Another “write like you talk” piece. It’s good to be back in writing class.


I was never good at math, and not being good at math definitely made me think I was not very smart. It sucks to carry that around your whole life. I can trace it all the way back to second grade, which I’m sure is why I feel so anxious about my daughter’s second grade year in school. So much happens to us when we’re young, stuff that forms us, forms our sense of our selves for a long long time, if not forever… Anyway, I remember second grade. My teacher was Mrs. Hoanig. She had a beehive and horn-rimmed glasses. She was tall and kind of thick in the middle. She always wore a dress, with stockings and low-heeled pumps. I guess all the female teachers wore dresses. These were the days before girls could wear pants to school – even public school, which is where I was.


I think I had been out sick for a week or something, and I was behind in math. Maybe 20 pages behind in the workbook. It seemed insurmountable to me. Pure dread. And what is true now, was true back then. You can’t push me to do something. If you do, I’ll stand firm in my tracks and I will not budge. I guess Mrs. Hoanig was trying to push me to catch up, and the more she pushed, the more I resisted. My dad came in to have a meeting with her and after going around in circles with her for a bit, as he recalls, he finally demanded that she just “get off my back.” I don’t think it was a friendly meeting. The next day during math, Mrs. Hoanig asked me to open up my workbook and proceeded to tear out all the past pages I had yet to complete and rip them to shreds. I guess that was her way of getting off my back. A week later my dad had me moved to Mrs. Van Dyke’s class. I liked her. She was nice, and I didn’t seem to have any more problems in school, except that nagging sense that I was no good at math. I’m not sure how I found out, but somewhere in the chain of events it was revealed to me that Mrs. Hoanig thought I was a daydreamer, unfocused, lazy and, the pièce de résistance, “mentally retarded” – as they said back in 1969. That was confusing to me as a child as I didn’t really know what she meant. As I got older, it became very clear.


In retrospect, I was a pretty good student. My teachers liked me. I got A’s and B’s, but I never fancied myself smart. In high school I took honors Algebra because my mom, who taught English at the school, wanted me to have this particular teacher, John Richards, who was hailed as the best. Because I was getting a B, I begged Mr. Richards to put me in Algebra A/B, which was the “remedial” Algebra class. He refused and said I was doing well, that a B was good. He just wanted me to show my work. That’s the thing. I couldn’t. Algebra made sense to me on an intuitive level and I couldn’t always show my work. I just figured out the answers in my head. But not showing your work could lead a teacher to think you’re cheating, so I understandably lost credit for some correct answers I couldn’t prove.


I did badly on the SAT’s, I mean really badly. My combined score was something like 775, and a perfect combined score was 1600. I think we can all do the math on that one. Nonetheless, I got into USC based on my GPA, my writing ability and an audition for the BFA acting program. Thank God for acting or I never would’ve gone to college. Still, I hated the lower division core classes. Hated them. I tested poorly and didn’t do well under pressure. All I wanted to do was play, and acting was playing. I loved my sophomore year. It was all Shakespeare. And I had a huge crush on two of my acting teachers, one from whom I had the privilege of getting a very popular STD, but that’s another story… So let me just say that I freaked out 3 days into my junior year (my first full fledged panic attack), walked off campus and never returned. That was it. A full scholarship to USC and I trampled on it; looked that gift horse right in the mouth and walked away. What a fool.


When I was 30, I decided to go back to college and see if I might get myself a degree. With so much time having passed since I’d walked off the USC campus, I’d have to take algebra all over again. I don’t have to get an A, I thought, I just have to pass. I mean, we’re all impressed when someone graduates from Harvard, but really, does anyone ask their GPA? No. So… I enrolled.


I took an evening class designed for terrified adults who’d been scarred by math in one way or another and it was nice to be in a room of people just like me. Ann Carroll was the instructor. I will never forget her. She loved math. I mean she REALLY loved math, in a way that only genuine geeks could love it. She saw its beauty and thought it transcendent. She got so excited when she had the chance to share with us more over-arching mathematical concepts and the joy in discovering absolute truths. I loved her for this, and I loved this class. There were no timed tests. There was no pressure placed on grades. She wanted us to love math. She wanted us to settle in, be thoughtful, and contemplate. I looked forward to Wednesday evenings, and eventually I lost my fear of weekly quizzes. I got it. Finally, I understood.


At the end of the semester, Ms. Carroll gave us a practice final, and if we did well, we didn’t have to take the real one. I was hoping to do well, since not taking the final meant I’d get out of school two weeks early. I felt like a kid all over again, eager and impatient for summer vacation. On the day of the practice final, I came into class, sat down, and waited. My hands were clammy. Even after all these years as a grown-up, I was still nervous… and a little sick to my stomach. I hate tests. Hate them. Especially finals. God, they just sound so… terminal. Ms. Carroll handed each of us one sheet of paper with 10 questions. “Begin” she said. Breathe, I thought. You can do this. Go ahead and show your work even. You know how to do it now. The classroom was full and stuffy and had a nervous feeling about it. Fluorescent lights flickered above, the clock buzzed on the wall and the sound of pencils held in the hands of my classmates began to scratch on paper. My seat was hard plastic held to its metal legs by four cold steal rivets. The desks reminded me of grade school – pale green metal with a wooden top you could open to store your books. It felt good when my knees touched the underside, like an ice pack on my body in the heat of a fever. Ms. Carroll was at her desk in the front of the room, with that quirky, perpetual smile on her face. She had rosacea, which made her cheeks and nose look red and swollen like WC Fields. She wore the same thing she always did, an over-sized white blouse, khaki pants and Birkenstock’s. She had large floppy breasts and her bras just weren’t quite working for her. I could probably help her with that. but how in the world does a person broach that subject? Anyway… The chalkboard was empty. No equations, no scribbles, just a lone, unused eraser sitting on the tray of the board. My pencil rolled off my desk and fell to the floor. I picked it up and started to work.


About an hour later, I was done. I checked everything one more time, then got up to turn in my test to Ms. Carroll, who graded it on the spot. When she was done she stood up, interrupting the class. “Excuse me, everyone. “ I started to walk back to my seat. “No, no. Stay here, Kay” she said. I stayed, but started to get a little nervous. What on earth was she about to say, and oh God I hope I haven’t done something wrong. “I just wanted to let you all know” she said, “that in my entire teaching tenure, I have never had a student earn 100% on every quiz and every test and the practice final… until today. I think we all need to give Kay here a round of applause.” The students put down their pencils and applauded me as Ms. Carroll gave me a hug. “You’re free to go“ she said. “I really don’t have to take the final?” I whispered. “Nope. You’re done. Great job.” I smiled and thanked her. I didn’t know how to thank her enough. I went back to my desk to get my things as the class went back to their tests. I put on my back pack, walked out the door, and burst into tears.


So, Mrs. Hoanig, I guess you were wrong. I am smart. I’m not bad at math. And I’m not mentally retarded. It only took me 25 years to undo what you did. But, finally, I did. Whaddya think of that?