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The Indignity Between 6 and 8.

Ahhh, the Marigold.  It was an awesome, completely townie, dive-bar-bowling alley on the corner of Grace & Broadway on the North Side of Chicago, just East of the heart of Wrigleyville.

It was dingy.  It smelled.  It was most likely last renovated in the 60’s, and that’s being generous.  It was open 24 hours on Fridays and Saturdays.  It catered to a distinctly non-yuppie crowd considering its location, and it had the best karaoke bar ever in the entire world, where it was standing-room-only by Midnight.  They tore it down in 2004.  I believe outrageously priced condos now stand in its place.  Fucking gentrification.

It was the late 90’s, and big groups of us would go to the Marigold and bowl, get drunk, sing karaoke – not well, of course – and then walk across the street to the IHOP for pancakes at 3 a.m.  I really loved that place.  Those were some great times.

I’m a pretty good bowler, actually.  Even sauced.  I was pretty competitive when I bowled, so I was, hmmm, a stickler about scoring.  One friend thought it was cool to “round-up” each score to keep it easy.  Um, no.  And there were no fancy, George Jetson-y computerized scoring machines at this place.  There were barely cup-holders.

I liked to win.  But I didn’t like to keep score.  I’d do everything I could to avoid keeping score myself.  When it was my turn to score, I’d go to the bathroom.  Or walk away.  Or suddenly “see” someone from across the lanes who wasn’t really there.

“Where are you going?  It’s your turn to keep score!” someone would yell to me.

Me, thinking furiously,  “Uh, yeah…I see Ja..m..mer over there.  I have to go say Hi”.

“Did she just say she’s going to say hi to Jammer?  Is she making that up?”

I don’t know why I never just said George Glass.  Whatever.  I’d check it over later.  When I had some time.  I usually took the score sheets home.

Still there were those times when I couldn’t get out of it.

When I couldn’t get out of it, there I’d sit.  Nasty little stub of a pencil in my right hand with Neanderthalic bite marks cracking through the heavy, blue, most assuredly lead-laden paint, hoping to God whoever was up would gutter ball.  And not just because I wanted to win.

I’d start tapping my fingers on the table.  Start shaking my legs back and forth nervously. I’d pretend I was engaged in the laughing and conversations going on.  I’d crack jokes.  I don’t think anyone ever noticed what was happening to me physically.  This was just a fun night out.  And it was, until I had to sit there.

I’d look at the score sheet and pray there weren’t spares or strikes in the previous frames.  And damn it all to hell if there were.

They’d throw their ball and wait to throw it again, all the while I was getting more and more anxious.  Irritated.

After the second ball, they’d walk back to me and look over my shoulder waiting for their frame total.  I’d distract them.  “Hey, look over there!  Is…is…. that JAMMER??”

“Who the hell…is she kidding with this Jammer person?”  More laughing.  It was just me being funny.  I was always being funny.  Anything to buy time.

When I scored, those sheets would look like a 1st grader’s homework, and not in a good/cute way.  It’s not that other people didn’t add things up on the sheet.  They occasionally would.  But not like I did.

It’s not that I can’t add.  I certainly can.

It’s just that something happens to me, has always happened to me, when I am under any sort of pressure – imaginary or real – to deal with numbers.  It goes beyond fear.  It’s more like phobic.  Paranoia.

I don’t embarrass easily.  I’m a pretty confident person.  Ballsy even.  No one takes the piss out of me more than I do myself, but I was internally embarrassed of my phobia and tried never to let on that I panicked at the thought of someone watching me add up a basic bowling score.  But I absolutely did.


Mathematics.  The most universally linear and logical of applications, unwavering in its stringent adherence to its own principles…1 + 1 always, always = 2.  Yuck.  I don’t think I have a truly linear-thinking bone in my body.  I think abstractly.  I live abstractly.  Math…has always caused me to sweat, my heart rate to increase and head to throb…my whole. damn. life.

Fucking math.

My earliest memory of this physical and mental reaction to math is from 3rd grade.  I do not remember having any thought either way about math prior to that.  In 3rd grade I very clearly remember taking a math test.  The first one I ever remember taking. For any test the teacher put the test sheets upside down on our desks and we had to gently lay our pencils down on top of them and fold our hands in our laps.  We had to wait for her signal, at which time we could turn our sheets over and begin.

