More Than Just Words and Numbers
The snails were in different places. I knelt on Mrs. V.’s living room couch watching the tetras school around blue-finned guppies and yellow mollies in the fish tank. I frowned—there were more snails today. I tried to look through the fish tank to next Tuesday, but Mrs. V.’s watery world might be blocked by identical slimy underbellies by then.
A student tromped past me, violently swinging his overloaded neon-orange backpack. He slammed the screen door on his way out.
Perhaps he had a bad session. Maybe he still doesn’t know his twelves.
I didn’t know any of my multiplication tables past the fives, never mind the twelves.
I returned to the fish tank, searching for the shark. She’d be either in the grass or behind the silvery driftwood. Hiding behind the driftwood, she was lost. But if she was in the grass, I’d see her blunt nose sticking out. We were lost today.
The shark doesn’t know her twelves, either.
“Are you ready?” asked Mrs. V., her patient face surrounded by a halo of curly brown hair. She wore my favorite blue-and-white-striped dress. I twirled in that dress in the summer grass as I nodded and followed her into the kitchen to the breakfast booth.
Squirming up onto my side of the booth, I hauled my backpack after me. My toes left the linoleum. The bench, despite a kind green pillow, was hard, its back an unyielding wall. I took off her dress and tried to float behind the driftwood again.
“What homework do you have today?”
“Multiplication tables,” I whispered and dug to the bottom of my backpack to pull out a crumpled worksheet.
“Do you want to work on that or spelling?”
Would you like your toenails torn off or the soles of your feet burned?
I looked at Mrs. V. from under defensive bangs. She wasn’t my torturer. The little squiggles and lines that swam and stubbornly refused to stay the same held the hot tongs and irons.
I returned to the fish tank, searching for the shark. She’d be either in the grass or behind the silvery driftwood. Hiding behind the driftwood, she was lost. But if she was in the grass, I’d see her blunt nose sticking out.
Multiplication tables meant no operational signs to pin down, no “x” becoming a “+” in a blink. But multiplication tables also meant reading numbers out loud, and numbers were just as duplicitous as signs. A lump rose in the back of my throat anticipating their many betrayals.
Spelling meant a constant stream of little decisions: Does that sound mean I put the circle on the left or the right of the line? Spelling meant physical pain, stretching my fingers to fit in the grooves of the grip adjuster. Spelling was slow and turned my stomach inside out.
But I could learn new words to carry home with me and hold in the light, then tuck inside the still-disordered library in my mind.
Spelling was scarring and sickening. But new words were doorways, paths, vehicles, paintbrushes.
Both would make me cry.
From deeper in the house, tiny clicking sounds gathered in speed. Henry careened around the corner, stubby Dachshund legs scrambling for traction. He straightened and tried to launch himself onto the bench. I helped him up and he licked my cheeks before settling across my lap with his front paws folded on one thigh and his back legs dangling off the other. Allergic to everything, his eyes leaked. He wagged his feathered tail and let me wipe away his tears.
Should I choose spelling or math, Henry?
I could feel the dog’s tiny heartbeat slow as he rested his head on dainty paws. Henry was a grandmother’s blanket, and he would cry along with me. He breathed a long dog-sigh, confident in my choice.
I laid one trembling hand on his back.
“Spelling, then math.”
The school door bit my ankle as I rushed out.
Even the building doesn’t like me.
Alone, I shivered under the dripping overhang and squinted at the rain. The other girls clumped together, giggling, smacking each other with slap bracelets until their skin turned bright pink. They laughed harder when a girl yelped in pain.
Why do they laugh at pain?
Dad pulled up in the Subaru wagon. I skidded on wet leaves before jumping into the passenger seat.
A lone leaf was stuck in the windshield wiper on my side. A maple. Three of its fingers were bright red, a fourth yellowing. The fifth was brown and its curled tip hooked the maple tight to the wiper blade. The leaf left a blurry stream of water as the wiper dragged it along.
We stopped at the only light in town. Dad turned on his signal.
The red stoplight, lensed by the maple’s trail, burst toward me. The world was clear for a breath before the raindrops erased all evidence of the leaf’s passing, returning the windshield to a state of chaotic uniformity. The wind gusted and the maple’s three red fingers tore free.
I cringed and shifted my focus away from the remains to the license plate on the car in front of us.
