Sunday, April 08, 2007

Stephen King's Algebra Cure

my long-time friend

Back in my early teen years, as a student at Trident Junior High School--I believe I was in 8th grade--I had an algebra teacher named Mrs. Smith who hated me (one of two teachers in my student career who made this point evident).

Generally, I was a mediocre student at the time (and why not? Destined as I was to play third base for the Dodgers, who cared if I could comprehend the Pythagorean Theorem?). But I wasn't the type to cause trouble in class. For the most part, the worst that could be said about me was that I was invisible.

The trouble, in this particular class, began in the early days of the school year, when I had the chutzpah to ask questions after several of Mrs. Smith's barely-coherent algebraic explanations. Unfortunately, I found even her explanations of the explanations wanting. And I asked more questions.

Well, to say that this displeased Mrs. Smith would be an absurd understatement. Rather than continue to struggle with her ineptitude and mine, she took to ridiculing me. Innocent questions triggered snide responses and occasional laughter from my classmates.

Several poor tests and several frustrating weeks later, I began to check out.

It wasn't long after this point, during yet another Greek lecture from Mrs. Smith, that I noticed that Joel, the kid in the next seat, was busy reading a novel.

The act was thrilling and scary and subversive. And I was as jealous of Joel's escape as I could imagine being of any person for any act.

Trying not to draw attention to myself, I managed to spy the cover of the book he was reading. It was The Shining, by Stephen King. And below it sat The Island by Peter Benchley.

I didn't know either of the authors or their books, but before the end of class I had resolved to go buy myself a similar escape.

Immediately after school, I rode my bike to Sprouse Rietz, a local general-purpose store that boasted the only decent paper-back book rack around. Nearly as fast as my eyes could scan the top row, I found both The Shining and The Island. Within minutes, I had made my purchase and left the store feeling like a rebellious adult.

In the days that followed, I devoured The Shining, reading at home alone, at breaks at school, in bed before sleep. I can't remember if I ever had the cajones to read during Mrs. Smith's class--though I doubt it. But that truth really doesn't matter. The book, itself, was the meaningful climax of this story. It enthralled and terrified me, made me forget my algebra woes, and awoke new ambitions in me.

Mrs. Smith's theorems now lay long-forgotten (to the extent that I ever understood them at all), but my flight from her gifts taught me things that will stay with me as long as coherence does.

For that, I suppose I should be grateful.

P.S. I did read The Island, as well. But it didn't impress me in any of the ways The Shining did.

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