When I pull the curtain back and peer into my past, what’s the first thing I see? Lincoln Elementary School in Missoula, Montana. An old brick building, maybe three stories, more likely two. Out the front door and down the stone stairwell is a set of swings I’d once fallen from—a different memory, but just as vivid because the pain that shot through my face when it hit the dirt was excruciating.
I’m sitting in a desk in a classroom, wooden floors. I’m in first grade. There’s a chalkboard and a teacher, although I can’t recall who she is or what she looks like, or even if she’s a she. But I remember a math workbook, and I recall it only because it was part of a packet of homework I was to take with me on a family trip. Where to? I don’t know, but most likely New York to visit my grandparents or to the Grand Canyon where we went a few times as a family, or maybe it was to Big Sky in Bozeman where I learned how to ski.
It’s the math notebook in this memory that sends the strongest ripples because my experience with it was the first in my life that told me I was not a math person—at least the first I can recall. And it’s significant. There were baby chicks on the page and something to do with counting them and putting the correct number in pencil below each. Sounds easy enough, right? But keep in mind, I was in first grade, and for some reason I became so frustrated with trying to count these baby chicks that I took my pencil and instead of writing numbers, I scribbled violently until the page ripped and the pencil broke.
I ask myself sometimes, why is this such a vivid memory, why does it linger in my head all these years later? I can’t really answer that without a psychology degree, but I can recall the feeling in my chest, a sort of tightness that swallowed me as I tried to understand but just couldn’t, and it left me helpless and embarrassed and downright angry.
And today, I’m not a math person.