Children, Learning


“Do you ever have nightmares?” He is soaking in a too-hot tub and hasn’t yet worked up to dunking his head under.

That’s easy. “Yep. Rising water.” I trail the washcloth across his knees.

“What was the worst one?”

I remember it too well. His blonde mane disappeared under the surface of a brown lake and I couldn’t get to him. My hand plunged down and I tried so hard, his hair slipping out of my fingers. “It has you in it. Do you want to hear?”

He shakes his head. “No. The worst one about you.”

I describe leaping off the bow of the ship into the open ocean before realizing my folly. “It’s not really about drowning,” I say. “Drowning is a metaphor.” We’ve talked about analogies often enough but he still gives me a blank stare.

“Remember? You and I rushing out the door in the morning is like stepping on firecrackers.” He nods and returns to poking his fingers up through bubbles. I try to explain that the dream of water probably has something to do with feeling like I have too many chores and I can’t keep track of everything.

The shampoo is a blue jewel in my palm. His hair a gold fish slipping past. He buries his eyes in a dry towel. “What’s your second worst dream?” He mumbles through the terrycloth.

“The test,” I answer without a beat. That endless, infernal, always-on-the-brink-of-failure test. Exam time, class I forgot to attend, no studying, clock ticking, panic mounting. . . How many decades of this? How many millions of us? I laugh as I describe the dream. “When you get older, I bet you and your friends are going to talk about having the exact same dream.”

“What’s the test?” He dunks his washcloth all the way to the bottom and lets it float up under his knees.

“Algebra II. Always with the Algebra II!”

“What’s that?”

Damned good question, my son. Here is the sound of evasion: “Well, it’s a class I failed and had to take over. Get this.” I reach back to a basket of magazines by the door and pull out an old Harpers. “This guy Nicholson Baker has a whole story in this famous magazine that even your grandparents read. It’s all about how hard Algebra II is and how it’s taught so badly people all over the world hate it.”

I open to page 31 and start reading about the elegance of mathematics lost to a global loathing for the subject. Baker sums up the misery and bafflement of generations of students by quoting a middle-aged college professor who admits to taking algebra unsuccesfully three years running:

I have no idea, to this day, why I find math, and algebra in particular, so excrutiatingly hard, but I do. I admire those who can learn it, but I could no more master algebra than I could leap off a roof and fly. The experience of being made to reenact your inability, over and over, is deeply warping. . . If you continually ask a one-armed man to play guitar, he’ll either come to hate himself or hate you.

The piece goes on to explore curriculum reform of the early 20th centry, the rise of New Math, and the push to place even stricter requirements on schools and students. Baker implicates the arguably misguided, myopic advocacy of such “Standardistas” as Arne Duncan and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Instead of making math more accessible and enjoyable, they support the expanded reach of such texts as the Algebra II Common Core which Baker describes as a

highly efficient engine for the creation of math rage: a dead scrap heap of repellant terminology, a collection of spiky, decontextualized multistep mathematical black-box techniques that you must practice over and over and get by heart in order to be ready to do something interesting later on, when the time comes.

Baker makes a strong case for revising the standards and adapting instruction to make math simpler, more applicable, historically richer, and fun. Introduce everyone to the basics, he argues, and allow those students who are so compelled to explore it further. Stop requiring Algebra II for college admissions.

Forcing every child to suffer the Iron Maiden of an advanced mathematics they are very unlikely to need doesn’t create a numerate citizenry. Quite the contrary. It produces one generation on top of another of innumerate citizens who despise and fear all things quantitative. They will assiduously avoid all through their long lives any endeavors that may require math, no matter how compelling or lucrative those endeavors, because of a firmly planted perception that they are genetically incapable of understanding it.

This issue of Harper’s has been in the loo for months but this is the first time I’ve given it more than a cursory glance. As I flip through, a flood of relief rushes over me. Their bellies may have had stars, but I wasn’t the lone Sneech with no stars upon thars.

The tide goes out just as quickly as it had come in. All that’s left is a little eddy of regret. It’s far too easy to become blind to the elegance of mathematics because of some noxious residue that clings even decades after clawing out of that 10th-grade hell.

The road to math conversant is a rutted and unmarked. It is especially tough when you’ve bitten your tongue raw trying to shape a grammar the blackboard neither translates nor palliates. But I’m not mute yet. Defiance and a little luck has created a world in which Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea resides on my bedside table. On a good day, I can almost hold up my end of a conversation with an engineer who happens to be smitten with the Fourier Series.

