Higher Math

2 Oct

I don’t know how it came up. I was twelve and digging at the ground with a stick as my mother chatted with a neighbor in the yard of our garish St. Louis model home. The subject of schooling came up maybe? Or some thing about pie? Either way my mother turned to me and asked a fatal question.

“What is a quarter of 100?” She asked.

I was still messing around with the rad stick I’d found and wasn’t prepared.

“Siiiiiix…ty?”  I reached absently for a double digit number with a zero at the end, being under the impression that they were the safest and would maybe land me in the ballpark of a right answer.

My mothers face changed. Her conversation forgotten she stared at me. Despair and overwhelming panic seemed to build behind her face. The theory that I was dull witted had been floated to my mother before by my teachers from the first grade onward and she had fought against it. But here was proof, here for the first time she was actually concerned that they might be right.

I was twelve years old and could not divide 100 by 4.

She had me by the wrist in an instant. I don’t think she even said goodbye to the neighbor. I was drug inside the house where my mother dialed the number for a local Kumon math tutoring center that she somehow magically procured instantly. This was not the first time she’d thought about seeking outside help.

Like always, the angrier she was with me the more chipper she was everyone else. She practically sang to the person who answered the phone.

“Hello? Yes, Hi! I was just calling to set up sessions with my daughter Leia for some math tutoring…”

“MOM! MOM WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! NO!!” I did a dance of panic around her which was ignored. “NOOOOO!!!!!”

“Ok, perfect. We’ll be by at 4 tomorrow.”

And so my fate was sealed for the next year.

Of course I knew I was bad at math. I knew from the first moment Mrs. Piazza set all of us down in front of a huge velcro display board in the 2nd grade and began to stick numbers on it. I had been pretty confident up until that point. I knew what the numbers were called and if you put them on top of each other with the “+” squiggly bit you could make bigger numbers which I also knew the name of. That’s all there was to it. I was sure there couldn’t be more.

But there was more. Oh god, there was just so, so much more.

I sat on the floor in front of the display board happy as a clam until Mrs. Piazza started breaking out all kinds of crazy new shit.

This,” She flourished a “x” sign and placed it on the board. “Is a ‘multiplication’ sign. Now I hope all of you have your thinking caps on tight today because we are going to start our times tables!” She said it like it was the most awesome thing in the world. Like it was better than Easter candy.

After ten minutes of the lesson I was of the opinion that this was not awesome at all. If 4+2=6 then why the hell was it all of a sudden 8 when you stuck an “x” in the middle? If you wanted the number 8 so bad why not just add 4+4? Where was all of this coming from? It was like the fabric of my reality had been torn asunder. There were new, awful things lurking outside the borders of my sphere of knowledge trying to pry my head open and change all of the things I was comfortable with.

Another 20 minutes of the lesson and I knew I was doomed. The numbers swirled mockingly on the board and a jumble heap. In some terrible sweaty orgy, all of those numbers were fucking each other and birthing new abominable numbers. Huge Nephilim numbers that writhed against their cousins and as consequence birthed things even worse.

I was exhausted and terrified by the time the lesson ended. The times I’d been called on yielded nothing but dumbstruck silence and answers so wrong other 7 year olds were asking if I’d come in to contact with lead as an infant. But end the lesson did and I reached for my pudding cup as our group broke up.

I hope that never happens again.” I thought, peeling back the foil on my triple whip Puddin’.

I had the spoon halfway to my mouth when Mrs. Piazza called for our attention again. She held aloft another eldrich rune shaped like “/”.

“Now, tomorrow we’ll be learning what long division can do for us! Now Kaitlyn, would you pass out those worksheets to the class?”

The tears of abject fear began rolling down my face and onto my unmoving pudding laden spoon when the thick packet of numbers landed with a soft “Paf!” on my desk. The sound was like a toddlers final deathly exhalation of air.

The sound of the word “worksheet” would be my requiem bell from that point forward. It was a word that would be forever linked with reams of paper filled with appallingly hard equations due in 12 hours and a bowel wilting feeling of utter stupidity…

Pudding lost it's flavor that day.

She was good on her word, my mother. She didn’t forget tutoring. Her car was waiting for me  when I exited the front door of my school. She pushed the passenger side door open and waved me in.

The fifty pounds of schoolbooks in my backpack suddenly felt like three hundred.

“Ready to go?” She asked.

“Home? Yes.”

“I don’t think so, funny girl.”

I scowled. I was forced to spend eight hours in a nightmarish institution of learning that I was reasonably sure was a bullshit sham so I resented the idea of another two spent locked in another series of small rooms.

“I don’t see why I have to do this.” I sulked.

