Ania Payne

Irrational Integers

 
You sprint to class.  Not because you’re excited to go, but because you want to avoid the teacher’s glare and the detention slip she gives if you arrive one second after the bell rings.  You enter the room that is covered in colorful laminated posters, the teacher’s attempt to brighten the gloomy atmosphere.  Cartoon drawings of people enjoying math cover the walls. Why can’t you enjoy math the way they do?  Cartoon characters aren’t real.  Why can’t there be a photo of you and your classmates leaning over your graphing calculators, tears dripping onto your homework?  Do teachers really think you’ll enjoy math more by looking at cartoon characters working on math problems?  They look like they’re high on drugs.  They can’t possibly be high on math.  Especially American kids.  Maybe in India the kids not only understand math, but love it.  At least that’s what your dad claims.  Sigh.  Your dad and math.
 
“Good morning, class.  I hope your homework went well.  You know the routine, take it out and pass it to the person behind you.”  Mrs. G smiles.  She loves watching the beads of sweat drip down students’ foreheads as she writes the homework answers with a red Expo marker on the dry erase board. You don’t think your homework went well at all.  Even though you haven’t even checked the answers yet, you’re already dreading telling you father your grade.  Unless, maybe, you get a 100% on this set of problems. Maybe. You let yourself hope. Because it’s more than a homework grade.  It’s your grade as a daughter.
 
You take one frantic look at your paper, hoping to catch any last mistakes that you failed to notice at 2 a.m. the night before.  Cross your fingers, kiss your equations for good luck, and pass your paper to Thomas.  You have to get an A on this homework.  You can’t be a disappointment twice in one week.  Although your friend Thomas grades your homework, you get no leeway from this.  The old grouchy teacher double-checks each math problem even after you and your classmates grade the homework, and if she sees that the grader forgot to mark any incorrect answers, the grader gets an automatic zero for his hours of endless work the night before.
           
Based on the amount of time you spent hunched over your TI-83 graphing calculator and Concepts of Trigonometry textbook last night, you know you should be getting an A.  Studies say high school students should not have to spend more than two hours a night doing homework.  You spent at least five hours working on these twenty Trig problems.
           
Unable to complete your homework without your dad’s assistance, a series of intolerable, phone-battery-draining conversations occur every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Your phone calls follow the same pattern.  Ring ring ring. Engage in five minutes of small talk about your marching band practices. 
 
“Read the problem aloud.”
           
“Why, Dad? You have the book with you; we can both see what the problem says.”
           
“No, you have to read it aloud.  I can’t help you if you’re not going to cooperate.”  This is why your homework takes five hours. 
           
“Solve sin(x) + 2 = 3 for 0° < x < 360°.”
           
“Right.  Now do you know how to use cosine? Explain the process to me step by step.”
           
You clench your fists and resist the urge to yell.  This inchworm process has got to be the most painful way to solve math problems.  You wish you were better at math, smart enough not to need your dad’s help.  But you’ve never been good with numbers.  Equations and integers collide in a mumbo jumbo of nonsense inside your head. You lost interest in math back in middle school.  Math was just too frustrating.  The rewards were never worth the effort. You want to get into a good college, so you keep taking the advanced Math courses, Honors Geometry, AP Trig.  Your dad insists this that Math is the key to your future.  So far, these courses have been nothing but stressful.   Math makes you feel like a loser.
 
Twelve minutes later and you’re still discussing the same problem with your dad.  You’re simultaneously Googling and hysterically punching numbers into your TI-83, desperately trying to get the right answer so you can avoid bursting into tears for being such a disappointment.
           
“No, wrong.  How could the cosine of x be thirty? Have you been listening to what I’m teaching you? Your twelve year old cousin in Singapore could be solving these equations.” 
           
You’re sitting on the living room couch.  Your mom turns on the television before you have time to gather your heap of books, graphing paper, and scientific calculator and run out of the room.  Now you know you’re really screwed.
           
“Have you been watching TV while I’ve been trying to help you? I told you, you need to sit upright at your desk when you do Trig! You can’t possibly focus on anything when the TV is on! Why do I bother spending five hours a night helping you with homework if you’re just going to watch TV?”
           
“Grey’s Anatomy is almost on. I think it’s time for you to take a break from Trig now,” your mom says, turning up the volume to drown out the sounds of your unpleasant phone conversation.  She’s lounging in her navy blue couch potato with a glass of red wine dangling between her fingers.  She’s tired of Trig.  Tired of your tears.  Tired of the lectures from your father, blaming her for your inability to understand Trig.
           