But this time before she said we could start, she reached into her drawer and pulled out a timer.  A big, shiny, metal egg timer.  We all kind of ooohed and ahhhed over it.

The teacher explained that she would set the timer and when it went off we were to immediately stop writing and put our pencils down and fold our hands in our laps again.

I sat two desks down from my teacher.  I was a great student.  I loved school.  And I really liked her.  She liked me too.  Teachers liked me.  It made me proud that I got to sit so close to her.

So I got a clear shot of the timer.  I thought it was neat, and I was excited to start.

She wound it and told us to begin.  You could hear the rustling of papers, chairs skidding slightly as we all pulled them in closer to our desks in anticipation, the inevitable dropping of a pencil and some kid laughing at the other kid who dropped it and the “shhhhh” from the teacher serving to aim our focus.

Once wound, she placed the timer on the front, left corner of her gargantuan, wooden desk.

I remember I was wearing a dress that day.  I could feel the coldness of the metal seat on my legs.  I picked up my pencil and started the test.  I remember that it seemed pretty easy.  I was not having a difficult time with the equations.

About half way through is when I started to run into trouble.  I’m not sure if it was an actual problem with an equation, or my mind was simply wandering.  I don’t know.  But what I do know, is that all I could suddenly hear was the ticking of the timer.

Tick tick tick tick tick.  I suddenly zeroed in on this sound, like when you’re in your house and there’s noise all around you but the only thing you can hear, what your mind picks out, is the dripping of a faucet.

Like some sort of torture this ticking mesmerized me.   I’m not sure, but I might have been hypnotized.  I lost complete track of time, which is ironic since a timer inherently exists to remind you of time.  I didn’t catch the irony then because, come on, I was a stupid 3rd grader.

The next thing I remember was the teacher saying, “One minute, class.” which apparently snapped me out of my wide-eyed, vacant stare.  I then distinctly remember looking down at my paper and thinking some age-appropriate variation  of “Holy SHIT”.  I’d hardly finished any of the problems.  I looked around and noticed that most of the kids’ papers were upside down with pencils on top as they struggled to keep their hands in their laps.  They were done.

I worked furiously to finish my test, but it was too late.


“FFFFUUUUCCCCCKKKK MEEEEEEEEE”, went my mind.  You know, or some age-appropriate variation thereof.

To this day when I hear an egg-timer go off, I pee myself.


Okay, that’s not true.  But I do know from that time forward I never looked at numbers on a sheet of paper with glee or anticipation again.


I clearly do not have a natural predisposition for comprehending higher math.  I SUCK at it.  SUCKITY-SUCK-SUCK.  Just ask my poor, beleaguered parents, especially my Dad on whose shoulders it fell to tutor me night after night throughout High School.

Now I’m not being cutesy here when I say this, but is Algebra a bunch of sick, twisted shit or WHAT?

Give my Dad a medal, because damn if he didn’t try to help me to the best of his ability.  Both of my parents are far better than average I would say, in their math comprehension skills.  Why I fell off that genetic apple tree I’ll never know.  Not only did I fall off, I careened down a hill, got ran over by a truck and stepped on by the bully ten year old down the street.

I can so clearly remember my father putting his head in his hands, eyes wide, glazed over and unblinking – very “A Clockwork Orange” – and muttering to himself something like “You’ve got to be kidding me”, at the fortified wall that was my brain when dealing with Algebra.  At some point he’d hit the table with his hands, walk to the sink and splash cold water on his face and then take a swig of something, very likely alcoholic.  At least I hope it was.  I recognized and understood his frustration.  I’d sometimes sit back in my chair and laugh at myself which only pissed him off.  I didn’t mean to laugh.  But what else could I do.  I just didn’t get it and I didn’t see the point in getting it.  “You’re smart!  Why can’t you get this?  Arghhh!!”  And he’d leave the room to take a well-deserved break.

He was right, I was smart.  When it came to the Humanities I was a bit of a rock star, in my own mind anyway.  I’ve been a writer since I was a little girl.  I’ve won many writing awards for both fiction and non-fiction.  I’ve been chosen to read essays I’ve written on national radio.  I’ve won Language Arts awards.  I never got anything but straight A’s in English, mostly the same in History, Social Science, and even Science-Science (Biology/Health classes…notice I’m excluding Chemistry).   When I was in 5th grade I was tutoring 8th graders in Reading, Writing and Language Comprehension.  In those areas I was in advanced placement classes all of my school years.  I have a decently high IQ.

