The Algebrains are here, all twenty-eight motor mouths going at once. I’m hungry, I need a restroom, and I itch from chalk dust. Outside, the state flag of Arizona flaps lamely in a crack of grey sky barely visible between beige plastic curtain panels. The school day has only begun, but I can’t wait to go home.
Contrary to the widespread American belief that kids hate math, and indeed may be psychologically traumatized by being forced to “do it,” I haven’t heard one peep of pain since I began substitute teaching. Sadly, most students who complete algebra don’t go on to discover its applications in higher math and science, which is like learning grammar and spelling without ever writing a postcard or a love note.
Next period: Yo hablo arithmetic. A boy that the teacher claimed would be of help because he speaks English reads a Mexican comic book and refuses to speak to me. His classmates resemble a flock of blackbirds that eye each other, cawing and ruffling their feathers as they peck away at their workbooks, comparing least common denominators and simplified fractions.
The Female Clan
Girls sit on the dance floor washed over by the soft blue glow of a ballet video. They gather themselves in twos or three to groom each other. The girls brush hair, braid hair, then let it loose so they can brush again. I could be Jane Goodall observing chimps in the wild, for this is the natural state of women all their lives – dependent on a net of female friends and relations for sustenance and support. I remember that girls of my generation also performed the same rituals during movies and assemblies, friends taking turns so each girl got her share of care.
In seconds the mood of the group shifts as they suddenly change positions and regroup, lying about like puppies, licking their paws and settling down near each other, head on foot, backs touching as they snooze. Some of the girls sit nose to nose, identically dressed in white t-shirts and shorts, in white socks or bare feet, with legs crossed. Mostly they talk, their smooth chatter continually defining friendships and alliances.
Meanwhile, in the video, ballerinas, steadfast models of femininity, dressed in white chiffon and blue silk, hop gracefully to classical music; from a voice out on the floor, I catch the word “pee-pee” and track it to a girl who ducks her head and continues hurriedly, “I want to see it, you know, flat.”
“You mean flacid,” her friend interjects. Good vocabulary.
“Yeah, that’s it. But I can’t. Every time I get near him he gets an erection. Like that!” She snaps her fingers and giggles. “Like lightning!”
Two of the listeners look my way and the girl who is showing off quickly concludes, “So now I get real close to him when I see him in the hall so everyone can see his pants bulge.” Even good girls go bad once they discover this power.
My “that’s enough” double eyebrow raise prompts her to say, “Oops! Sorry,” and the group returns to analyzing the implication of every word and gesture in the day’s catalogue of notes and conversations.
Brushes brush, and the room hums to Barber and ballerinas.
That ruthless overseer Chance
has designated Wyoming as the land of my exile;
its wide spaces are a fence made of distance
and the temptations of a civilized life cannot find me.