By Melissa Savoie
My daughter’s face is a tight screw, twirled in over her clenched teeth. The glowing, perky light of her school laptop shines before us and my tea is placed hopefully next to me in my favorite mug. We had an admirable start to our morning even as we are—arranged against our wishes as teacher and student. I find it hard to look at my daughter like that and when I take a sip of my hot tea, tasting of creamy bergamot, steaming my nose, I’m tense. My voice is practiced cheeriness, sounding fake even to me.
We are sitting down for the first time, beginning our week. We try to tackle the math first, the numbers swimming before us and seeming to soak our pajamas until we are heavy and so so tired. I want nothing more than to place my head onto our dining table desk like I did in elementary school, to close my eyes and wait in the safety of the dark to hear the teacher speak. Now, I’m the teacher and principal of my own elementary school, consisting of two grades shoved into the messy confines of my sewing room, my machine tucked in the corner like a ghost.
Sometimes I don’t know what we are supposed to be doing in third grade math. I try not to show my third grader. They don’t only want the right answer but they want the steps of a certain dance to get there. Number lines and charts and all the columns, tens, hundreds, ones.
My daughter is as angry as I have always been. I once broke a brush against my own skull out of rage, hot and irrational. I tell her that story to make her laugh. But this morning, I cower behind the weak clouds of my tea and try to help her be better than I am. I want her to be able to channel that strength of feeling into something worthier than a bruised head and a funny story.
Also, I want her to feel confident standing to face the specter of numbers and question marks, self-possessed. I do not wish for her my fear of math, passed from woman to girl, carefully praised for being so good at English, at art. I have worked on my own fear. I have taken community college classes in statistics and physics, constantly astonished to enjoy math-based subjects and do well. I want that for her now, not later.
She screams so loudly that I’m sure my husband can hear it in his upstairs office. She screams with a primal, gut-shriek and it covers the sound of the kindergarten class singing their days of the week on the iPad in the next room, it covers the house and rockets from corner to corner. “I hate math! Math is stupid!” Seizing a paper filled with drawings of sad girls and half-hearted calculations, she rips it long and slow, staring into my eyes. “Stupid, stinky math! I hate it! You are the worst mother ever!”
Her footsteps rattle the steps and her door slams upstairs. I am left at the table, my tea now seeming sour and flavorless.
I bought her a book a few weeks ago called Anger Management For Kids. The book is beautifully designed, all brightly colored exercises and inspiring quotes. She sees the time as a punishment and rolls her eyes so hard that I hope she can’t do damage to her brain. I have a draining feeling when I start carrying on, lecturing to her about mindfulness. Oh shit, I think, I need this book more than she does. The calm, self-possession described within those pages is nothing I have mastered myself. I am impatient and irritable. She saw me just last week screaming at another driver. I banged my fists against the wheel and shouted. The little voice came from the back of the car: “Breathe Mama. Don’t flip your lid.”
Flip your lid: a term she’s been taught at school for when you descend to the primal core of your brain. A monkey slamming brushes into your skull without meaningful cognition. In my life, I have been most rageful when it makes no sense and calm when I should be angry. I get angry when people put plastic bags in my recycling container but I can’t respond with anger to protect my boundaries or create change. There is something untoward about being seen as an angry woman. I talk myself out of it, feel ashamed, never want anyone to see that part of me.
Sitting at the table, I try to think about the advice I got as a child. To scream into a pillow. So unsatisfying. To be silent, to be nice. I don’t want that for my daughter. My daughter is pissed about math, she is even now a red-faced fury. That scares me, makes me nervous and uneasy but I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to smother that heat. She is not really angry with math but angry at a pandemic, at her missing friends, at having to see her grandparents on video, at the lonely suddenness of our life as it is right now. Math is just sitting there, an easy target.
So that afternoon, I bring her outside so that we can stand side by side on the heat of our backyard patio. The stones are rough and uneven under our feet and we bring out all the old plates from the kitchen. They make a shabby pile: all scratched or tinged a permanent bloody hue from marinara. She is shocked, aghast, when I use a Sharpie to write on the plate: Stupid Coronavirus.
“Mama! What are you doing?!” It takes some coaxing but she finally writes Math on another plate. We’ve scrawled our fury in all the colors. Then standing at the edge of our deck, I put a hand on her back and feel the firmness of her shoulder blade. “Break it.” She doesn’t understand. She is confused, unsure, like it might be a test or a trick. “Do it. Break it.”
We toss the plates into the hard stones, they shatter up in a dusty shrapnel cloud of porcelain and ceramic. We skate our feet away from the shards. I am amazed at myself for not considering shoes and safety goggles but we are both laughing, screaming, and breaking. There is no time for a clearer head. When the pile of plates is gone, we sit together with the golden afternoon warming our scalps and take in the wreckage around us. She leans into me, presses her now calm and weary body into my underarm, and allows my arm to circle around her.
Melissa Savoie lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and her two awesome and messy kids. She moved to Texas from the mountains of Colorado to escape the winter. In addition to writing for parenting websites and her own blog, she also teaches baby massage classes to new parents. She is an impatient cook, a patient quilter and now: a reluctant homeschool teacher.
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