The silence itself echoes 'uh-oh.'
Chris is like the Florida weather pattern. He can go from sunny to sullen to stormy to sunny again in moments. He gets off the bus each day shining and smiling. He has transformed his grueling hour and three-quarter commute into an opportunity for fellowship and camaraderie. He bounds off the school's 'big yellow taxi' with buoyancy in his step--it's great to be home!
Mom can be such a downer.
The smile fades, the shoulders droop. He knows what it's about.
"Get your test and your math book. She said if you correct the problems that you got wrong, she'll give you partial credit and bring your grade up."
"Can I have a snack? Can I call Corey? Can I watch TV first? Do you need some help with dinner? I'm hungry. I got an A on my vocab test...." He has a litany of defensive munitions to delay the inevitable. One look at me and they peter out--duds.
His backpack thumping down the hall, head hanging. He complies.
From 5 to 9 is the busiest part of my day. The boys arrive home at 5:10, Steven at 6, Helen at 6:45. Dinner is central; it's not only time for nourishment but decompression, communication, unity. Because of their ludicrous commutes, dinnertime has been pushed to the limit so that no one is left out. Adolescent boy appetites must be curbed but not crushed, dad needs to be met and appeased, dinner needs to be heading for the table as a famished Helen trudges down the driveway in the dark. It's an acrobatic juggling of needs and attention far removed from the solitary stretches of silence during my days.
As I check simmering pots and peer into the darkening street I see Chris lounging in the livingroom.
"Please set the table then. I'll look at it after dinner."
Dinner is not complicated, but my mother-in-law is right, I'm prodigal with the pots and pans. There's a mountain in the sink, overflow on the counters. Helen needs to be quizzed for Ancient History. Sam wants some help with vocab. First, though, I want to check over the easy stuff and glance at Chris's grudgingly proferred torn sheet.
It's a mess. Nothing is numbered, the equations are not on line, there's no spacing, the problems aren't written out. I ask for the test to see if what he has scribbled here and there makes any kind of sense. Algebra. I feel tension arising, irritation.
"Chris, you have to do this over. Put the number of the problem, the answer and then show your work. The teacher needs to see what you're doing so she knows that either you know what you're doing or what she needs to teach you." The tension is arising again, scritch-scratching like a small rodent in a low vector of my brain. I push it away, like the limp hair over my eye.
"NO. I don't get it, all right. She didn't teach it. I don't understand how to do it. I hate school."
"Chris, just do it. Just do it like I said, lay it out so it makes sense." The rodent is scratching behind my eye. I am more irritated then I should be but I don't have time for this. I need to do the dishes and that can be done at the same time as quizzing the others. Chris stomps off to his bedroom and I have a moment.
Why is this tension arising? Mentally, I step back and look at it. What is at it's base?
Algebra. Equations. I remember doing it, if not how. Bringing home these problems. Asking for help. It was my dad who showed me the way to format them. Laying out the problems in rows and columns, lining everything up as if it was on graph paper. Allowing space on all sides so that there would be room for each operation. How I loved the neatness of it. Like puzzles that could take off in any direction but would eventually lead to one unequivocal solution. I loved that. Where is this tension coming from?
Not the time. I thrust my hands in warm soapy water. Helen's questions are taped to one window, Sam's vocab to another. I shoot off questions and simultaneously listen to their answers. Probe my irritation like a sore tooth then just let it go. Giving hints, rinsing pans, scrubbing the sink. Done.
By eight the kids have on their pajamas. Sam is heading to his room, Helen settling on the chair.
"Mom, come watch the Daily Show with me" Helen says. It's part of our ritual. I learned about politics from reading Doonesbury, Helen is picking up on current events with Jon Stewart. Generation gap?
"Just let me talk to Chris, I'll be right there."
Chris is lounging on his bed, listening to a cd. I ask him for his homework.
He has neatly written on every line "I don't know."
The repressed tension comes bubbling to the surface, so out of proportion to this incident in a series of incidents with kids and school work.
"Get another piece of paper now. What's the first problem. Write it now." The orders are terse, direct, military-style and full of contention.
Chris's tension is tangible, his body stiff and jerky. He is beyond argument.
I direct him on what to write and where. Name, there. Number, there. I flip through Chapter 3 of his textbook trying to figure out how to separate the 'x' from the 'y' while the rodent gnaws on my optic nerve. This is nothing like the straighforward text I remember--a little red book with small print and no pictures. No, this looks more like an eclectic web page with all the links broken. Word problems, life activities, big full color pictures--where are the explanations?
I call Helen in.
"Do you know how to do this?"
"Hmmp. Yeah. It's easy. Just do the distributive property there, got a calculator? then combine like terms and subtract that from both sides and there's the answer."
And it clicked. And I remembered. And the confusion and frustration started to dissipate and I saw the little man behind the curtain, the rodent with the sharp teeth and nasty claws and it was fear.
Chris did the problem while I worked on the next one. When he was ready, I did it in front of him step by step on scrap paper then had him copy it, step by step and it started to sink in and his shoulders dropped from his ears by a tiny space. By the third problem, he got it. It made sense now, he had it forever. As he copied it onto his homework sheet I told him what I remembered.
"You know Chris, I didn't take algebra until 9th grade. We had this teacher, Bert, Mr Bertolozzi but we called him Big Bert. And he was big. He was the football coach too and the track coach. I remember how he tried to explain things sometimes and we would just not be getting it. He would start to get frustrated and explain it again but he was kind of tense and he'd glare around the room. He would go over the same thing over and over and his voice would get louder and thirty narrow ninth grade butts (yeah, we had big classrooms and little butts) would slide backwards in the seats but the seats were connected to the desks so there was no place to go."
I watched my boy as he finished the problem and started to listen. I watched his lower lip loosen. I saw a break in the tempestuous clouds.
"So one day while he's glaring around the classroom, frustrated because not one of us could give him a glimmer of hope and the bell was going to ring and he had explained this operation in absolute terms for the third time he looked up and roared like a dare 'So. Any questions?'
I looked around at my classmates pressed backwards with their heads pulled back and their eyes on the cracks in the floor and I sat forward and raised my hand.
Bert got a suspicious look. His eyes narrowed slightly and I saw a little twitch under his bushy moustache. He sighed.
'Yeah, Billeci. What's your question?'
'Why do you have maps in your classroom. This is a math classroom, not a social studies classroom and you know, we don't have maps in the social studies classroom.'"
Chris, whose eyes were finally up and level with mine giving just a hint of a smile, tropical sun breaking through the wall of cloud.
"And you know what Bert did? He took both his hands on either side of his head and grabbed his hair and started to pull. "
Chris's smile widened, the clouds streaked away and in his face was the brightness clarity of a semi- tropical afternoon.
"Don't you love to do stuff like that, Mom? Isn't it great to make everybody laugh?"
"Yeah, it is. 'Cause you know, we all loved Big Bert but he was a little scary sometimes. And for me, I always felt like I had to be the 'smart' one 'cause I wasn't the 'pretty' one and I wasn't the 'social' one. If I didn't have smart, what did I have?
And algebra was hard for me to get at first. And it was scary that maybe I wasn't so smart after all. So sometimes, I needed to laugh, and we all did. And you know what? The bell rang for the end of class and Big Bert laughed too."