Cher can't do math. It's hard for her when people give her a phone number and they go too fast. Our house number has eight digits in it, I keep it written down on a piece of paper in my purse inside pocket so when I go to the post office to pick up my mail, I can give the clerk the first two numbers in the right order.
After 14 years, I still keep my best friend's phone number taped behind my kitchen wall calendar because I always dial 8-5-9 and it's 6-5-9.
Numbers strike terror in me.
The first time I felt the prickle of a hot panic was in the first grade, with math. I had been able to do the problems along with the rest of the class until that morning, when there were smaller numbers sitting above bigger numbers. I stared at the white sheet and drew hash marks at the bottom of the page and tried to find a way to take seven things away from three things. The other kids in class finished and walked their sheets up to the teacher's wire basket while I tried to not scratch my stinging scalp wondering how this could be done.
I had to stay in and miss recess until I found out how to take a big piece out a little piece. I never did and the teacher wrote in red, “NEEDS TO PRACTICE HER SUBTRACTION.” I remember this because the letters were big enough to block out the two rows of four problems each.
One day I knew how to do math, the next day I didn't. Things had changed and I don't know how, but everyone in the class seemed to have been told about the shift from adding together, which I could do, to taking away, which I found out that thinking flipping the numbers would work, was wrong.
By the time we moved out of second grade and subtraction and into third grade and multiplication, I had grown too scared of numbers to understand what the teacher was saying, and the worry that I wouldn't understand blocked my brain from following along in the book. Too hard too hard too hard. Numbers didn't look the same way to me that they did to the other kids.
When it came to learning how to tell time, I felt the locked knee paralysis of not being able to decipher the code of numbers again. Everyone in class was able to answer the teacher's question about what the clock on the classroom wall read. I wasn't. My mother thought that having my own watch would help and so one day she came home with a paper bag from the department store. Inside was a square box with the gold letters TIMEX etched along the bottom. I felt a wide-eyed panic.
Please don't be a watch please don't be a watch. Of course, that's what it was. A neon orange patent leather band with Snoopy on the dial's face. Large psychedelic numbers swam in wavy shapes around Snoopy and they matched the near fainting I felt at what I knew would happen with a watch this hard to ignore. “What time is it, Alexandra?” Hell if I would ever know the answer to that question.
My mother made me wear the watch to school, she strapped it as tight as she could but when you're 56 pounds, and the watchband could circle a small cat, there's no way to keep a neon wrist undercover. When I got to the classroom, I tried to keep my sweater over my wrist but I forgot my head at recess and was leaning away while pulling at the step's metal railing and when I looked up, my eyes locked on nosy Jackie Peterson's face. I saw her mouth open with a flash of the devil when she lit on a flash of orange at the end of my arm. Since everyone knew I couldn't tell time, she screamed, “Alexandra! What time is it! You can't tell us because you don't know!”
After that, I would wear the watch to school but take it off and hide it in my pocket.
Bad at math, bad at numbers, and tens of stories more about the struggle in grade school, high school, college, when it came to work with numbers.
I have three children, they have no fear of math and took to it with a love for patterns, completing puzzles, pride in working through problems and finding the answer. They know how much I am in awe of their minds and ability to learn things with a relaxed ease I know nothing about.
My children try to teach me, they explain things to me with a tenderness and patience that makes a lump in my throat. “See, mom, if you look at things this way, you'll recognize a pattern.” “I can't, you guys, I don't see it like that.” “Just try it, try to think of it a different way this time.”
There's a field trip I'll be chaperoning with my youngest son's seventh grade class soon. It's one of the last field trips I'll take with my children, the parents around here are heavily involved in kids and school and the chance that your name gets chosen is about every two years. My name was picked, I won the lottery. The class is going to a financial park. I have to arrive an hour early for training and learning the day's session of teaching basic accounting to my son's class.
My scalp is prickly. My mind is already stiffening up with the wall that doesn't allow numbers in.
“Auggie, I don't know how I'm going to do this field trip. I don't want to miss it, I won't get another chance to go, I know it. But it's a finance park, it's math.”
“I already have it figured out. I'm going to make sure I'm in your group and I'll stand right next to you. I'll answer the questions before you have to ask them. You don't have to worry. I'll be there.”
My son brought some worksheets home today, he's working on a speed record with his Rubik's Cube. He explains how any pattern can be solved by understanding the steps needed to get there. I want to follow along, and I concentrate hard. But the squares look random to me. He walks me through the steps he's taking to get the cube's squares aligned. He's almost finished, all that's left is his favorite part--the satisfying last turn of solving the puzzle, when he turns to me with the cube.
“Here, mom, you do it. You'll never get to finish a Rubik's cube on your own so you do the final click.”
My heart heaves with the love he has for me, for his patience and his acceptance of who his mother is.
I'm bad at math, I'm as bad as Cher is in taking down a phone number. But I'm about to do one thing that Cher has never done. I reach over and accept the offering from my son, and I give the cube its final twist.
* * *