“Because you fail at math class.” My mother said frankly. “I can’t seem to teach you. The school can’t seem to teach you. So I’m hiring someone else to teach you, may god have mercy on their souls.”

“I’ll just try harder! I’ll do all of my homework and I won’t complain! Please! Please don’t make me do tutoring!”

“Tough. You need it.”

I began to cry. My mother put her blinker on and turned into the parking lot. She was never one of those pussy parents, damn her. And she would make sure I secured something resembling an education whether I liked it or not. She handed me a McDonalds napkin for me to dry the shame off my face before going in.

I sniveled and stared up at the bright blue sign and tried to get it together. KUMON. The O of the word was drawn as a face and I looked bleakly into it’s little dot eyes. The face peered back down at me morosely.

Kumon was a system of tutoring developed by Japanese educator Toru Kumon in the late 1950’s.  It was a drilling system the emphasised speed and accuracy in mathematics. His approach was so succesful it eventually spread all over the world like some kind of learning cancer ending up at the shores of the US, a nation of known academic retards.

The tutoring that lay within that two story brick strip mall building a Creve Cour would be an arithmetic death march. I could tell just by looking at the sign and it’s round O face. It was the most miserable looking face I’d seen in my life. If Kumon was an American born institution the face on the logo would have been an over the top smiley face, the mouth would have been drawn as an enormous stretched grin.

If this program was designed for Americans that face would giggle maniacaly in the promise of magical, instant, super fun learnnination.

But kumon was from Japan. A nation that didn’t lie about the fact that learning things was hard. fucking. work and not at all fun.

"It's going to blow."

I had tutoring sessions twice a week. Twice a week I was flooded with thick stacks of stapled worksheets.Twice a week I was sat in a tiny blank cubical with lady who was my supposed to be a tutor but was more like a mathematical Sisyphus.

“Look.”  Said the brunette in her thirties as leaned over a division packet dark with smeared graphite and deep grooves where I had taken my pencil in my fist and carved answers that had been corrected over my shoulder. “You carry the 5. Remember last week?”

No I did not remember last week. I did not remember last session.

I’d spent a lot of time curling my lip in derision at classmates that stumbled in reading comprehension. What moron didn’t read a book and not understand what happened? How could people mispronounce words or forget their meaning after being told once? I thought anyone without a passion and immediate affinity for letters was a drooling, illiterate fool.

And now I was being punished for my narrow-mindedness. The way some were baffled by a string of words I was flummoxed by a string of numbers. It was all greek. I could maybe parrot back a few equations to my tutor or teacher but I didn’t understand the why and wherefore of math. For 8 years the methods had been repeated and it was still opaque. I asked for things to be explained again, in a different way, to have it done slower, to use a calculator…

I struggled against my ignorance and my ignorance won. It flooded onto me in the physical form of thousands and thousands of worksheets marked with red pen and I drowned.

And the kumon worksheets were a whole new level of torture. What I didn’t understand about this process was that the tutors started off with two page worksheets and then increased the page count every session. And the pages were front and back.

And all of them had a time limit.

So basically I had 10 minutes to do increasingly difficult equations  on an increasingly deep stack of papers. The scrawl of numbers where I’d tried in vain to prove my answer built a charnel house where I interred my confidence in my intelligence.

When left alone in front of the ticking clock and mound of long division I wiped my mouth obsessively with one hand and pulled my eyelashes out with the other.

The idea of the work sheets was to be an exchange between my mother and the tutors. I would do worksheets with mom at home then give them to the tutors to be graded then had the graded papers with their absurdly low scores back to mom who flipped through them in despair and asked:

“What is wrong with you?”

At one point I flipped through a stack of the packets and listed my scores out under my breath: 5/100, 0/80, 6/120, 0/100, 0/60, 10/80.

In 3rd grade we lived in Pottstown Pennsylvania and my teacher was a leathery old bitch by the name of Mrs. Seaner. She had taught 8th grade previously and was under the impression that a pack of sticky 8 year olds could do high school level work. She gave out hundreds of pages of home work everyday with absurdly short deadlines.

Being the shitty and stubborn student I was I took home the amount of home work I thought appropriate and did it half assed. The rest I slipped under the books in my open front desk to moulder until I ran out of space. The homework packets couldn’t stay there.

I had to hide the bodies.

In Pottstown we lived just through the woods behind Ringing Rocks Elementary so I walked home.  The soil of our rural landscape was soft and the shallow grave was easy to dig. Out of my Rainbow Brite back pack the stack of papers came and into the loam they went. I repeated this process for the rest of the year. When my mother and Mrs. Seaner asked about the reams of missing assignments I’d widen my eyes to Bambi like size and ask:

“What homework? Did you hand them out? I must have never gotten them!”

