Making Out: Calculating

Making Out is a series centered on how Jess Burnquist, mother, writer, and teacher is "making out' as she processes adolescent issues amid the glare of parenthood and the shadows of nostalgia.

Image source: Flickr.com

In fifth grade, Lilly misses almost two weeks of school because her asthma requires hospitalization and attention at home. It is clear that her most affected subject is math.

1 mother and 1 daughter hold an immeasurable amount of dreams. If dreams are distinguishable from goals, should the goals come first? If the mother identifies a goal as ‘daughter will succeed in an area in which I did not’-- is that a dream?

When I was in fifth grade, my parents announced their divorce. I began to fail math. I felt as though I couldn’t catch my breath when fractions and ratios were being explained and solved on a board which wobbled through tears that welled but never spilled. Have I passed this onto my daughter during gestation? When I try to assess the gaps in her learning, am I assessing the ones from my past? When her breath is shallow and labored, my guilt is bone deep.

Mother is responsible for monitoring the progress of daughter. If an egg timer is placed on the fading green card table, and daughter is given grains of sand as confidence, how long before said confidence is exhausted and what are the odds that she will remember to flip esteem to a higher plane of self? What is the ratio of love to application?

And when I did go home with an F scrawled into the paper-style report card, my father’s voice was inked in anger. He arrived that Friday with a stack of textbooks and instructed me to "learn them". I was zero divided by zero. The equation of my family was false. Long division felt like a mockery because my family of four was divided and how could anything I had ever known remain?

Lilly doesn’t understand that my focus on her breath has been the sum of her existence. I have never been good at solving for the unknown, but it is still possible to see the big picture. It is the small details that evade my grasp. Such details are not used in daily life, at least consciously. I am in the kitchen preparing dinner and it occurs to me that I have never had to reduce a recipe because our family is intact. I also realize that my daughter may not readily know 4 ÷ 0. Her teachers blame her absences. I think it may be the opposite.

As a desert monsoon begins to build, daughter’s emotions swell in tandem with the souring of mesquite. If mother becomes the thunder, how long will it take daughter to rain?

When she comes home with a failing grade, my husband expresses his concern about her focus and ability to follow through on turning in assignments. I stare out the window and the shadows reprimand me as mother, as teacher. The rain falls as we drive to the tutoring center. Windshield wipers whisper, you failed, you failed. Lilly says she is sorry. She misunderstands my disappointment in myself as displeasure with her. I don’t know how to help her because my math comprehension remains on a stack of textbooks I struggled to learn. I assure her that she is bright and that we will tackle this together, and that I am not mad at her. Inside, I know that everything outside of our car is moving faster than I can compute. And so is she.

A computer screen glows. Mother instructs daughter to make the screen read Algebra: Summer Session 1. If mother retreats to the kitchen, stirs some sauce, makes a deal with God and returns to her daughter, how many screens will illuminate the world without algebra?

The house becomes a war zone. I am soldier, I am general, I am a casualty. Lilly is on the front lines but the enemy is really on her side. Her attention drifts like an escaped balloon. Her ability to measure her progress is impossible because she is beginning to doubt that she can improve. I begin to advocate. My husband pulls me into my seat during a conference with her P.E. teacher who chastises us for Lilly’s absences. I explain that this recent round of missed class was a direct result of her shaming Lilly for not wanting to run. So much so that Lilly did run. She ran at a slow rate compared to her peers and that night we ran her to the hospital. Husband rubs my back until my pulse begins to slow.

Plans are discussed. Doctors' notes are reviewed. The P.E. teacher is excused from the meeting and the Vice Principal mentions that she’s a tough old bird of a teacher, but that we’ve clearly done nothing wrong. Husband redirects the conversation to a workable plan. Yes, yes. Every night. Drills. Catch up assignments. In my head, I track medication and hours on the nebulizer. As I am about to speak a bird flies into a window. It slides down the glass. There is a stunned silence. Is the bird a metaphor for my daughter or for her burned-out teacher or for my desire to fly from this room.