“No! No, you may not watch Grey’s Anatomy right now; we are not even halfway through this homework! Go to your desk now!”  Your dad’s orders echo from the speaker of your pink Motorola Razr.  Even when your dad is 743 miles away, pleasing him still seems impossible.  He is from India.  From an educated, successful family.  Your mother is a Michigander and most of her relatives didn’t bother graduating from high school.  How she became an English professor is beyond you.  Your dad says it’s because she’s creative.  “But she’s not a mathematician, and that’s what’s important in life.” He earns way more than your mother.  “You don’t want to end up like her, do you?  You want to have a nice house, right? A real job, right?  Any job, right?  I lose sleep worrying about this.  A lot of sleep.  And I love to sleep.  You know that, right?” Of course you would like a job that pays well, but not if you have to call your dad for assistance and burst into tears at the end of every day. You don’t know why your dad loses sleep over your math grades. He doesn’t need to.  You lose sleep worrying about how your dad will react to your math grades. But you keep trying, thinking that maybe, you’ll get one A on a Trig test and your dad will be proud of you for a day. Miracles happen.  Or so you hear. 
 
You don’t know what you want to do with your life.  You’re fifteen.  You envision yourself doing something valuable, something where you feel successful, a job that encourages laughter, not tears.
           
“Just take a break. It looks like your dad is stressing you out.  You can finish your homework later,” your mother says between sips of wine.   You hold the phone up so that your dad hears your mom tempting you into a state of laziness.
           
“No, you have to finish it now!”
           
You grab your homework and run to your desk on the verge of tears. You do want to get your homework done; you just wish it would be quicker and less painful.  Your math professor father has been giving you books of math problems as Christmas gifts for as long as you can remember.  He wants you to be a mathematician.  He needs you to be a mathematician –what a disappointment you will be to your Indian relatives if you major in something as useless as English. Your Indian relatives sigh when they learn about your difficulty with math. Your mother’s relatives think it’s great how you published movie reviews when you were only six.  “The youngest movie reviewer ever for Tucson’s paper,” your mother boasts.  Her relatives think you’re a prodigy.  Does being considered a prodigy from your mother’s side of the family mean anything?  You know that being called a prodigy from your dad’s side of the family would be more of an accomplishment, but you’ll never win this title.  They’re still disappointed that you’re half American. It’s this American side of your genes that destroys your chances of being a mathematician, an engineer, the great wage earner.
           
You sit by your desk and finish your homework, just like your dad tells you to. Maybe he’s right; maybe sitting upright at your desk will be the trick to understanding math.   Or at least, maybe this small gesture of following your father’s advice will earn you some form of approval from him.  But fifteen minutes later, you realize you aren’t solving the problems any better at your desk than you did on the couch and your dad does not seem impressed with your small gesture.  He gets upset with you for getting yet another wrong answer.
           
“I am sitting by my desk!” you shout.  You are angry now. “Why can’t you just try to be nicer when you’re helping me with homework?” Why can’t you call him after you finish the homework? What does he gain from listening to you groan as you solve the problems incorrectly?  
           
“This is how my dad taught me! This is how his dad taught him! This way works!”
           
You don’t think it’s working.  If anything, it’s making you regret ever having signed up for Trig.  You decide you never want to take another math class.  You don’t cry when you’re writing essays, playing the piano, or practicing with the marching band.  Obviously, you are not meant to be a math major. 
           
You know that the only reason you signed up for Trig was to please your father. Is it your fault that you are right-brain dominant? You excel with the arts and struggle with the monotony and number crunching associated with the left-brain.  Does your father not understand that your inability to succeed in Trig is hereditary? This is obviously the case -you spend five hours slaving away on a subject you don’t even seem to be improving at.
 
You’re beginning to realize that you will never understand math. Even when you get the answer right, it’ll be wrong because somehow you took a detour and miraculously came upon the right answer.
           
Math isn’t about miracles.
           
Math must be done the “correct way.”
             
“Your mom doesn’t understand how important it is to study,” your dad informs you.  “She wings everything.  That’s why she’s an English professor. Math requires work!  Your mom said she’d be perfectly happy if you were a performance artist.  What is that? You’re not going to be one of those, are you? It sounds dreadful.  Listen to me, not your mother.  Math will get you a job.  She has no standards. Your mother comes from, well, you know where she comes from.  I had never met a redneck until I met her father.  You can do better than that.”
           
But can you?
 
You hang up the phone and weep.
           
You know your father is complaining about you to his wife, his wife the economics professor with the brilliant daughter.  She’s from Bangladesh.  Of course she understands math.  According to your dad, all Asians understand math.  “Americans are too lazy,” he says.
           
You join your mother on the couch and snuggle next to her. 
           
“He loves you,” she says.
           
You try not to cry again.
           
“Math isn’t everything.”
           
“Did you really tell him you didn’t care if I was a performance artist working on street corners?”
           
She laughs. 
           
“Maybe.”
           
She laughs again.
           
“Make sure you pick a good city.   I wish I lived in a cool city.”  She shakes her head.
 
“There’s more to life than earning money.  Be happy.”
           
Be happy.  Live in a cool city.
           
“Just remember, your father wants what’s best for you.  He does love you.”
           
Be happy.  Live in a cool city.
           
Be happy.
           
Live in a cool city.
           
You go to bed repeating this mantra.
           
For once, you fall right to sleep.