Tongues Will Tell

I am terrible at math. Odd, isn’t it? A person who designed factories for people to work in, machines for them to run, laid out complex and detailed blueprints, repaired and built machines; calculated areas and densities, square footages and more – can’t even tell you what eleven times twelve is without using a calculator or working it out by hand. And don’t EVEN get me started on algebra – I’ll just look at you in confusion, and all the numbers go blank in my head. It took me four years to get through pre-algebra (though oddly enough, geometry was much easier, because it gave me things to visualize). And even then, it was F’s and D’s all the way. Thank God for computers; without them either buildings would be falling down, or I wouldn’t of gone into engineering design in the first place. I would have never of been able to make the cut.

But this story isn’t about my math history. (I got my first “F” in it in fifth grade.) It’s about my dad.

My dad was a terrible tutor. He could do the work, show you what he did – but when it came to explaining it, well . . . (sigh) – lets just say he was impatient. If you didn’t get it the first or second time, you were “stupid”. By the third time of explaining it the same way, he’d be red-faced and yelling, and would throw up his hands in disgust. Maybe even slap you upside the head good and hard as if to rattle the brain cells into position. By the fourth try he was done: rising from the table he’d leave you to your misfortune, struggling to work it out on your own. Not a good place to be.

This one time at Fort Bragg my dad was sitting there attempting to show me how to work out some problem. I think the reason my math skills were so poor was that we’d just moved from one school to another; from down south to “up north” where the schools were much further ahead. I’d made my “F” the year before “down south” (converting fractions to decimals confused me), and this year was turning out no different. I was scoring F’s in math like it was some goal. F, F, F. And F’s were bad. They were beyond bad. An F could earn you six weeks in prison, so to speak – confined to your bedroom until your scores showed some indication of improvement.

So we are sitting there and my dad is on his “effort number two”. I can see he’s already getting mad at my dense head, my inability to understand what all those numbers floating around are supposed to do; how you are supposed to convert them from this thing to that, and why. His explanation – high level and full of big words – is just so much buzzing noise in my ears. He looks up at me. I look down at the problems.

“I don’t understand . . .” I say, trailing off in confusion. By “I don’t understand” I mean I don’t even understand the basics, much less this more advanced stuff he’s trying to show me. Ask me to draw a bird; ask me to write a story – that much I can do, and do with such remarkable charm that my teachers will comment on it. But don’t ask me to solve a math problem. Please – don’t.

“Dammit,” he says, glowering at me, his face growing redder by the moment. His eyebrows are dancing on his forehead like angry caterpillars. “Can’t you SEE? What’s your PROBLEM? Are you STUPID? I can’t believe you are this stupid! It’s simple!” And he glares at me, as if daring me to challenge him.

So . . . I do what any child (especially a disobedient, reckless, stubborn minded child like me) – would do.

I stick my tongue out at him. Just a flick – an unusual impulse; a desire I could not control, and I reeled it back in immediately, horrified and shocked at what I had done. Not only horrified and shocked – but certain I was going to get my little arse pounded – and pounded but GOOD. And poundings by my dad were no laughing matter. They could leave you sore for a week.

My dad stares at me. I can see the shocked surprise in his face, too. Shocked that his little son should defy him; make such a blatant (and silent) statement such as this: the sticking out of my tongue. I had never (to the best of my knowledge) ever done this before. I start shrinking in my chair, certain that the blows are about to begin.

Instead, his face suddenly clears and leaning his head back, he roars with laughter – so hard he’s got tears in his eyes.

“I’m not going to beat you for that,” he says, chuckling and wiping the tears from his eyes. “I’m going to leave you with this.” And he shoves the papers towards me. “You figure it out. I can’t help you.”

And with that he walks away, still chuckling. I stare at his retreating back, amazed. Amazed I am alive. Surprised I’m not getting pounded like he usually does. Amazed he is laughing. Amazed at all my good luck.

And then, facing the problems I can’t conquer, I begin to work on my F again.