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It took me a long time to fall in love with equations. They were structured and temperamental – one switched plus or minus and they fell apart under your feet. I liked a bit of wiggle room, a bit of experimentation. If you didn’t try every path, how did you know your adventure was over? I thought I loved to learn, but worksheets felt less like learning and more like drilling. broken. formulas. into. your. head. until you knew what but not why nor how. Numbers were clumsy, not like words; teachers forgot to stop by my table and explain the why and the how. Somehow they missed me.
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My sixth-grade math and science teacher didn’t expect me to ask to enter algebra early. I was the only girl in the tutored group, a scrawny 11-year-old surrounded by coders and math prodigies. I missed lunch and recess, the keys to any elementary schooler’s social life, to learn about equations that the other tutees never questioned. Somehow the extra practice, the worksheets slipped discreetly into folders and backpacks, missed me. The teacher ran out of copies every day, or left his coffee in the other room, or needed me to grab something from the attic real quick. The boys didn’t talk to me. I asked too many questions, I ruined their club. Only the smartest were welcome. I stumbled into conversations that suddenly became hushed, turned my head as the teacher discussed the all-male robotics club. I didn’t want to care. I hid my voice, tried to be less present, less loud. But I still wanted in.
Test day was approaching and my math scores were getting better. It came down to timing. Efficiency was key – I couldn’t meander my way through the problems. I had to prove something. Math was about proof. That was the way stories worked. Heroines had to prove something, prove themselves worthy. I wanted to be worthy.
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The teacher towered over me, fiddling uncomfortably with his glasses. Adults fiddled often – it was an odd trick, a game of hide-and-seek. Watch my hands, not my eyes, not my grimace, not my words. Something that usually missed me. He crouched, settling on his haunches like a snuffling bear. “Nathalie.” A statement – no question there. The words were fragmented equations. It was my job to piece them together, like a puzzle or a test. “I don’t think, well, it’s not the actual math, you’re fine, well, more than fine, but I don’t think …” Pause. Pause. Pause. “I don’t think you have the emotional maturity … to handle this class. Most people don’t take algebra until ninth grade. You’ll be one of the only seventh graders in the class. I don’t want you to be too stressed with the increased workload and … everything.”
He would not recommend me. I did not want to cry. That was his point, wasn’t it? Not enough emotional maturity. Don’t cry in front of the nice teacher. He’s doing his job. Do your job. Piece it together. I had to hide. I smiled and smiled and smiled. Hide-and-go-seek was harder with grown-ups. My tears were traitors, but I managed to escape the room before they rolled down my cheeks. No one told me when test day would be.
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My siblings and I learned stubbornness at our mother’s side, and so after much begging and curmudgeoning I persuaded my mom to let me take the test. It was beyond a desire to enter the class. I had to prove the teacher wrong. I no longer practiced math problems, but somehow on test day (discovered through a complex network of parent’s association spies and espionage) I was sitting in front of the middle school gym, pencil in hand.
The test slid down my throat like cherry cough syrup, a bit thick, a bit bitter, but with an aftertaste of factory-produced sweetness. Afterwards, my mom and I grabbed Baskin Robbins, rainbow sprinkles and chocolate kissed cones included. It didn’t melt for hours.
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I slumped outside the guidance counselor’s office, a book in one hand, a crumpled letter in the other, waiting for my mother. The first test had been easy. My score was bright and new and shiny: 97%. But I had missed the 88% requirement on the second test by a single point. Failure. When my mom finally emerged from her meeting with the guidance counselor, she winked at me. She had a contract in her hand and a there’s-going-to-be-hell-to-pay grin on her face. I knew that look. That was the if-you-and-your-brother-fight-one-more-time look, the smirk that warned impending doom upon the unlucky victim.
The counselor had dismissed my mother as a helicopter parent, warning her I couldn’t possibly cope with the pressures of algebra class. My math grade would certainly drop to a C. My teacher hadn’t recommended me. I was unworthy. I asked my mom for the contract, mouthing the curlicues of that administrative stationary peculiar to middle schools. I, the undersigned, understand the school is not liable for … It didn’t matter. My mom’s face cracked into a wry smile. She had emerged from battle victorious. I would go to algebra class.
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My much-feared algebra teacher was kind, warm, funny – and female. For the first time, math felt cohesive. She pushed me to look into science, to venture into the world of numbers, a subject I never thought I would grasp. Math became like writing – a series of stories where you struggled to reach the happily ever after. By freshman year, I knew my way around puzzles. I began to explore astrophysics, which tumbled into more mathematics, which tumbled into an ever-nerdier spiral. I discovered a rhythm flitting between equations, something musical, almost like dance. There were rules to be obeyed, yes, but they had logic, reason, symmetry, purpose. Numbers made stars collapse and black holes spin and nautilus shells curve and I, I could finally read them.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.