Before I go, I have something to say

A Story Problem in the Family

My daughter and I have a running joke about math. One of us will ask, “What time should I pick you up if we want to be in Grinnell in time for lunch?” and the other will shudder visibly and moan, “Oh no. Story problem.” Some days it seems that everything is a story problem — how much vegetarian chili to make vs. the regular kind if the whole ukulele group is coming over and two of them don’t eat meat; how old my mom was when she gave birth to me, and how that compares with my age when I had my second child.

Bonnie at almost 8, Pam at not-quite-1

It can be done, but it cries out for math. I am not number-phobic, in fact I was second in my class in my second year of college, when I grew weary of all the contrasting and comparing of my overly full lit-class load. I wanted to study something had real, specific, unassailable answers, and this math class, with its geometric formulas and algebraic alphabet of xes and ns, was a profound relief. I understand the logic of math, and I love logic in and of itself. But faced with a simple trip to a restaurant that closes at 1:30 and is 87 miles away and requires one stop for gas, I find myself gasping for air.

And yet I persist. There are things I want to know, and only numbers and charts can reveal them. I count charts as a useful crutch for the English major, with their promise of keeping data straight and useful once the math is done. (Don’t speak to me of spreadsheets. I am content with my Word tables. I will put my finger in the sea of numbers, but I have no desire to drown.)

So it was that yesterday, as I sat constructing a new poem about my sister, I found myself rifling through a file cabinet for her school records, and then mine. I wanted to know how old she was when she started each grade, and how old I was in comparison. It would be nice — I mean, how hard could this be? — if the school year started on January 1, but oh no, someone decided to send the kids off in autumn, so that the scent of books and pencils would forever be conflated with the sight of red leaves and the first frost. Add to this confusion the fact that only one-twelfth of us starts school the month in which we actually turn five, and and I am left lunging for the calculator. We were both born in December — she on Christmas Eve, me exactly three weeks earlier — so both of us were three long months away from holding up all the fingers on one hand the day we went off to school.

[Interesting Kress family math fact: every year, her birthday and my birthday and the birthday of our father always lined up perfectly. If mine was on a Wednesday, so was hers, and his. December 3, December 24, December 31. I found this magical and, you know what? I still do.]

So I set up a chart, with the year on the left and then columns for Bonnie’s age in September, the school she attended that year, and the grade, with three more columns for my indisputable facts. The rows comprising her entire educational career look like this:


Year (Sept.) B. Age School Grade P. Age School Grade
1950 5 Garfield K
1951 6 Garfield K
1952 7 Garfield/Taylor 1
1953 8 Taylor 2 9 months
1954 9 Taylor 2 1
1955 10 Taylor 3 2
1956 11 Taylor 4 3
1957 12 Taylor 5 4
1958 13 Taylor 6 5 Adams K
1959 14 Williams 7 6 Adams 1
1960 15 Williams 8 7 Adams 2
1961 16 Williams 9 8 Adams 3
1962 17 West 10 9 Adams 4
1963 18 West 11 10 Adams 5
1964 19 West 12 11 Adams 6

Thus are revealed the deepest family secrets, the most puzzling shame, the facts nobody thought to tell me until I was long gone from any of those schools. You don’t have to look too closely to see it, when it’s laid out all neat and tidy like this, with a space (a cell, technically — oh, the metaphorical possibilities) for each verifiable fact.

There are, you can see, two rows for K in Bonnie’s columns, and two schools for Grade 1, with an abrupt change from Garfield to Taylor in September. She had, after all, already tried kindergarten twice, and apparently first grade was not going well, either. One of the very few things our mother told me, so many years later, was, “Your sister failed first grade.” This chart seems to show that she also needed a second chance at second. It suggests that even transferring to what we called, god help us, “the school for retarded kids” was no guarantee of success, though the microfilm records I have in my file show a benevolent switch from Cs, Ds, and Fs at Garfield to Satisfactory Progress at Taylor. Every time I see that, I feel enormous relief, on behalf of my parents, my sister, and her first, regular, school. Hard on the heels of my parents’ relief, though, I sense their regret, their foreboding. My mother told me she did not plan to have another child after that, and that I owe my existence to my Aunt Louise, who talked her into it.

And so now I know how old she was when I started my own unswerving journey toward high school graduation. It seems she should have been even farther behind me than two years, but now I know. Even though she repeated two grades early on, she was enough older than me to escape running into me in junior high or high school, even though we attended the same schools (with her on the special ed track). I was spared embarrassment; she was spared at least a bit of the gnawing envy that consumed her contemplation of me, the little sister. By the time I was in the top grade of elementary school, Bonnie was marching toward graduation. And yet I could do her homework when I was still in grade school, reading over her shoulder as she raged her frustration. I did not understand how this could be, but I understood the spelling, the English, the math her teachers sent home each day.

I look at pictures of us at different stages, beginning with this one, surely taken in late fall when she was about to be eight while I would have a cake with just one candle. There are so many things I wish I knew: how we got along, what she thought of this second girl in the house, whether I was safe with her, what my parents told their friends about her developmental delays and her terrifying rages. Math will only get you so far, and pictures obscure as much as they reveal. Maybe a poem will bring me closer to solving the story problem of my family.

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