Normally I keep it pretty light around here, with the exception of expressions of love that bring to mind Viking death rituals costumed by Victoria’s Secret, with stage direction by Stephen King, but today’s topic is a little less humorous. Sorry if I’m chapping your buzz.
My sixth grader came home with some “factors” homework. Find
the prime factorization of 270,000. Well, fuck. I mean, when you think to
yourself, “Lord, I haven’t done this since sixth grade,” how important is this
shit? I used it in sixth grade and then not again for 33 years. Understandably,
I was a little rusty.
My son wanted to use his calculator to figure it out, but I
vetoed that because I’ve seen what he does. He just starts typing in random
numbers until something shows up on the display without a decimal point, and he
calls that shit good. Sorry, no.
Under the pretense of emailing the teacher for the
calculator use policy, I googled “factorization of 270,000” and got something
like 32 x 42 x 53. None of you math whizzes
out there need bother telling me that’s wrong. I’m pulling numbers out of my
ass to act as examples. But holy crap—I had no idea how we were supposed to arrive at that answer.
Fortunately my husband was home, and he took over, but
listening to him explain it to our son brought back the waves of insecurity I’ve
always had about math, the feeling of being confronted with a problem I didn’t
understand, and just wanting to put my head down and cry.
The worst thing is I know my son has the same anxiety. Even
though I share it, I have no idea how to help him. Nothing anyone ever tried
with me worked. Tutors, workbooks, one on one sessions with teachers—it all
seemed like a complete waste of time. I watch him struggle and I want to put my
head down and cry now, because I can’t help him, even though I understand the
struggles his brain goes through. Nothing makes you feel more hopeless as a parent
than not being able to help your child, even though you know exactly what they’re facing.
I know he looks at a problem with that many zeroes and shuts
down. “That number is too big,” he thinks, “I have no idea what to do.” That’s
when he starts typing random shit into the calculator, in the hopes that the
little piece of plastic that never makes an arithmetic mistake will magically
provide the answer. When that doesn’t happen, he’ll just give up, unless
there’s someone pushing him. If that’s happening, it’s actually worse. One of
the traits he inherited from me is stubbornness. I can see the same look on his
face that I got on mine when I was determined I “didn’t get it,” and was going
to give the fuck up. It's terrible to feel like you’re
looking in a mirror and you just want to slap the expression off your
reflection. But when your reflection is your first born child, against whom if
anyone ever raised a hand, you would lash out like a vicious fury, cutting down the
threat with a single blow, you feel like a complete failure. What kind of
monster wants to smack their kid for a feeling they totally get and have experienced themselves? Me. I am that monster.
I wish I could say this whole experience ended on a happy
note. It did not. In my stress over my child’s math homework, I fucked up
dinner, and ended up sitting on a chair in the kitchen while my husband tossed
almost every (repulsive) thing I’d made out. Word of advice: if you normally
make your stuffing with sausage (I do), and you don’t have sausage to put in it,
don’t use slab bacon. Yuck.
But there I sat, on the verge of tears, ostensibly because
of the disgusting dinner, but really for the reasons I’ve outlined above about
my frustration over my complete inability to be of any help to my child, and my
frustration over having seemingly passed on this math anxiety/stubborn asshole
personality combination to him.
My oldest is the most caring, sweetest, loving little boy
that ever lived. When he heard my husband ask, “What’s wrong with you? You look
like you’re about to cry,” he came over and said, “What’s wrong, Mommy? Don’t
cry, Mommy,” and hugged me as hard as he could.
That should have made me feel better, but it made me feel
worse. I remembered being his age and finding my mother in tears. I remember
asking her what was wrong (the answer was, lots of things over lots of years).
She would tell me, and I would hug her, and tell her how much I loved her, and
that everything would be OK. She would smile weakly, and hug me back, and
acknowledge that I was right. But then I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t
happy right away. Wasn’t what I just did sufficient to make it all better?
Wasn’t that what you wanted to hear? Wasn’t I right? Everything was fine now, wasn’t it?
But it wasn’t then. And it won’t be now. And I don’t know
how to make it be. And I know he walked away feeling like he hadn’t done
enough, that he had failed at cheering me up, and not sure what else he should have done. The answer of course is,
“Nothing.” Sometimes people just have to get through things on their own, and
nothing you can do is going to fix it. There’s no magic calculator to give you
the answer. You just have to work your way through it.