When we arrive home, Lilly wants to know what her teachers, except for the P.E. one, said about her. Mostly, she wants to know what we said about her. We want to be honest but also avoid instilling a learned helplessness. It is time to address the issue beyond math. Is it hard for your to listen in class? Yes. Is it hard for you to not wiggle? Yes, but it’s only hard to breathe sometimes, she says. What should come first here, oxygen or algebra? The answer is easy.

Two tote bags contain shame. Mother’s tote bag fills with incomplete journals and to-do lists. Add to this three scraps of notebook paper on which mother has scrawled angry confessions about her inability to help solve for x. Daughter’s tote bag is as tangled as daughter’s honey hair. Subtract all elements of organization and multiply by thousands of generations of contempt for X. Who is left with y. Why?

We will implement a routine, I say. Every night we will review the contents of your backpack before we do homework. Only, my job is a take-home job and I am tired, and husband works until 7 pm and I have a son who needs help with a project and our cat is sick, the mortgage is due and everyone is hungry. I will check something every day, I say, but please feed the cat, and then Lilly has an asthma attack.

My mother helps us to replace our carpet with allergy free flooring. We find a pulmonologist who makes Lilly blow out candles on a computer screen by blowing through a tube. Medications are adjusted. Notes are written to teachers who doubted. Hope flames on that computer screen cake. Meanwhile, math slides from my daughter’s grasp like a bird down a glass pane with no visible end.

I must work to divide myself from her image. Like a function of the automatic nervous system, the scoldings and admonitions regarding my struggles with algebra in the middle grades and high school flood my mouth. I swallow and gag. You will miss opportunities if you don’t get this under control -- I let this phrase burst forth. She is fifteen now. I am holding her up to a future she may not be dreaming of but she has failed second semester algebra. Her grades in general do not tell the story of our child as we know her. How to help her change this plot? We enroll her in summer school.

Daughter rubs her eyes, and adds vinegar to her voice. She asserts for the tenth time, I’ve got this. Mother begins to list a parade of failing scores then stops and confronts the mirror. How many times will this scenario play out from sunrise to sunset and for how long?

By the end of the first day, it is clear to me that this online class will be too hard. The pace exceeds her ability to concentrate. We wake her by 9 am every day in June and feed her breakfast plus 2 prescribed pills to help her focus. A diagnosis came in April of her freshman year as did statements of reassurance. This is not your fault. This is not her fault. I worry that teachers hear this diagnosis as an excuse rather than as a reason. I worry over the judgments being made about my daughter as well as myself. I am a teacher. Not being able to help my daughter excel academically is akin to dream paralysis.

Lilly avoids her online homework but memorizes pages of dialogue for a part in the upcoming school play. I wonder if any of her math teachers will catch this performance and work to remind myself that they are not the enemy. They will listen to my story because I teach at my daughter’s school. They will hopefully listen to my daughter. This does and doesn’t happen. Still, mid summer course, I write to my daughter’s former math teacher and explain that Lilly is failing summer school. How should I proceed, I ask.

The message beneath the message is that I don’t know how to help my beautiful child reconcile this failure without her feeling as though she, in her entirety, is a failure. Should I keep her enrolled in the second part of this course, I write. Her teacher writes back to recommend Lilly repeat the year. It is out in the open. My daughter needs to repeat a course that I needed to repeat.

The message beneath the message is that my failure is her failure and her failure is my failure. The danger, I think, is of the sense of being less-than-adequate bleeding into every area of her unspoken life—the self she can’t or chooses not to articulate. Her sense of accomplishment seems limited to the stage, but to reach the audience she seeks, she needs to perform in more areas—this thought is immediately challenged by the part of myself that I keep unspoken.

Is it? Is it? Is it?

Does she really need grades to become her truest self? I remove her from summer school and the house begins to settle. She agrees to take the class and to make up the next section in a different summer school arrangement next year. She admits to feeling shame but I do not greet this admission with a stack of books.

I wrap her up in arms that barely contain her young adult frame anymore and remind her that her story is just beginning. Your talent is immeasurable, I say. Your potential is infinite. Some things are hard and take time, I say. She doesn’t answer, but she breathes deeply and does not flinch or move away. I begin to untangle her hair, consciously and unconsciously. For the first time in months, we are not solving for anything.

About Jess