But you put me in front of numbers where I’m required to do anything but add/subtract/multiply or divide the simplest of equations…where I actually have to use X’s and Y’s, tangents and cosines…Algebra, Trigonometry, Calculus – it’s like one of those annoying black-and-white cartoons from the 30’s starts playing in that part of my brain on a relentless loop – you know the one, with the rudimentary-drawn animal singing some folksy “blahblahblah” song complete with scratched-record sounds crackling through – proving an extremely effective barrier to any sort of understanding…at all.


Long story longer….it’s High School and it’s time to take either the SAT or ACT, or both.  I’m not sure why I didn’t take the SAT to be honest, no recollection.  But I did take the ACT.  I was excited to take it actually.  I enjoyed taking tests for the most part, and while I’d basically scraped by or cheated my way through math for years in a desperate effort just to get through it with passing grades, I wasn’t worried about the ACT.  I’d kick-ass on everything else, which would negate the probable 15-17 out of 36 I’d get in math.  No problemo.

We took the test in the school cafeteria.  I remember it like it was yesterday; the subdued atmosphere tense with anticipation.  Everyone nervous but ready to get on with it.  This was it, the culmination of 12 years of education which would have a major impact on your future, right there encapsulated in those little ovals you had to fill in with the graphite of a No. 2 pencil.

I flew through most of it, finishing well before they’d tell us to put our pencils down.  I felt really good.

But the dread, oh the dreaddddd.  I don’t remember when the math part came in the sequence of the day.  I was as ready for it as I’d ever be.  When I started it, I was truly sick to my stomach.   I wanted to vomit.  God, I just wanted it over with.  I had studied enough, my ass off actually, to get through some of the basic Algebra questions with apparent ease.  But then, it became more advanced.  Much more.

I distinctly recall resting my head in my left hand realizing the time was ticking down, hearing that fucking egg-timer in my head, and panicking.  I looked around and it was me and maybe five other freaks who weren’t done yet…100 other people already done for an hour just watching the rest of us from the adjacent room as if we were zoo exhibits.  I just knew I had to finish all the questions.  I did my best.  I did.  I tried to reason out the answers with the basics I knew.  It didn’t help.  I finished with a few minutes to spare.  And by finished, I mean filled in the ovals on a wing and a prayer: the wing belonging to a buzzard circling over the carcass of my dignity, and the prayer being only to avoid puking all over the lunch table.

It was done.  It was done.  I was done.  Let the chips fall where they may.  If I could have cheated my way through it I would have.  I’m not proud of that fact, but I’m nothing if not self-aware.  I didn’t though.  The proof of that would come some weeks later.


I don’t know where I had been when I got home one afternoon and my Mom was holding the test results in her hand.  She was excited and kind of waved it at me.  I was excited too.  There’s nothing like having the single most determining factor in where you’ll be allowed to attend college typed out on a little sheet of paper.  Weeee!

I was nervous though.  Really nervous.  I opened it, looking at the overall total score first. I deflated like a balloon and closed my eyes.  It wasn’t good.  It wasn’t the worst ever, but it wasn’t what I wanted at all.  And I fucking knew why.

Deep, deep breath.


Math.  7.

Out of a possible 36.


Holy fuck.  What the FUCK!?

“What?!” my Mom said as she noticed my face turn varying shades of green.

I couldn’t even say it.  I just handed it to her.

I don’t even remember what my Mom said about it other than something like…it’s okay, everything else is great, it’s okay.  God bless her.

I think I laid on my bed in the fetal position wanting to die for the next few hours until my Dad came home.  Come home he did.  I didn’t have the heart to show it to him, my Mom did.  He knocked on my door and asked me to come into the kitchen.  I felt so bad for him.  That’s really what it was.  I had hoped that maybe I’d come through like one of those kids they’d do “60 Minutes” specials on; who triumph over a lifetime of poor expectations.  I really did.  But worse, I knew he did too.  I wanted him to feel like his countless hours of attempting to knock through the cement-blockade I had put up against math had worked, at least a little.  It didn’t.