They both then told me I was full of shit and ran off another set of worksheets for me to have done for the next day.

Looking through that new stack of failures years later in my bleak little Kumon cubical I knew.

I knew I had to get rid of more bodies.

I stuffed the packets with the lowest scores up under my shirt and crept off to the bathroom. I sat on the toilet seat and stared into the red ink. Could I take them home and get rid of them there? No too risky. Mom went through my back pack the minute I got home for the days assignments. Sneak out side and throw them in the dumpster? No, I’d attract too much attention…

I hung my head and gazed bleakly at the rim of the toilet between my knees. The packets crackled dully from where they hid in my shirt. I pulled them out and looked at them.

Then back at the rim of the toilet.

Five seconds later found me crouched on the floor by the can assiduously shredding the worksheets into confetti. I finished with one and sprinkled them into the bowl and pulled the handle.

In a blue Clorox swirl the water flushed away my troubles. I began my work on the second. Then the third.

On the fourth packet I was feeling cocky and invincible. After shredding it into bite sized number chunks I flung them festively into the bowl and promptly dropped trow and urinated on them.

Mom was pissed about the low scores when I came home that night but not as much as she would have been seeing the zero scores.

“Wait.” She said rifling through the packets. “There aren’t enough. Weren’t there more?”

“They…didn’t…finish grading them.” I gave her a sweet smile.

“Ok. Well sit down. It’s math time.”

The rest of my tutoring continued with usual hair pulling until a year later I managed to beat the system. If beating the system meant that I was an unteachable moron I suppose. My mother eventually gave up on bringing me up to the level of my class mates and just prayed she could keep me focused enough to pull down a D required to pass for the year.

I like to think she spent the saved tuition money on bottles of Merlot to unwind after a hard day of dragging me kicking and screaming through the education system.

Mom and Dad managed to get me graduated from high school and I absconded to an art university where when asked about taking a math class “Blow me” was an acceptable answer.

Now my day job involves  unfortunate repeated clashes with sums. Counting the cash drawer yields a plethora of unique results none of them the correct balance of $300. When confronted with cash transactions my boss at Das Hotelenstien eventually advised me to “go find someone else”.

I’ve gotten slightly better at splitting charges providing the guest in question speaks slowly and calmly and doesn’t wear bright, distracting colors. I’ve maybe grown a little bit in my skill at addition at least.

But every time the check arrives at the table after dinner I snatch it up and wave it in Marks face.

“Mark! What’s the tip on this! Mark, calculate the tip for me!!”


17 Responses to “Higher Math”

  1. Erika Moen October 2, 2010 at 4:18 am #

    Oh God, Leia, this essay strikes so close to home for me. Even though it was a good read and I did laugh out loud and quote some of my favorite lines to Matt, I still feel this re-awakened sick dread in my stomach. I, too, was a complete. math. moron. I, too, went to Kumon. I was also alarmed at the bleak face in the O. Having tutors get frustrated at me with my complete inability to understand multiplication and division, telling me to knock it off with the tears because it wouldn’t get me out of the work. The humiliation that I absolutely, fundamentally, could not understand these concepts that everyone else could effortlessly. At fourth grade my reading level was at a 12th grade one, but in math I was just completely fucking hopeless. An idiot. God, I could go on and on with the humiliating anecdotes.

    And it’s never gotten better! I still struggle with multiplication and division. It’s so fucking embarrassing.

    But, whatever. I draw boners for a living. Math can go fuck itself.

    • Erika Moen October 2, 2010 at 4:22 am #

      Oh, and Matt wants me to say that he totally relates too.


  2. Hugin October 2, 2010 at 4:30 am #

    Kumon sounds idiotic. That’s exactly the wrong way to teach struggling kids. It’s perfect for lazy kids or kids with attention issues, because it makes them do the work now, but for kids who don’t already know the material, you need someone to explain the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of it, slowly, in several ways, until you find the one that they can understand. All worksheets do is make them guess.

    • ahappygoluckyscamp October 2, 2010 at 4:53 pm #

      You know it actually works if you have a kid that CAN grasp the how with a little bit of coaching and the drills to back it up.

      It’s an immersive learning tank, I was just that helpless.

      Oh and stubborn.

      Oh and fuck all that noise.

  3. Robert Hutchinson October 2, 2010 at 8:57 am #

    (pointed here by Erika Moen)

    I have to admit, I was one of those disgusting children who *looooooved* math, but this was still a fascinating essay.

    I cannot understand the appeal of “drilling” math as a form of teaching. It seems to me that 30 minutes is much better spent getting even one problem right, and understanding *why* you got it right, than messing up 20 problems and wanting to kill all numbers.

