sum /səm/ noun 1. a particular amount of money: “they could not afford such a sum” 2. the total amount resulting from the addition of two or more numbers, amounts, or items: “the sum of two prime numbers”
I liked addition. I didn’t mind carrying. It was division I hated. And subtraction. And borrowing.
In seventh grade I watched this preppy girl with a blonde ponytail just stomp all over this lesbian math teacher who was wearing an ugly vinyl coat. “You are a homosexual, aren’t you? Just admit it,” said Blonde Ponytail.
“That word doesn’t mean anything. It just means ‘same sex,’” said the math teacher, but the whole class knew that Blonde Ponytail had rattled her nerves and would rule each of their verbal exchanges for the rest of the year. I quietly removed “lesbian math teacher in vinyl coat” from my list of possible career options.
I was too slow at math anyway. I wanted to study genetics because I loved my seventh-grade science teacher, Mr. F., who taught us about dominant and recessive genes and was kind to that girl who broke down crying during her oral report about chickens.
But the bad math and science teachers added up. Freshman science teacher Mr. P. had been committed to a mental institution because he heard voices that told him he was Elvis with God living in his knee. When Mr. P. returned to teaching, he immediately did an Elvis impersonation for the school talent show, jumpsuit and all
Sophomore Biology was a madhouse because Mr. L. who was bald and had a handlebar mustache like a strongman in the circus would take attendance and then retreat to his office for the rest of the class period while we stole graduated cylinders to make into bongs.
Mrs. B. was a sour old coot who had no sense of humor and I suffered with her for two years of algebra and one of geometry. Junior year I wanted to take a chemistry class because I’d heard that class had the one good science teacher in the whole school, but on the first day I shared a table with these guys who had sexually harassed my friend, so I dropped it for study hall. I took exactly one algebra class in college taught by a guy who always ate cheap chow mein in the window of the Kung Fu Noodle Shop.
Then in 2011, a local politician demeaned my community college teaching career by saying, “You still have to teach them how to write? That’s worthless. That’s for high school.”
I wanted to say, “And who are you, lady? Some hack playing dress-up-West-Wing?”
Instead I thought, “I want to finally take that chemistry class.” Everyone seemed so happy with the STEM people. They made all the money.
To take chemistry, I had to take a math class first. Certainly working a couple of math problems would be less painful than all those years adjunct-teaching writing courses for pennies on the dollar.
It had been 23 years, so my last math class was older than some of my fellow students. On the first day, the teacher didn’t orchestrate all the complicated icebreakers used by English teachers. She finally mentioned her own name in the last ten minutes, just tossed it in as an afterthought.
On the second day, the Iraq War vet on my right asked, “Why does it smell like formaldehyde in the college cafeteria?” and the redhead guy on my left answered, “Homeless guy smoking PCP?” It was a feasible theory for the downtown campus, so all three of us laughed. I’d already found my people, two guys half my age.
Later that class the teacher was trying to make a joke about the old Kung Fu show on TV, but when she mentioned David Carradine, Redhead said, “What a way to die,” and I said, “Yeah, Michael Hutchence from INXS went the same way,” but the teacher said, “What was the Kung Fu nickname for a young student….yes, Grasshopper, when you can solve the quadratic equation, it will be time for you to go.”
That’s when I noticed the teacher was wearing a T-shirt with the words “Hairy Potter” underneath the image of a dog wearing the little Harry Potter glasses. What had I been thinking? Of course there would be no algebra class discussion on the topic of autoerotic asphyxiation.
After a few weeks I was really hating this kind of problem, ripped up my scratch paper, almost cried actual tears over it: “Solve for x,y, and z: 3/4x -5/2y-1/3z=-14; x+3/4y +7/2z=-26; 2x-3y-4z=-4.” Eventually I realized it was my sloppiness that was screwing me up. I crammed tiny numbers into corners of scratch paper. I couldn’t read my own handwriting.
Three days after Father’s Day, a Tucson police officer entered the classroom and called War Vet’s name. War Vet exited the room with the officer and whispered, “He’s probably here to tell me my father finally died.”
He came back five minutes later and said, “Yeah, my dad died.” I touched his arm. The girl in the next row touched his arm. Redhead touched his arm. Other classmates out of reach extended their arms as if in an effort to touch War Vet’s arm. War Vet stared straight ahead, seemingly unmoved. “I don’t care,” he said. “I don’t feel anything at all.” The teacher came back in and we solved for x, y, and z for the rest of the hour.
Towards the end of the term, a student who had been absent due to the birth of his child asked me to teach him how to solve a complex equation with plenty of exponents and negative exponents and four full equations stacked on top of each other in the form of fractions. As he watched, I executed this elaborate drawing, flip-flopping the fractions to divide, drawing arrows to little subsidiary equations I had to create, changing negative numbers to positives and positives to negatives. “There,” I said, “that’s how you do it.”
I received a reaction I hadn’t experienced since the stoner in the back row of my writing class at DeVry saluted that “We Real Cool” poem with a standing ovation. My classmate, the twenty-something new father, looked at me and said, “That was beautiful.”
Tucson writer and Moth storytelling slam winner Molly McCloy has published work in Nerve, Swink, and Slate. Find out more at mollymccloy.com.