by Allyson Wuerth
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*Some of the names and places in this true story have been changed.
Binomial distribution, I still don’t understand it. What I do know is this: as with any problem, one of two outcomes is possible, success or failure. I say this like it’s that simple. Success or failure. Black or white, like so much from our early years.
I was always a failure at math. Numbers never made any sense to me. Oftentimes in grammar school, well-meaning teachers would send me off to Mrs. Cole, the math tutor whose fingers were spindly wands of smoke. Later she became my middle school language arts teacher and my high school western civilization teacher (I can still hear her raspy voice pronouncing “Ne-buch-ad-nezzar”). We’d count lima beans over and over again, as if this would somehow force logic into my head. 9 beans + 1 bean = 10 beans. Her yellowed fingers sliding them across the desk, bean by bean. Her mouth dryly and slowly managing the numbers, “Nine beans. Plus one bean. Equals. Ten. Beans.” Her voice would rise an octave as she stated the answer, like it was so simple, a you’re-making-this-unnecessarily-complicated tone that I couldn’t quite shake.
She had frosted hair and a tight perm. But in those days I’d walk the hallway back to my classroom remembering nothing but Mrs. Cole’s chalky hands and the smooth feel of so many beans, the icy sound of numbers being dumped back into their glass jar.
But let’s go back to the beginning or look ahead to high school, depending on how you see things. Binomial distribution. My 10th grade algebra class with Mr. Kilo, or “Billy K.,” or “Blob Jello” as my friend Casey and I called him in our frequent note passing. It was one class. One year. But even now, twenty years later, I say this class changed my life.
First, let me explain how each and every one of Billy K.’s classes ran. Even so many years later, this routine, inculcated to memory. We’d all file into his classroom where he would be sitting quietly at his desk drinking his coffee and reading the Evening Sentinel or drinking his coffee and working on the blueprints to a house he was building.
Whichever way Billy K. chose to occupy himself, he stuck to it. He rarely looked up, not to greet us and never to teach us. The blackboard was full of numbers, notes, and lessons. With his head hidden behind blueprints /Sentinel, he’d call out, “Copy the board into your notes. Then do 1-45 odd in your book.” He said the word “odd” like he hated it, as if he’d stuffed his mouth full of a horrible paste. “Odd.” The caw of an unexpected crow. If he did speak, “Dat’ll be a point off yer final average.” Any offense could warrant it. “No book cover on dat algerbra book? Point off yer final average.” Wrong answer? “Point off yer final average.”
We sat dead silent, a mixture of the riff-raff of the school, smarter freshmen, and jocks who were sent to Coach Billy K. for the sake of the Bobcats. Sometimes he’d stand up, adjust the elastic waist on his cargo pants and spend fifteen minutes checking to see that we all had book covers on our school-issued math books. Casey claimed his pants were called “EZ Stride Big Boys,” and every time he ran his stubby thumbs under the elastic I had to force down a laugh. He’d move through the room, only pausing to clear his throat and ask, “’Comin’ to practice today, Todd?” or “How’s dat arm, Brand?” or “No book cover, Brian? Not surprising. Dat’ll be a point of yer final average.”
Me, I was the riff-raff. I sat against the far wall, second seat in with only Casey in front of me. We passed notes all of class, every class, amusing ourselves by drawing pictures of Mr. Kilo or making fun of his very obvious weight problem. We were fifteen and willing to risk almost anything. I kept my book covered and my mouth shut; I thought I was okay. The room had two windows, one by Mr. Kilo’s desk and one in the back of the classroom. Later, this became very important to me.
And then, those binomials. I opened my book to do the classwork/ homework, but it didn’t make sense to me. To this day, I don’t know what made me get up from my desk and ask Mr. Kilo for help. But I did. “I’m not sure I understand this. Can you help?” I must have said something like that. His face went tomato red. “Look at yer notes.” He didn’t even look up from his paper.
“I did. I don’t get—‘’
“LOOK at yer notes. Bring me yer notes. Go get ‘em.”
Everyone was looking at me. I went to my desk and gave him my notes. He looked through them, carefully licking his index finger in order to turn each page. I panicked that he would see how at the top of every page I’d written “Algerbra notes.” That’s how Billy K. pronounced it. It was another joke between Casey and me. But he didn’t notice. He handed me my notebook back. It was pink. The cover said, “Algerbra” in cursive with the final “a” transitioning into a blackened heart.
“Go si’down an’ do yer work,” he mumbled. I went and sat down, thought I’d have another silent 15 minutes to collect myself from the embarrassment that just ensued. But, no. Today was different. Mr. Kilo decided we would go over the odd problems in class, without being able to look at the answers in the back of our books. Aloud. Together.
No one in class struggled with these binomials the way I did. Answer after answer: correct, correct, correct. Until he got to me. It was like watching the fire trail on a stick of dynamite, and waiting for the explosion. “I didn’t get this far,” was all I could muster when my turn came, my voice sore and dry.
“I don’t know.”
“Go back to yer notes!” As Billy K. yelled at me, his eyes bulged like such tiny, sweaty blueberries.
I flipped the pages, but the numbers had blurred into nothing but grey lumps. Page after page of foggy grey mountains. Still, I struggled to form those pages into some sort of sense, something more palpable than grey mist. But, I had no answers. I started to cry and quickly covered my face with my long hair. “Look, she’s crying,” he laughed. “Look. She thinks she can hide behind her hair.” Again, laughing. This time the class roared with him. A basketball player looked over at me and glared.
