The day I discovered that I was good at math, I was horrified. I felt as though Lucifer himself had risen from his fiery pit, and had stolen my soul. I was devastated. And I would never be the same again.
I had always hated math, and all math related topics. I especially hated my math teachers. Their personalities were so dry, I swore that if I blew on them they’d disintegrate like a pyramid of crumbs, and then scatter like dust in the wind. They were like desiccated fruit.
My algebra teacher, Mr. Connors, was the classic example of a geek, before geeks became popular. Black slacks, white crisp shirt, butch cut, pen protector in the pocket, horned rimmed glasses. I decided that he must be a virgin; I couldn’t imagine him getting passionate and sweaty. I would squirm when I thought what his kisses might be like; tight arid pecks, void of moisture.
Mr. Connors’ lessons were given in a steady monotone; an annoying drone about constants, variables, and Quadratic Equations that made me want to stand up and scream. There was the constant squeak and clatter of chalk against chalkboard, and what would spill forth were rows upon rows of nonsensical twaddle; parentheses and X’s where numbers should be; an annoying array of plus, minus and equal signs, spelled out as if they were actual sentences.
How dare this mumbo jumbo parade around as if they were sentences! The sentences I loved were made out of words. Beautiful strings of words, held together by stanzas and paragraphs; descriptive snippets which oozed with love, death, agony, and the mysteries of life. Poetry and literature; that is where the sentences I understood were nestled, safe in their beds of wisdom and communication.
These math sentences were unsightly, meaningless gibberish.
Because Mr. Connors was always writing his ugly sentences on the board, I had plenty of time to stare at the back of his head and his very red neck. I found this far more interesting than the rubbish he filled the chalkboard with. His neck bulged slightly at the collar; I decided this was his only physical imperfection. He was strangely flawless; I was certain he’d never dropped a spoonful of pea soup down his tie. He was a robot; an unfeeling android. It was Square Root this, and Square Root that, and I often felt tempted to sneak up behind him and bonk him on the head with a heavy metal object. Not to kill him, but rather to shut him up. “Bang, bang, Maxwell’s Silver Hammer came down upon his head,” I would sing under my breath, trying to block his mind numbing prattle.
I cut my Algebra class as often as I could, and only attended just enough to pass the course. In those days, they didn’t care too much about delinquencies from class; truants were rarely punished, and because we had few restrictions, graduating from High School really became our choice. No one was really going to force you to put in the necessary time; you were either going to work hard enough to pass, or you weren’t.
I was going to pass. I was going onto college, and I had planned on getting the highest degree I could earn; a PhD in Literature. I had dreams as big as a Harvest Moon; I was going to be a novelist; a journalist; a columnist, and a War Correspondent. I was going to work at the San Francisco Chronicle, and I was going to share the occasional giggle with Herb Caen, whose office would be just down the hall from mine. I was going to rub shoulders with leather elbowed novelists, who would puff on a pipe as they’d quip about their latest narrative. I would be a member of the elite Literati, and I would spend the rest of my life dedicated to perfecting prose.
Sadly, this was never to be.
When I was a senior in High School, my parents sat me down one day, and explained to me that they were moving to Hopland, to the country home my Dad had been building for a decade. They would give me a month; I had to get my driver’s license, which I had been putting off; buy a car, find a job, and find an apartment. I got my first credit card, and was in debt for $20,000 right out of the gate. I had no car, let alone anything to start a home.
Their announcement was one of the lowest moments of my life. I sat there dumbfounded; and I saw every dream I’d ever had for my future fly out the window, flapping merrily away, with little black wings. The depression was beyond tears; I was mute for a long time. “I’m still in High School,” I finally said, as low and soft as my voice would go. But nothing I said would have mattered. I had to become an adult seemingly overnight, and I knew that college would have to be put on hold. I needed a job. And I could no longer take on menial jobs as I’d done in my past; I had to earn a living. I had to pay rent.
I went to work full time at Insurance Company in San Mateo. I honestly couldn’t tell you what my job even was; not only don’t I remember, but it was so inane I hardly knew what I was doing then. But I do remember that part of my job was mailing out hundreds and hundreds of policy statements to clients. So I typed up a small note which said something like: “I’m a frustrated writer held captive in Corporate America; in a tedious repetitive job that will surely suck the life out of me. If you can help me realize my dreams, and be a working writer, please call me at this number. 726-4854. Thank you.” I then took this note and made hundreds of copies of it, carefully cut each one out, and piled them on my desk next to the stack of policies. Before I would enclose the policy in the envelope and seal it, I would tape one of these little notes to the bottom of the page.