    Oh, and I got a good laugh at your drawing of the Kumon logo. What a comically austere, despondent little face you gave the O! Then I looked it up on Google Images. DEAR GOD WHAT NO.

    • ahappygoluckyscamp October 2, 2010 at 4:55 pm #

      =D Thanks for reading!

      I know right? That is the ACTUAL logo. I like how usually the goal is to trick kids into thinking homework is fun but the Kumon O just didn’t have the energy for it anymore.

      • Robert Hutchinson October 2, 2010 at 5:06 pm #

        I just checked this response on my phone, and there was a Google ad for … Kumon Learning.


    • Yayoi October 3, 2010 at 8:06 am #

      Well, Kumon works if you already understand the concepts and just need drilling to get faster and faster at it. It’s not for people who have difficulty grasping the concepts. The idea is to practice so much you can just look at 345+423 and know it equals 768 almost as quickly as most people know 2+2=4.

      • ahappygoluckyscamp October 3, 2010 at 9:56 am #

        That’s probably why it didn’t work for me.

  4. Adam E. October 2, 2010 at 2:35 pm #

    Leia, your blog is pretty much my favorite thing on the internet right now. Whenever I read your posts, I secretly think about plagiarizing them, adding funny drawings, and passing them off as my own.

    Oh, and you know, I never learned how to do long division. I was sick the day Mrs. Hawk taught the lesson, and never once in my life have I needed to use it. Fuck math!

    • ahappygoluckyscamp October 2, 2010 at 4:58 pm #

      Oh my god! Oh my GOD. You read my blog? =DDDDDD You drew a picture of lady hobos scissoring! Can we be besties?

      Did you ever learn algebra? The first time I saw that shit I was like: “What’s up, Letter A? Are you lost?”

      • Adam E. October 2, 2010 at 6:50 pm #

        Um, hells yes I read your blog, and you’re way funnier than me. Let’s be besties forever.

        Strangely, I went as far as calculus in high school, and got all A’s in my math classes. Thank god for calculators. My teachers never knew that I couldn’t do any math by hand.

  5. Sherry October 3, 2010 at 5:30 am #

    Great blog!

    Weird for me was, I enjoyed math and was pretty good at it until I hit the 6the grade. That’s when the school I went to started allowing scientific calculators in the classroom. From that point forward, my brain pretty much shut off. Like it realized, “hey, I don’t have to do this crap- this little doohicky can do it.” I barely survived any math class after that.

    Thankfully, my parents were ok with me getting F’s & D’s in one class since I made up for it by getting straight A’s in everything else & not getting knocked up at age 15 like many other girls (some my cousins).

    I’m sorry it was so horrible for you for so many years! I only had to suffer thru one bad year before my parents stopped pushing math.

    The Kumon is logo is sadly hilarious.

  6. Jackie October 9, 2010 at 10:02 pm #

    The first time I ever saw a Kumon logo was a few years ago in Montreal. The first thought that came to my mind was “That face is the face of a sad, retarded child who knows they’re different from everyone else. What kind of Canadian asshole came up with that logo?”

    Thanks to this essay, I now know it was a *Japanese* asshole who developed that logo. Thank you.

  7. Simone February 9, 2011 at 9:31 am #

    omigoshiloveyou! i can’t do math either. i would get so scared and embarrassed whenever the teacher would do the stupid bean-bag random-throwing-times-table-horror game. “simone! (throws beanbag to me). 7 times 8!” :::panic panic try to count on my fingers::: “uhh… 64?” i hated those middle numbers, the ones that weren’t as easy as 11×4 or 10×5.

    i also shove the check at my boyfriend and make him calculate the tip. though working as a server has helped me estimate, but what ends up happening is 20% is easier to calculate than 15 so everyone who serves me, no matter how shitty the service, gets 20%. hah. annoying.

    i still get panicky thinking about times tables. no idea how i made it through high school math. luckily i also went to a liberal arts college, where the correct answer to “what math are you taking?” was, “sustainable agriculture” (similar to your, “blow me.” math counted as a “natural science” so taking any “NS” course fulfilled your NS requirement. woohoo cows and pumpkins! boo math!)

  8. Annie VANDEHEY February 12, 2011 at 6:24 pm #

    I was helping a friend clean his house and he asked me if I was ADD too…..it floored me and I’ve been thinking about it ever since… After reading this, and some of your other stories I am now wondering about you…. But feel free to tell me to fuck off, we don’t know each other, although I did meet Erika at Stumptown a few years ago….:) your writing is killing me, it’s so funny. 🙂

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