I’ve never even come close to being buried alive, but this is how I imagine it feels: thrown in a hole, you scratch and fill your fingernails with dirt, you claw and climb but you keep slipping further and further down into an abyss that swallows you up and hates you for your taste.
“Panic Disorder,” is what the therapist said. But, you know, I thought I was dying in the darkness of those days. Panic attacks. I began having them in each of Mr. Kilo’s classes. A dark tunnel would envelop me, breathlessness soaking down inside me. I wanted so badly to “move on,” “get over it,” like the school administrators told my parents time and time again — but my brain forbade it, kept me locked up, caught up in that horrible haze of panic.
Leaving was the only way to break the trance. So, I left. Time and time again. Sometimes I raised my hand; sometimes I just walked out of algebra. Eventually, I began to associate my clothing with panic attacks, foods with panic attacks; days of the week even would lead to panic attacks. I would drink long swigs of Benedryl before math just to disorient the panic, trick it into submission. But those panic attacks were smarter than any elixir I could concoct from my parents’ medicine closet. It always found a way out of my daze. Another trick was to look out the window, imagine myself unlocked in the outdoors. But the truth is, I looked outside and saw nothing but an expanse of weedy land and beyond those sad sights, a new sub-division being built.
Once, at some lame new-age store in the Post Mall, I bought a necklace that was supposed to bring good luck. I actually told myself “Nothing bad can happen if I wear this.” It was a clay troll holding a fake diamond. Who knows what it really meant? Once, in my best friend Zach’s driveway, it cracked. I glued it together meticulously — the crack imperceptible. I wore it every day until the day I graduated high school. To this day, I keep that necklace in my night stand, as if the life I’ve built will disintegrate, disappear into the ether if it’s ever lost.
But even with my potions and charms, the panic overwhelmed me. When I could no longer keep it inside me, my body erupted in bright islands of eczema. My toes, legs, arms, breasts consumed by such a shape shifter, this panic. Even my heart became an uncontrollable thing, always mixing up its beats and rhythms. “Phobic anxiety,” Teri, my therapist explained. “Your ability to decipher fight or flight is confused.” She gave me a pamphlet that detailed it all with stick figures and thought bubbles, misguided arrows that exposed the true nature of my chemical imbalance. If anything, I found this insulting. We went on this way for months.
Before long I’d missed much of my sophomore and junior years of high school. It was my father who brought me to see that therapist, and later the psychiatrist, Dr. Klugman, who worked with her. My mother was hesitant, embarrassed. But with the promise that I wouldn’t broadcast the news, she let me go. And, eventually, I learned how to cope. A combination of Klonopin, Prozac, breathing exercises, focal points (animal stickers with inspirational sayings), preferential seating (always near a door or window), and a permanent hall pass (golden ticket) allowed me to finish my junior year with mostly passing grades.
In addition to all these accommodations, my father insisted on having a meeting with school officials and guidance counselors. Mr. Kilo opted not to come, but sent another math teacher in his place. He got married, turned those coffee-stained blueprints into a real home (I’m assuming) while I sat in my closet practicing breathing out the black and breathing in the blue. Out black. In blue. Deep breaths of the blue. Huge exhales of black. For a long time, things were this way. Just this tenuous. My future, ephemeral, bundled tightly in those sad black breaths.
Years after high school ended, I found many drafts of a letter my father had written to the accommodation committee. He had been dissatisfied with our meeting, although I didn’t know it then. One draft had been left out for my mother to read. At the top, he wrote: “Comments?” and then, “Don’t let Allyson see this yet.” I’m not sure what he meant by “yet.” The letter is dated February 14, 1994. I found it in a folder labeled “X High” in his garbage after my parents divorced in 2006.
My father wrote, “I wish to say that I failed to see this developing situation and in doing so I let my daughter down when she really needed my support. I think it is realistic to suggest that you as administrators have not visualized this from Allyson’s perspective. Remember, that is the perspective of a girl during a time in her life when she should be having fun, making friends, and finding herself. Not having an out of control teacher strip her of her self- confidence, self-worth, and esteem.” In his revision, he changed the word “visualized” to “grasped.” I love that he revised his letter again and again. Each draft saved for so many years. In his final copy, he added into his conclusion: “Even with this traumatic experience Allyson is still doing better than most X High School students.”
I don’t know if my father ever mailed his letter, but I will always love him for writing it. Where my high school labeled me “emotionally weak,” my father had pointed out that they too had failed. Thanks to his persistence, I finished algebra my junior year with a new teacher, and geometry my senior year with a tutor. Trust me, there were no miracles. I passed algebra with a D. My senior year tutor, frustrated with my mathematical incompetence, eventually decided the first half of each of our hour long sessions would be “lunch time.” For the second half hour she’d pile bright sheets of construction paper before me and I’d construct geometrical shapes.
Somehow, this seemed a fitting conclusion to my tenure as a math student, a way for my hands to construct what my mind could not. My rhombus always misshapen, conjuring only nostalgia for Mrs. Cole’s pile of beans. I held them tightly, despite their grimy husks, despite the fact that they were really never mine to hold. All these years, I kept them, then let them go, only to watch them take root here in this story.
Allyson Wuerth received her MFA from the University of Pittsburgh and teaches literature at a private school in Connecticut. She still hates math.
I sooooo sympathize with your story. I failed math first quarter of first grade, and it never got much better. A 3rd grade teacher shamed me so often she had me praying every night that I’d die until my parents finally realized a transfer was in order. Thank God they stood up for me. Your father’s letter made me want to cheer. Peggy Sue was right. “I know for a fact I will never need algebra in real life.” It angers me that such brutal, thoughtless adults have such absolute power over children.
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