No job offers came from this. But it did earn me a trip to the boss’ office, when a client called and complained. And this led to another meaningless job and to another. I decided that if this was going to be my life, I would rather be dead.
But the nightmare only worsened in intensity. It was a beautiful autumn day, and my boyfriend was sitting on the patio in my front yard, doing his Algebra homework. He was whining and groaning; making sounds that were familiar to me, as they were similar to the noises I made when forced to listen to the incessant drivel from Mr. Connors. I ignored his feeble attempts to gain my pity; and while I had great empathy for his plight, I was determined to go nowhere near his math book. “Heeelllllllllllllppppppp Meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee,” he would bleat, as he would bang his head against his book.
I didn’t understand what pleasure could be found in math. The whole idea of math was that it was a solvable puzzle; it was only a mystery until it was unraveled. It was a concrete science; and answers were either wrong or right. But there was always an answer; there was always a finite conclusion. Even if that answer was infinity.
Words intrigued me, because in my mind they were the reverse. The beauty of words was that there was no answer; literature and poetry are just beautiful chains of ambiguity and questions, strung together delicately, with the most invisible of filaments. There is no wrong or right; there is no black or white. It was an imperfect science without any conclusion.
“Help meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee,” he pleaded again.
“You know I hate math. Stop bugging me. I wouldn’t be of any help anyway. Do you know I barely passed Algebra in High School?”
“I know, I know, but just read this ONE problem with me, please. Maybe you can give me some perspective; something I cannot see. PLEASE. I can’t figure out what it MEANS.”
Rolling my eyes, I walked toward him, and toward the dreaded math book. I took a disinterested glance downward, and saw those strings of math sentences; just like the ones Mr. Connors would write on the board; the same ones that filled me with dread, confusion and loathing.
Imagine my horror, when I stared down at the page, and I could suddenly read them.
It was like staring at a page of words written in a foreign tongue that suddenly make sense. We’ve all seen pages of Chinese or Farsi; strange symbols that appear like nonsense on the page; and while we know that others can read the words written there, we also know that no matter how hard we try, we’ll never be able to decipher their code.
That was the way Algebra always felt to me, and in this one moment, when I stared at the page, it felt like I looked at a Chinese book and could suddenly, miraculously, read Chinese. But I didn’t feel joy; as if a magic wand had just given me a special gift of seeing; rather I was utterly sickened.
In short, this led me to becoming an accountant. Without any training, the double entry system made sense to me upon first glance. My mind wrapped around the entire accounting concept; as if I’d always known it. And unfortunately, I was very good at it.
When I would come in for interviews, I would often get similar remarks. “Wow, you’re not what we usually expect when we interview for an accountant!” They always said it in a jolly but judgmental way, which caused the hair on the back of my neck to stand up. With my wild hair, and robust personality, they couldn’t quite imagine me sitting quietly in a corner office, seriously clattering away on an adding machine.
But I tried to fit in. I tried to look like an accountant. I tried to look like Mr. Connors.
In the early days, I would don panty hose, heels, and business suits; I talked in a monotone business-like way. I was efficient and calculated. Strangely, somehow, someway I could never truly hide who I was. I don’t know if it was my wild hair or wild eyes, or that I wore too many rings on my fingers. Perhaps it was my hearty laugh, which I couldn’t suppress from bursting forth when something struck me as ironic. But somehow they always figured out that beneath my business demeanor lived an untamed poet, aching to write.
I did beg for a job at the San Francisco Chronicle once. And I mean, I really begged. I decided to write a letter that would scream my true passion to such an extent that someone would feel my crazed enthusiasm, and like a freak accident, would offer me an interview. They sent back a personalized letter which was quite kind considering, saying they enjoyed my writing samples, but I needed more experience to become a columnist.
Somewhere along the line, I did find that there was actually a great deal of creativity in accounting. It was much more fluid than I had previously thought; I discovered that the Balance Sheet was actually something that could be manipulated. Not in a dishonest way, but a good accountant can book things one way or another to make the financials appear to the owner’s liking, depending on the scenario at hand. And on some level, I enjoyed making sense out of chaos, which is really what the job of the accountant is. Not to mention, it paid well.
But one year turned to a decade, and a decade turned to two. And as the years slipped by, I had built a resume of my life, which could scarcely be changed. The longer I worked as an accountant, the farther away I got from being a writer. When I would apply for writing jobs, I could really only offer 25 years as an accountant for my history. And every day I just slipped farther and farther away from my dream.
Over the years the ache has faded. Or perhaps I’m just in denial.
Because it still aches.