Let me start today by saying that 99% of the time, I feel like an intelligent person. But, as is the case with most things in life, it’s the 1% moments that we remember because they change us.
I had really great grades in elementary school, even if I did, as a result of moving so much, attend five schools by the time I hit Jr. High. In fact, moving so much probably gave me the constant of schoolwork to hang onto. Sure, I had a rough transition in there a few points, but I suppose that is to be expected.
Anyway, for Jr. High super-nerd math class, we were short a teacher. So, the school handed a coach the teachers’ edition of the text book and we were thrown to the mercy of 24-year-old Coach F. About three weeks into class, he copied an equation onto the board to illustrate an example. I spotted a mistake in it. I turned to a fellow student, and asked if he saw it. He did! He wanted to let it go, but I thought that math was difficult enough for most students, especially this math, so we’d better speak up. And I did. And Coach F. was furious. Likely, having a 13-year-old girl tell you that you made a mistake is probably not a great feeling, but throw in the fact that he readily admitted math wasn’t his “strong suit” and, even if I really was speaking up as politely as I remember, he was defensive as hell. A week later, he called on me to answer a question. We were skipping around a page, so I thought he asked for the answer to equation number thirteen, when he’d asked for the answer to thirty. Oops. Anyway, he said, “Well, that’s stupid. I thought you were so smart!”
I’m not kidding. I’m really not.
To a group of 13-year-olds, this is really hilarious, so naturally all of them howled with laughter. To an akward shy-ish 13-year-old girl, this is humiliating. I couldn’t answer, even though I knew the correct answers to equations thirty and thirteen. I could only stare at my desk and tap my pencil eraser. Coach F. came over and took the pencil away and demanded an answer, but I remember my throat wouldn’t make a noise. Nothing. Not a squeak. So, I got an F in class participation that day. And, the day after that. I still turned in my homework and such every day, but I’d lost my self-confidence in the class. I’m not saying by any means that this was a major trauma of my life, but I’m thinking about numbers today so I am thinking about this. Dealing with taxes today has been emotional, and it shouldn’t be. But it has. And, i know why. I’ve known why for a while, but I think the connection is too great to ignore another second.
When report cards came out, I don’t remember the grade, but I know it was bad enough to upset me. My parents went to the school and demamnded to see Coach F.’s grade book and, for as long as I live, I will never forget my mother pursing her lips and saying, “Ohhhh, bullllllllllllshit” in response to Coach F. stammering that his car was broken into and his gradebook was stolen.
I strugged with math after that. I pulled off fine grades, but I always struggled. To encourage my creativity and to perhaps console me in this mathematical difficulty, my parents would say things like, “Well, you’re just a creative mind.”, which is wonderful and I’m so glad they encouraged me as they did in creative pursuits (see all mentions of the little blue typewriter, for example), but I think in those unsure moments, I took it completely wrong. In my adolescent haze, I took it to mean that I couldn’t, or shouldn’t, be dealing with math-things in the first place. Down another notch.
As an adult, I reasoned that the onset of my numeric issue was likely slightly colored by this incident with Coach F. but told myself that I had no choice now but to balance my checkbook, pay taxes, figure things out. So, I did. But, I never really escaped the feeling that anything mathematical had the ability to shake my confidence. Even entering a check into my checkbook register, I knew, deep down, that I was down a notch or two for a moment, but never really could pinpoint it fully.
So, I’ve been thinking a lot about that sort of thing lately. I know that I’ve done the bare minimum to get by in the mathematical world. You guys know me, you know how much I geek for science, but something about the numbers we have to depend on to survive, well, I’ve done my best to avoid them entirely.
And, I believe that if something feels uncomfortable then we should get down to why it feels so uncomfortable and confront that shit head-on. If I look over my life, I see so many things I’m glad to have dealt with in that way. Sometimes, mid-confrontation (like the time I confronted my fear of heights without railings), I stopped and said out loud, “Guth, it’s just your mind. None of this is really a threat, just your mind. Just march through. Keep going.” And it was fine. And heights never bothered me again after that, after I just pushed through.
So, as I blogged a week or so ago, my accountant split. She had a death in the family a while ago, then decided to leave town. So, I decided to file an extension until I could get another accountant lined up. (I should pause and say that I have never, ever cut it close on tax deadlines, much less ever filed an extension, so this is giving me a bit of stress already) So, I thought I had another guy lined up because I sure didn’t want to sit down and deal with numbers, especially numbers so important. I want to hire someone else to do it. But, yesterday, he had to tell me that he was too swamped. Yesterday. Ohshitohshitohshit.
This morning, I printed out the extension forms and let the instructions go in one ear and out the other. It wasn’t sticking. I read sentences again and again and nothng was sticking. My brain, stuck where mathematics are concerned as an embarrassed Jr. High student, is still hiding out, scared to death. But, in hiding out and being afraid, it’s not open to hearing anything new. And that pisses me off quite a bit. So, I read it all again. Then, I called a friend for advice, though I don’t know I will take his advice. So, I made a few other calls and felt increasingly unsure after each. Then, I emailed a friend with perhaps a bit more experience in the area who assured me that I most likely would not be jailed if I fucked it up by a buck or two. (It is after all, an estimation that is needed for the extension, not the exact number). Then, another call.
At one point this morning, I put my head on my desk and wanted to cry, feeling just as useless as I did that day in Jr. High. C’mon, Guth, this is a piece of paper. Just wing it. It can’t be this difficult. And I realized I was tapping my pencil when I instinctively jerked my wrist under my desk to hide it just as soon as I started tapping. And, in the next instant, I knew that I was wrong all these years to downplay the importance of that one day. I didn’t get beaten or molested, sure, but, I am sitting here thinking about my relationship to numbers and mathematics since that day, and I know it has been governed by my shame in that moment.
Guth, it’s just your mind. None of this is really a threat, just your mind. Just march through. Keep going.
And, for now, the stress is over. The forms, state and federal are filled out. Now, I have a minute to take a breath and find an account who is patient enough to dig through the strange write-offs writers come up with. And now, I understand that Coach F. did make me feel horrible that day in math class, and even if it was a small thing, it hurt my 13-year-old feelings enough to cause me to let my own adult feelings get hurt about it now. I don’t know the way to fix any of it, but admitting how something so insignificant made such strong ripples is, in a way, a liberation of it.
I just found a ratty old copy of that textbook on eBay. Maybe I should buy it for myself as an olive branch of sorts. Maybe if I go back and read it all, it’ll disarm it forever and I’ll give 13-year-old me a chance to rewrite the story to go more like this:
COACH: Well, that’s stupid. I thought you were so smart!
AMY AT 13: (taps pencil, then stops, breaks it in half and stands, handing Coach the pencil) I’m going to take a kickboxing class when I’m 23, so here’s a token for an ass-kickin’ in ten years.
COACH: (makes braying donkey noises) What for? (scratches head)
AMY AT 13: Because what you said was hurtful and I didn’t appreciate it.
COACH: I don’t care (scratches balls, sniffs fingers, makes donkey noises again).
AMY AT 13: Well you should care because years after that, I’m going to have a blog and I’ll write about you in that blog and then you’ll be sorry when all of my blog readers are laughing at you instead, sucka! (kicks him in the shin, grabs the teachers’ edition and leads the class to academic enlightment as all the other students cheer. )