I realize now you don’t have to suck at something or master it completely. You have every right to mess around with any art or science that strikes your fancy. Knitting? Tantric poetry? Give ’em a go. History of fertile crescent? Read up. Hydroponic tomato farming? Dig in. It is possible to enjoy a subject as a dabbler without dragging six extra tons of emotional baggage into every encounter with it.

Which is why at this moment I stop reading out loud.

I glance over the steam-wilted pages at my son who is now regarding the whorls in his fingertips. Bug really doesn’t need to hear about a mass aversion to any area of human experience. My job is not to help close doors. Bug’s fondness for the puzzles of mathematics has pretty strong roots. I hope they are more stubborn than mine.

Into the pause he asks, “What is algebra?”

I show him one of the equations on the page. “Like that stuff your granddaddy is always writing.”

“But what is it?”

Geez. Fine. I close the magazine and punch through the wall of resistance into the place where learning cobbled together some kind of a permanent residence.

“It’s like this: the letters are called variables. They mean something else.”

This is also that.

His hair is a silk drape caught on a current. His eyes are the wall of a cresting wave.

“The letter stands for a certain number. Let’s say X equals 2. What’s 2X?”

Bug thinks for less than a beat.


“Exactly!” We both break into wide grins. “Baby, you are on it. If X is 2 and Y is 3, what’s X plus Y?”

“Five,” he says. “Duh.” He tries not to smile.

“Yes it is.” I hold up my hand and he slaps me a wet high-five.

I help him from the tub and wrap him in a turqouoise towel he’s about to outgrow. I used to lift him to the mirror after baths and we would look together at the little pointy hooded face peeking out. “You are a blue fairy. A red caboose. An ice cream cone,” I would murmur.

“What else?”

“A butterfly. A galaxy.”

“What else?”

“You are a kitty cat. A mountaintop. A blind cyclops. A book.”


Every time, we ended there: A kiss into his damp hair. A whisper, “And you are my beautiful little boy.”

This is that.

Solve for X.

Math is magic. Algebra is pain.

The variables do not remain constant.

You are your story.

Metaphor is fate.

“Wrong Answer: The Case Against Algebra II” by Nicholson Baker can be found in the September 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine.


Animate Object

I find I incorporate gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss, fruits, grains, esculent roots,
And am stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over,
And have distanced what is behind me for good reasons,
But call any thing back again when I desire it.

– Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

I need a new metaphor for strength. Since my late teen years, thanks to powerful role models and fantastic friends, I have seen myself as a strong woman. It helped to come of age protesting the first Gulf War. I can still remember Vietnam era activists visiting my high school to provide training on sit-ins and passive resistance. They were eager to share their wisdom with a new generation of outraged citizens. I was hungry for it. By the time I was nineteen, I was standing in the town square, raising my own fist and quoting Oscar Romero and Audre Lorde in a tireless call to rally the masses (however trifling they may have been) to right the latest wrong.
I was strong. Everyone told me so, but I did not need to hear it from them. I knew it inside. I knew that when I walked, I embodied the determination of a warrior. I painted the image with my fingers onto the walls of my mind, urging it to life:
A revolutionary leads the call-and-response of the swelling army. Eyes blazing, posture unshakable, voice speaking truth to power in rhythm with a thousand comrades.
Never mind that at night, fear and uncertainty would grip my heart and squeeze out the tears. Never mind my confusion pounding itself into the pages of my journal or into the recoiling chest of some lover. Come morning, I was strong. Raise the flag, compañeros! March into battle.
Nineteen also welcomed the genesis of my running life, and my body grew lithe and powerful alongside the public persona. I began to dance soon after. In the studio, I tapped into a creative capacity I had never known existed down there under the surface of things. Being able to speak for a more expansive way of being through movement only increased my vocabulary and enhanced my sense of potency. The form of dance I first explored – contact improvisation – allows dancers to move together around points of contact, using weight and gravity to form beautiful, fleeting pieces. Pure expression. Such power lives inside the ability both to lift and be lifted by muscle, bone, and intention. Sweat poured. Legs hardened. I felt lengthened and electrified by movement. In long strokes, another symbol:
A whitetail deer bounds up and over the hillside, never caught by bramble or tar pit. Reaching. Free.
Simultaneously, the mind demanded its perpetual improvement. College gave way to facilitation and teaching. Writing became central. Graduate school was next, followed by more teaching. Along with the decision to develop expertise in an area (any area!) came the simultaneous commitment to eschew short-lived comforts in the interest of the long-term investment. As both student and teacher, I would sleep while others socialized, wake up at dawn, study for hours while my peers slumbered, and plunge all my attention into the heart of the question at hand. In the interest of inquiry and craft, I maintained the ascetic self-image.  I did not drink or watch television, I did not bother with fashion concerns beyond basic grooming. In this fastidious attention to my work, I felt invincible. I painted the life into it:
Leonardo da Vinci, hands grasping a brush, a bone, a chart. Heaps of books litter the space. Sketches and diagrams and spilled ink on pages of formulas. Behind his stillness, his eyes are a frenzy of motion.
Then, years turned into a decade or more, and I acquired a marriage and a child.
Whatever I believed to be true about myself not only thinned under the relentless rub of these primal and primary relationships, it bled. Bug’s intensity from the moment of his arrival until today, 5 ½ years later, has demanded a kind of responsiveness from me that is not my natural strength. Patient attention to another human being for days, weeks, years? Staying steady in the face of flash and fury? Living with constant yet unpredictable interruption and need? So much for da Vinci and Archbishop Romero. Neither of them had kids. Family and its strange, claustrophobic isolation sapped my strength and rendered my metaphors impotent.

