My Life in Mathematics
My third grade teacher fissioned us into teams.
Flashed cards. Shouted. Five seconds to answer:
7 times 8! Ruth! Five! Four! Three! Two! One!
My team always lost. A brain can be a cloud chamber
full of random events. And shame is easy to memorize.
Later, my mother drilled me with flash cards
in a hotel room in Sweden in a rage because I still
could not memorize the multiplication tables
yet I remember clearly how it smelled there beside
the vast gray lake, and how in the empty dining room
light circled as though in clouds
and I remember the smell of my mother’s anger, and
what she wanted from me.
In college I passed statistics only through the patient
tutoring of the professor, a young man, worried and
awkward and kind.
Because I was pretty. I do remember that.
In the end I worked out a way to cheat on the
multiplication tables, and I have used it all my life.
The numbers are shaped like the bones in my body,
though I cannot tell you how. Perhaps I knew, once,
but memory slips away now like a fish you can see
moving under water, sliding past the hook.
Yet I believe what we know in the bones will stay with
us — like the face of a young man kind and awkward
in his stiff professor’s suit, and not much older than I
and how I must have looked, sitting across from him
in my new spring dress — oh, pretty, and quick,
and brief as a flower.