Love in Algebra
Most nights in high school, I needed — demanded — that my dad help me solve for x, and he, as calm as ever, would sit down next to me at the dining room table with a stack of graph paper, a couple of mechanical pencils, and a thick eraser while I balled up tissues, threatened to throw my textbook out the window, and declared I would never, ever, as long as I live, need algebra.
Love is patient, and patience is working with double negatives. Love believes all and trusts all. And every morning before tests there would be a note next to my English muffins and orange juice: “Just follow the steps. Show your work.” My dad wanted me to believe in the process, but more, to believe I had the mind for understanding the process. He wanted me to have the confidence to show how I came to my conclusion — perhaps not the answer, but a conclusion.
There was Mr. Moerle, who would teach math with the intensity of a football coach fighting to win the Rose Bowl. The classroom phone would ring — a cue from the office that someone had an orthodontist appointment or that attendance hadn’t been taken — and without stopping his lecture on the difference between polynomials and non polynomials, he would pick up the phone, begin talking louder, and then slam it to the floor. We would flinch, but also we were delighted at the slight that we’d never be able to pull off without a week’s worth of detention. The delight, too, came from knowing that nothing was more important to our teacher than us understanding algebra. Teaching us algebra was Mr. Moerle’s love language.
In geometry, I learned from Mr. Hunter the beginnings of philosophy: If this, then that. What is true? How can one show the truth? Plus taking notes was, like, 70% of our grade. What I lacked in knowledge of the Pythagorean theorem, I made up for in insanely neat handwriting and meticulous notes. It wouldn’t surprise me if Mr. Hunter changed his grading rubric on account of me. If Instagram were a thing back then, my geometry notes would be trending: #goals. Or maybe Mr. Hunter saw something else that needed to be developed and the insistence on the note-taking wasn’t a courtesy to me — it was a push.
Then there was Mrs. Lenny. Despite the fact that I sat in the back corner of the classroom, or that I gave my best teenage girl, “You do not want to deal with the hassle and drama that will result if you call on me to solve for x” vibe, she always called on me. It’s like she didn’t even read my files and test scores from previous years.
And then there is the formula for a Tuesday summer night, driving your teenage daughter to soccer practice. The factors and integers include conversations that turn into fights, statements that are interpreted as nagging and/or disrespect, and the urgency of getting to practice on time. You’re working with lots of negatives, but this is the material you have; here is the equation. And so you say yes when she asks if we can listen to her music on the drive. You beam with pride when the friend in the backseat says, “WHOA,” because of how loud the music is, and your daughter turns to her friend, puts a hand on your shoulder and says, “This is how we do. My mom and I, we like it loud.”
And you roll the windows down and as the two of you sing together you think maybe what Mr. Eugene H. Peterson meant was that there is no solution for love. But there are an infinite amount of ways to say it.
This week take a statement from something you’ve read and write a poem that turns that statement on its head. Show us a new perspective. Like love in Algebra!
Thanks to everyone who participated in last week’s poetry prompt. Here’s a letter from Richard Maxson that we enjoyed:
Photo by bigbirdz, Creative Commons via Flickr. Post by Callie Feyen.
Browse other poetry prompts
If you have ever been in 8th grade, fallen in love, had a best friend, or loved reading, you will love this book. As the mother of an 8th grader, my other genuine hope is that my son will one day have a teacher as gifted as Callie.
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- Poetry Prompt: Library of Memories - March 6, 2023
I through my longing, searching, and reading I have come to realize that you were still alive and had been waiting for me. I thought you were gone. So many years had passed by since I’d seen you or thought of you, except in stories, always through the trances leading to our yesterdays. Eventually those faded into the long, drawn folds in the curtains of my responsibilities and became nothing more than dust on that fabric. You were gone, and whenever I did wonder about you, whenever you wandered into my dreams, wherever a memory found some passage into my overly-complicated life, I dismissed you with a smile and a shrug.
As an adult, there was no time for you anymore. I didn’t even entertain the idea that you would remember me. You must have grown too and become engaged in a life different from the one in which I knew you, a life unkind to a child, I know; that must have been my unconscious assumption. I fled from that life of anger and misdirected discipline from a father who had no reference for children. There were no birthday parties, no picnics, no lullabies. How brave of you to endure the years with only a few memories of your own: hours stolen in your room making up stories you acted out with plastic knights and soldiers, cities made of random wooden blocks and the sound of bells on a bicycle pushing dry ice, stacked with creamsickles and drumsticks topped with peanuts, the kind older boy who brought these treats and briefly lifted the sadness in your eyes. You must have felt I abandoned you, I so quickly vanished.
Can you imagine, as I rediscovered you, the swell of emotion that rose in my chest, like a tsunami, and poured from my eyes as it crashed over me? You were alive and still a child. You had fearfully been hiding, waiting for me to protect you all these years when I could barely protect myself. You knew all about me, about my searching, failed aspirations and marriages, my endless building of distractions and poor choices. And you cried for me. You tried to reach me in the labyrinth of dreams, in momentary acts of silliness and, at times, a laughter that overcame who I had become. You had been watching me live, who was convinced you were no longer here.
I know now that you are me. The books and the few sentences that began to change me, changed you. I became less fearful of my own life. I vowed to protect you and you emerged with all the wisdom of a child. The poet Rilke once asked,
Oh, Childhood! What was us going away? Going where? Where?
I read that not too long ago and I realized how I had come to ignore the values of your innocence and unencumbered perception.
It is difficult for me to speak these things. Speech is so fleeting and falters in our trembling voice. So, I am writing this to you and it has taken many years to do so. You deserve more and you shall have it from me, but for now, stay with me and I will protect you and let you grow with me. Welcome home.