Five, two, four, four, eight, zero. How can I remember them?
The first number is five—only five “full” numbers to remember.
Second number is five’s mirror: two. All the other numbers are born of two, so two is the parent of all the others.
Bonus! Two twos are four, so the numbers in position three and four are twins, both four.
The final number is the sum of the last two numbers; they are greater together. Eight.
All the numbers have become who they are and nothing remains. Zero.
Five, two, four, four, eight, zero.
I shared a clandestine smile with the newly bonded numbers on the license plate. I’d made them meaningful to each other. Grateful, the numbers sat on the same side of the booth with me, and we shared an order of french fries.
“How’d it go?”
Once again reminded that numbers are double agents, I tucked my hands under my legs so they couldn’t fist up.
“I still can’t do the nines, or the twelves.”
“You mean multiplication tables?” Dad shook his head. “So?”
“So, Mrs. C.’ll make me recite one tomorrow. And …” I swallowed syrupy pain. “Everyone will laugh when I can’t.”
And Mrs. C.’ll point at me and warn the class, “See what happens when you’re lazy and stupid?”
The pattern of every school day will recycle. I’ll cry in front of everyone for the hundredth time, my face already stained red from crying half an hour before. She’ll throw a paper at me, make me stand alone, a withered sprout incapable of taking nourishment from the desk-soil all around, and order me to read out loud. The numbers I force out will inevitably be wrong. We’ll move on to reading while I choke on mucus and shame, and it will all repeat in a different way a half hour later.
Mom and Dad can’t know. No one who counts can know.
My emptied eyes ached.
The other girls clumped together, giggling, smacking each other with slap bracelets until their skin turned bright pink. They laughed harder when a girl yelped in pain.
“Tell those kids to fuck off. Besides, that’s what a calculator’s for. What a computer’s for.”
“I can’t say that.”
Cuz little girls don’t say that word; it’ll just make it worse.
“Look, the nines are easy.”
The light changed; the car ahead of us went straight, taking my memory of yesterday, today, and tomorrow with it.
We turned my way.
Is my way left, or right? If the car were playing the piano, the turn would be towards the high notes. “Low” starts with an “L,” so … right!
“Whatever number you gotta multiply by nine, you subtract one. That’ll be your first number.
“Then, your second number’ll be whatever the first number needs to make nine.
“So, take three times nine. Three minus one’s two. And two needs seven to make nine. So, three times nine is twenty-seven.”
Dad smiled under his moustache, glancing at me from behind Coke-bottle glasses.
“Try it. Five times nine.”
“I know that one cuz I know the fives. Forty-five.”
“Okay, seven times nine.”
We drove past the turn to go home.
“We’re not going home?” I asked, partly out of curiosity, partly to stall.
“Subs tonight. Your mom’s not up for cooking.”
Subs! Fluorescent lights reflected off black-and-white tiled floors to beacon out into the night and call to me. I trailed my fingers over bags of Utz chips lined up in aluminum rainbows, as spatulas chopping fried steak clanged in my ears. Bright, liquid cheese burned my tongue.
Dad’s teacher voice pulled me back.
“One from seven …”
“Yeah, and how much does six need to make nine?”
I pressed each finger against the seat, counting. “Three?”
“So, seven times nine is?”
Dad nodded. “Easier than memorizing a table or adding up nine seven times?”
I mimicked Dad’s nod, the ruleset for the nines safely tucked away. I was already back in the sub shop. Sitting in a plastic molded chair, I stared at the tubes of meats and cheeses, and absently unreeled my numerical double agent’s brush pass. The sequence repeated over and over along the edge of a negative of a girl in a classroom crying.
Five, two, four, four, eight, zero.
I skipped down Main Street’s steep incline. With each skip, the scab on my right knee threatened to break open. Skipping was faster than walking but safer than running.
I slowed in front of Old Man Tree. He’d dug his roots underneath the sidewalk and, using the cement slabs, he’d built a vaulted space like a food court at a mall. Down there, mouse families sat in pleather-padded booths lined with brass rails and ate Sbarro’s in awkward silence while pimpled roly-polies scuttled furtively out of Hot Topic clutching black plastic bags and adolescent ants held back tears as they got their antennae pierced.
