than verb conjugations, and it seems to me more fun too. I offer congratulations on doing the story mostly well, and point out that the student should be proud of what he did. I'm not sure he is, but teenagers have to be told when they've done something good. Odd, but so.

After the kid has turned 16 or 17, created a few not too error-laden narratives in the adopted language, the teacher sits like a patriarch in the living room and the student receives license to go into the kitchen and brew or re-fill his or her own lemonade. (If ginger ale, no refills; too much sugar.)

Holding forth a cold glass of nonalcoholic drink, the student returns smiling to the work table. That drink, I am bound to believe, improves his learning curve and pleasure in the language, and maybe carves a little place around the heart for lemonade and story-telling in future times.

I like my small business and hope neither it nor I runs dry.

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Stanley Ely writes about studying and teaching in his book, "Life Up Close," in paperback and ebook.