The Math Class

Martha Grover


This dream was preceded by vaguer dreams:

I can't find my class. I can't read my schedule. It's the wrong class. The wrong time. I did the wrong homework. I didn't do the homework at all. I haven't been to the class in weeks. I haven't done the homework in weeks. The teacher will be mad at me. The teacher had really high hopes for me. The teacher thought I had potential. The teacher is large and watery. I can see through the teacher. The teacher is a ghost.

In the hallways, the other students run like ungulates up and down wide wooden stairwells. The campus is vast and confusing, wet and green. It's raining. This is the wrong building. It's all wrong. I try to make my way through the crowd but people are moving too fast, their clothing is all red and yellow and loud. They're screaming in the cafeteria. They're waving flags and throwing confetti. No one seems to care or help. It's raining and it's raining too much.

I have strep throat, I have canker sores, I have my period, I have scarlet fever, I have chicken pox, I have no friends. Everywhere I go I'm cold. I wear my parents' old coats and my sister's hand-me-downs.

But in this specific dream, I'm an adult. I get a letter from my high school notifying me that (and sorry we are just telling you now) you failed a math class and in order to receive your diploma, you must come back to Corbett High School and re-take the math class. I can never actually read the letter in my dream, but I know what it says. It's bad news. It's horribly bad news. It's spread out on my kitchen table, it goes to my mother's house and she reads it to me over the phone. I see the envelope addressed to me and my heart sinks. The letter has its own power, its own dark magic.

What it says is this, that all in a flash twenty years, my life, will stretch like grafted skin over a burn, that I will have to crawl back into a brightly lit cave, a crumbling building built in the 1920's, with its flooding basement, cold, drafty windows. Native Americans picking raspberries in the field instead of huckleberries in the mountains. Japanese internment, Mickey Mouse Bus, sit on my lap, hole in his jeans. Gym teacher slapped your uncle on the face. Your father tried to burn it down. Your grandmother told you that one family did get their farm back afterwards. Death by motorcycle, fell off the top of Larch, drunk driving accident. Fluorescent lights, flag football, beat up the fag, Pink Floyd, Army recruitment posters, mildew. But most, they never got their farms back. Gone, gone now. White people, white boys in baseball caps, boys in trucks, boys with acne, boys in Big Johnson t-shirts. I can't build on my land. I can't log my land. I can't subdivide. MY LAND. These people, they can barely afford to move out here, slap a mobile home down and call it good. These people, lawyers, yuppies, come out here and build a mansion, block my view. MY VIEW.

And then Gym teacher slaps a classmate on the face. Safety officer grabs a kid by his collar, lifts him up off the ground. We pour acrylic from buckets onto butcher paper to paint Jerry Bears and pot leaves. "Be careful with that paint," Art teacher says. "When it's gone, it's gone." Health teacher throws a chair across the room. Science teacher's lecture is done early and he is making us do word-finds to fill up the last twenty minutes of class. Ronald, the boy with the hit list written on the inside of his dirty jean jacket, who brought weapons to school and threw chairs, who years later would be found dead from suicide by Corbett boys, local firefighters, turns around. "I found cunt," he says and points to some adjacent letters.

Health teacher talks about visions of snakes coming up out of the road, late one night driving high on methamphetamines, slithering up from the blacktop. The Life Skills teacher makes us sew stuffed animals.

All the teachers call me by my last name.

And of course it's a math class. Algebra 3. Trig. Calculus. A class I will never pass. Not now. Now that I am an adult.

And somehow the same school secretary. She is still sitting there, bleached out, wavering like thin milky water, at her desk with her long grabby tool and thick glasses, in-and-out metal baskets on her desk, a student assistant sorting attendance sheets in the corner for two credits.

I have the dream over and over. I have the dream once a month. I have the dream every six months. I wake up in a jolt.

But then, in one iteration, I say to the school secretary, standing in the office, with the letter in my hand, in my adult clothes, with my adult shoes and grown-ass purse, that I will NOT go back to high school and be surrounded by teenagers.

I'm whining to her. I say: I'm trying to date right now and this is not the right environment for me. I need to be around adults, not children. There is no one for me to date in a high school! I can't be here!

I don't have the dream again for a year.

So there!

I have the dream.

I have the dream again.

I do my taxes, I do my student loans, I sign up for health insurance.

I have the dream again.

This time I tell the secretary, very firmly, the letter in my hand, waving it around as if to put out its scorching flame, that I have a master's degree.

"I have a master's degree!" I say loudly.

I say it again, "I have a MASTER'S Degree! What do I need a high school math class for?"

That was a week ago. I haven't had the dream since.

But, I still worry, it bothers me.

Because, the secretary never says anything. She never tells me the failed math class is a technicality after all, never notifies, stamps, signs or checks anything. Never takes the letter from my quaking hand and puts it in her out-basket, or even in her in-basket. I don't walk out of the front door, I don't drive out of the parking lot. The dream just ends—there in the office, under the bright lights. Me pleading my case, her face smirking and silent. And all I have are flimsy excuses, translucent arguments. I still haven't found the appropriate defense, the right spell, the secret words. The right equation.

All I have is the letter.