Main leveled off at the video store and I ran my fingers over the videos in their protective sleeves, some nubbly, some smooth, debating which world to take home. I picked up speed as I rounded the Little League field, dandelion milk sticky on my fingers, glove leather in my nose, my teammates’ vulture laughter taloning my chest, to finally arrive at the library around the corner.
The old Victorian kneeling across from the new rowhouses was white with peeling yellow gingerbread. The porch floorboards creaked under my light step. I breezed through the storm door and, banking the high-note way, took the spiral stairs two steps at a time to the third floor.
Summer reading goals hung behind the children’s circulation desk. I shuddered with turbulence, thinking of the past year’s reading incentive program. If the class reached its monthly book goal, we would win a pizza party for the last Friday of the month.
Our class rarely won. Everyone assumed it was my fault when we were the one classroom without a stack of pizzas proudly marched into lunch by a parent. It didn’t matter that I read above my grade level, or that the books I read were longer.
I’m too slow and I’ll never be fast enough.
A scar on my left knee remembered the final pizza-less Friday when a classmate kicked my legs out from under me and my skin tore as I skidded across the blacktop. Blood seeped down my calf and poisonous laughter flowed in to replace it.
I shook my head and leveled off.
Not today. Today I’m going to be in another world.
Flying past the children’s section, I touched down in fantasy and science fiction. Most were paperbacks, spines streaked with cracks, concave, broken from heavy use. I touched each book and found the one I wanted visually, checking the title to be sure. I hugged my selection to my chest all the way to the window seat in the library’s turret. With the edge of a tasseled bookmark under each sentence to prevent skipping lines, I settled in to read:
Stepping out from behind a tree, the [ ] mage laid a hand tenderly on my head.
“She does hear you,” he told me, gesturing towards the tree. “All the living things hear you. If you try, you can hear them.”
That can’t be right. He couldn’t have stepped out from just “a” tree.
I looked at the words again. They lifted off the page, shimmering and shifting. The green tassel on the bookmark swung as I pinned them down. Stay!
It must be “the.” It must be “the” specific tree she’s standing near; how else could he touch her?
I’d skipped the word describing the mage.
It’s a single-story house with a chimney and there’s a humped letter at the end. I concentrated, frowning, uncertain if it was the letter for the sound /m/ or /n/.
It’s either “slim” or “thin.” Right now, the words were in superposition. I had to pick one.
It must be “slim.” But why?
Slim and sleek. Wasn’t he “long of leg” earlier?
My frown deepened into my thoughts.
Thin is shallow, bony. The mage is there for her to look up to, to show that, with her magic, she can thrive. Is thin thriving? No, it must be slim. Slim is stronger and he’s strong.
But why am I certain he’s strong? Other bodies can be strong.
I flipped back, racing the bookmark down the page. The movie of that moment flickered, incomplete, in my mind: when she met him, when we met him. My heart pounded against its scars as I sifted through the words. They had already cut me, but they wouldn’t again: we knew each other now.
Ahhhh. He stood up for her when they first met—mental strength. Uncertainty flew away, leaving a glowing egg of satisfaction nested next to my scarred heart.
Eventually the midday sun forced me out of my turret and back to the ground.
Dragging myself from the safety of the library into the honeysuckled heat, I considered the new rowhouses across the way. They want us to call them townhouses but we’re not even a real town.
“For sale” signs stood in front of each. They have no gingerbread. Their vinyl siding won’t peel but it will always be beige.
I looked up at the library, at the moss under the eaves, the cracked wood, the peeling paint, at everything everyone else saw. The moss and the cracks and the peeling paint don’t matter.
My worlds are inside.
Carolyn Ann Schweitzer
Publab Fellow 2023
Carolyn Ann Schweitzer is a neurodivergent doctoral student in the Joint Doctoral Program in Special Education at the University of California, Berkeley, and San Francisco State University. She followed a winding path that led her to center her research around the experiences of secondary and post-secondary neurodiverse students in English Language Arts and First-Year Reading and Composition. She is the Senior Copyeditor at the Berkeley Review of Education and has freelanced as a digital editor and web designer.
Paul Klee (1879-1940) was a Swiss-born German artist and professor. Pablo Picasso’s cubism and the abstract translucent color planes of Robert Delaunay were, among others, influential to his unique work. In the courses he taught at Bauhaus, the relationship between colors was a current topic of interest.