My fingers drip with paint but the wall flexes its blank expanse. How quaint those old symbols seem now that they are emptied of their magic! In the absence of a functional concept of power, I find myself regressing to the ways of my elders. The patterns raked into this soil early in my life, far before I chose my own way, become the trenches that both trip me and trap me. I do what comes unconsciously when faced with these new, completely unexpected challenges.
Bug is aggressive and erratic, and I find myself tensing into a tight ball and barreling down on him like a bull in the ring. Is this strength? It feels strong, but the fit is wrong, and the chilling fallout indicates this approach weakens us both.
When I have to get through a hectic morning, I power up like a pneumatic drill. Snapping back help and narrowing my gaze, I grind with gritted teeth through each task. Constriction. Tension. Stress. Is this strength? It feels strong as well, but the power is deafening. Stiffening. A good way to snap.
My work situation is still less than adequate to support us financially, and I am Atlas, taking on everything and then some. I bear it all and look for other opportunities, and seek seek seek a way up and out. Is this strength? It, too, feels strong, but it leaves me sapped and hopeless. An absence of faith is the opposite of strength. It is defeat.
All the oldest ways of being strong – not ways I have chosen, but ways I have learned regardless – are the ones I am relying on now. Guard and push and limit and clutch.  Come up with plans of action based on the idea that something is lacking and must be added, improved, removed, or fixed.
My notions of power are in need of renovation.  As a working single parent struggling to make ends meet, living with her parents, and trying to learn from the failure of a marriage while dating and co-parenting – in short, as a person whose situation is wholly different from any she has faced in her past – what symbols do I animate? How can I draw true strength into this unfolding story? A metaphor is a gift Daedalus fashions to lift the narrative up and out of the turmoil of conflict and into the breathing space of redemption. Where do I let the wings carry me?
These days, I am sketching the rough outline of a few to see how they fit. One is bamboo, bending in the highest wind but not breaking. Another is riding the surf, staying loose, knowing another wave will hit, and feeling the way. I even try to hold onto a picture of oysters at the bay’s edge, adapting as the sea leaks into their beds. Instead of withering, I imagine adjusting the needs and ways of my flesh to the shifting climate.
So, tonight, I spread my palette with gneiss and stir in snippets of long-threaded moss. I let my fingers make the first strokes as the shadow of a new strength unfurls on the cave wall.  As my hand does its uncertain work, I notice the ghosts of the ones that came before. Thank heavens I quieted my impulsiveness and did not wipe them clean. In a far corner, the others – warrior, deer, and scholar among them – begin to stir.

And have distanced what is behind me for good reasons,
But call any thing back again when I desire it.

Because life is what it is, I suspect the toughest days are ahead. Fortunately, magic is never gone from anything that once possessed it. The old symbols, and even this old girl, may have a bit of juice left. It does not need to be much. Just enough to give awakening breath to the life unfolding before my eyes and right here, at the tips of my fingers.