This one time, in third grade, I raised my hand during a math lesson.
I was legitimately perplexed in all non-literature or philosophy-based classes throughout high school. If I couldn’t make up my own answer and get full credit for defending it well, even if it was utter nonsense, garbage, or madness, then I wanted no parts of it. If it wasn’t a cognitive task based on abstraction, metaphor, or interpretation? Forget it. I was out. My brain recoiled in horror at the prospect of being asked to explain the role of the nitrogen cycle in…literally anything, or to do simple arithmetic in my head.
To this day, I freeze when I’m asked a question with a moderately-to-severely concrete answer. In my head, every possible variable is present, in equal priority. Row after row of potentiality with a perspective point of never. Possible correct answers, potential outcomes, a cornucopia of contextual what-ifs. Numbers are especially troublesome. Organizing an equation into a coherent cognitive framework is difficult for me at best, with calculators and an unlimited supply of pink erasers and scratch paper. Not to mention the sheer force of will it’ll no doubt take to tackle this hydra. On the fly? You’re high if you think I’m getting that done gracefully.
Anyhow, I raised my hand and Mrs. C (I won’t say her last name in public because this is a small town and someone will undoubtedly inform her or, should she no longer be with us, her next-of-kin, and I’ll have a whole new cross-section of Warren County ticked at me) did this really passive-aggressive eye roll that she always did whenever she was forced to interact with me.
If you’ve never had that one teacher that just gave you full-on nemesis eyes every time you darkened her doorstep you’re a liar. Everyone’s had that teacher at least once, and they’re one of the main boogeymen propping up our most irrational, reptilian social anxieties. We were doing subtraction, which for me has always been all the horror of addition but on crack. Addition takes me a minute but it makes logical sense. Subtraction, even if you’re a decent human being and write the problem vertically instead of horizontally, is basically like asking me to take a field sobriety test after sixteen hard ciders at your cousin’s wedding.
Unrelated aside: I’m available as a plus one for pretty much any wedding that involves me drinking sixteen bottles of hard cider.
The more you know. Moving on.
“I don’t get it,” I remember saying.
It was 1991, so you can put the faces away, millennials. Yes, I know I’m technically one of you, but we’ve established that numbers ain’t my game and I love GenX more. That was how people actually talked in 1991.
But thanks to my perennial status as the weird kid in class, earned during one Kindergarten story circle nightmare when a bee flew in through the open classroom door and I basically ran for the exit screaming that it was “time to go home,” I was a weird kid. I really hate people who tell me they were the weird kid in school and you know just looking at them that they were never, ever weird, at all, and even they mostly know that. The weird kid in school does not outgrow her awkwardness.
The weird kid in school grows up to be the adult in the office who makes everyone else mildly uncomfortable most of the time, except on special occasions, when she outdoes herself and makes everyone else in the office really, really uncomfortable for a period of time that’s inconvenient. Like the better part of an afternoon. Or three weeks at the end of March, when it won’t stop snowing and we’ve all resigned ourselves to the fact that we now live on the ice planet Hoth.
“What do you mean you don’t get it,” Mrs. C asked, exhausted. I knew she was exhausted because she audibly sighed as she called my name, after an unnecessary amount of time, because she just couldn’t even stand looking at it hanging there like a dead chicken in a meat shop window anymore.
“If we’re subtracting 24 from 67, do we start at 67 or 66?”
The entire class turned to look at me as if I had three heads and was currently on fire.
“I don’t even know how to answer that,” responded Mrs. C after a bewildered pause.
“Well,” I said, having the audacity even at the age of eight to kind of huff a little bit and roll my eyes back at her in open defiance of her bullying, but quietly, because I also felt very bullied, “is 67 the first number we count backward from, or is it 66?”
I’m not kidding you.
I sounded like a schizophrenic homeless person who lives in a dumpster behind the Dollar General. I know this. Hindsight is 20/20. Which makes it also cruel, and unforgiving. But in my head, the way my brain worked, it made perfect sense because I was seeing a hundreds chart.
I know. It’s gonna be fine. Just stuff the plutonium in the flux capacitor and journey with me to today.
Last week, today. Last Tuesday, to be exact.
I was sitting in the basement that’s now also a one-room schoolhouse, of which I am currently the teacher, principal, vice principal, nurse, guidance counselor, classroom aide, janitor, hall monitor, and lunch lady. I was prepping schoolwork for my kids, who are in the Warren County School District’s “Option 2”, which makes this entire 2020 dystopia feel 800 percent more Orwellian based on title alone. Also known as Virtual Academy. Also known as literally the very worst nightmare I could possibly ever imagine. The pinnacle of my deepest shame. I’d returned to third grade math.
And I was having a little bit of a flashback, if I’m honest.
Because in 1991 there was no such thing as a hundreds chart, and if there was I didn’t get that memo, because if I had I would have literally stood up on top of my tiny desk, in my tiny acid-wash overalls and white Keds, with my perfect, inexplicably feathered perm, and I would have said to every cretin in that room, “observe, fools, for I possess the evidence of my sanity. Look upon the hundreds chart, and weep.”
Something along those lines.
Definitely biblical, so vast was my righteous vindication as I sat there, at my kid’s virtual desk, prepping her virtual worksheets, and reading her virtual math lesson. Because there before me, carved into the face of a sheet of 50 pound white by the beam of a laser printer, in black, on white, was a hundreds chart.
You know how they teach kids to subtract in third grade today?
And guess what? You put your finger on the 66 if you’re subtracting from 67. Not on the 67. Because 66 is the first number, and neither shall it be 65, nor shall it be 68. The number shall be 66.
It is known.
My visual brain was a huge impediment to my education in 1991 and every year thereafter. Until about my junior year of college, when the English department opened its arms like the ark at the first clap of thunder and the best professor, and coolest authority figure, I’ve ever known in my life opened his arms and beckoned me in to be among my people.
It was an impediment not because I couldn’t learn like everyone else. It was an impediment because I was expected to adjust to meet the typical learning style. Because homogenization. It ain’t just for your moo juice anymore. The shame that went along with learning completely unlike my classmates followed me right into 4th grade, and 5th, and 8th and 12th and the first two years of college. I internalized so many negative core beliefs about myself because of the way I was educated in 1991.
I worried every day, when I sent my kids to school school, whether they were okay. Or whether they were struggling with the same awkwardness and shame, amplified by classmates and the occasional satanic concubine of a teacher like Mrs. C (who also assigned me Hungary during a social studies project that involved me standing up in front of the class, as the burliest of the girls there, and announcing that “I am Hungary,” so everyone, including Mrs. C, could snicker to themselves), that will follow them into every novel employment situation of their lives well into their thirties and, no doubt, beyond.
I’m really excited about my kids being homeschooled this year. It’s just that I’m also equally overwhelmed, and equally thrust back into what would set the tone for a lifetime of social struggles. I’m tired of the rhetoric that homeschooled kids don’t get socialized and that’s what makes them awkward. I’m exhausted of the rhetoric that the homeschooled kids are the ones with the problem.
How about we modernize that utter, utter nonsense?
How about, from now on, we acknowledge that sometimes the awkward kids would be a heck of a lot less awkward if we normalized the fact that they see a hundreds chart when everyone else sees a horrifying, horizontal subtraction problem?
How about that? For a change?