My Dad has been an educator his whole life.  He knew the power of positive reinforcement, coupled with the power of my mother warning him to be nice to me, and when I walked into the kitchen he smiled at me holding that piece of paper.

“Hi honey.  It’s okay.  It’s good, it is.  It’s okay.  But…what happened here?”

I smiled weakly, trying not to cry.

“Gee, I don’t know Dad.  It could have been worse.”  I said with thinly veiled sarcasm.

He laughed warmly, took a step toward me and said quietly over the top of his glasses…

“A monkey could have done better, pointing randomly, with its eyes closed.”

It made us bust out laughing, and started my tears in full force.  I put my head in my hands, leaned back against the kitchen sink and sobbed a decade’s worth of frustration and futility.  He hugged me.  My Mom hugged me.  They knew how I felt.  It was an indelible moment.


My father later determined that regardless of my obvious mental incapacity in the area of mathematics, there was no way I could have gotten that low a score.  I must have somehow, somewhere screwed up the sequencing of the problems/answer ovals and answered out-of-order for a good part of the test.  Yes, that had to be at least part of it.  He wanted me to take it again.  Good GOD. But maybe he was right.

So I did.  I took the entire motherfucking exam over again.

I scored even higher in one of my already high areas.


Wait for it…………………………………………..7.


I don’t know, I think in some ways it’s pretty awesome that I literally scored lower than the expected score of a person, or simian, randomly guessing at the answers blindfolded.  If you’re gonna fail, fail big I say.  It took me a long time to admit to people what my score was.  And I’ve never told a single person who didn’t say “No, come on.  Seriously.  What did you really get?”  That’s the truth.

I suppose I wear it as some sort of pathetic badge of honor now.  Like saying, “Hey…do you have any idea how much more room I have in my brain for the pursuit and absorption of random knowledge while yours is bogged down with number montages like Russell Crowe’s from that scene in “A Beautiful Mind”?

I’m kidding.  It sucks.  And it’s embarrassing.  I’m highly intelligent and math is my Achilles Heel.  So be it.  I’ve taken a lot of lessons away from this lifelong scourge; acceptance of what I am and am not capable of, how to deal with defeat despite my best efforts, and never judge people based on a singular aspect of their intelligence.  There’s almost always more to it than meets the eye.

Oh also…never, ever go bowling without computerized score sheets.

It makes for a much more relaxed evening.


About Lilabell

I am the 44 year old mother of three boys, ages 7, 5 and 4. Help. No, seriously, help. I love to write and read what other people write.

12 responses »

  1. Pingback: » Combating climate change

  2. Just curious…do you cook with an egg timer? Just wonderin’…;)

  3. Pingback: Dear Diary. « hippielib

  4. first off Lilabell, Jammer said he never saw you look his way once. secondly, 7??? that’s 2 less than i got, and i failed algebra 1 THREE TIMES! i was the only boy in my high school to graduate with an academic diploma and NO FUCKING ALGEBRA baby…they just gave up. Thirdly, this post is very funny, and so familiar to me…are you sure we’re not the same person? has anyone out there ever seen us in a room together? so warm, funny, human, continue…

    • Two less huh? That’s um, hilarious. Why didn’t I go to your school?! Bark, I think it’s obvious we’re the same person. We’ve never been seen in the same room’s clearly my new big, black horn-rimmed glasses throwing everyone off.

      I’m glad that you feel my pain. Let’s just call it monkey-love. As always I very much appreciate that you read my long-winded therapy sessions.

      You’re aces, Bark.

  5. I stink at math EXCEPT for tallying up various caloric contents, and then applying some sort of rationalization quotient where I actually CAN eat both the baked potato and the blueberry pie, and NOT gain 6 pounds instantly.

    To wit:

    “Your jeans are too tight and your rings don’t fit, but you really want the pie. Solve for “X”.

  6. Little Laura,

    I love this post. And I will admit to reading it on an iPad sitting on the throne and when you revealed your ACT math score I did say “come on now, what did you really get”. You know your audience so well!!

    The good news is you do not have to do any more math… wait.. sorry you have three boys to tutor yourself, may I suggest a timed tutoring session… DING!

  7. A great blog today but I don’t ever recall comparing you to a monkey! I think you’re recalling some other father in a parallel universe. “Mathematically” speaking, that could be true.

    Well done and very funny. All of my literary work with you has paid off.


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