Reading, writing, arithmetic…and gymnastics

photo courtesy of Guillaume Guérin

I stumbled across this question on some personal history memory prompt: “Did you do well in school? What were your successes and failures?” So here goes…

Somewhere between doing well but being out of my league socially in elementary school in Eugene, and being voted “Most Likely to Succeed” and graduating second in my high-school class at Junction City, High School, there were, incidentally, a few stories.

Because I’m a good-news-last kind of girl, we’ll start with my most difficult subject. Gymnastics. Part of the reason gymnastics was not my friend was because my fault. I still remember one day filing from the cold gloomy hall into the warm well-lit library¬†and realizing as I looked forward and then behind me that I was at least a full head taller than my entire class. I was tall. And awkward. That can be a lethal combination in gymnastics. The higher you are the further you fall. (The rest of the reason gymnastics was not my friend was simply because gymnastics hated me.) I remember loving the surge of power that builds while running towards the large, sturdy, immoveable vault. But the balance beam was my nemesis.

Awkward as I was, I was also–and still am–a little stubborn. I decided I wanted an A during the gymnastics portion of P.E., as it was the only class in which I wasn’t earning an A, and then I set about perfecting my beam routine. To this day I don’t know how I did it, but I do remember practicing at lunch and after school working on my routines and trying to nail the dismount. And I eventually got my A.

And then there was Math. My favorite math teacher was Mr. Hagen. He was as tall as Gandalf and was a wizard at math. He must have loved math, because he instilled in me a love of math, too. And that was nothing short of a miracle for this distracted, angst-ridden teenager. As a side-note, angst and distraction aside, I realize now how fortunate, even blessed I was, to–right there in the middle of the seventies–live somewhere where girls were encouraged to succeed in math and science.

I lived for Mr. Hagen’s lectures and for the way he taught math not by rote, but in such a way we understood not just what to do, but why. It almost became instinctual. Mr. Hagen was also very patient. So forgiving when I showed up late to class after lunch, meaning well, but struggling not to giggle through class sitting next to one of my best friends, Cyndi Smith.

The next year Mr. Hagen was followed by new teacher, someone who had transferred from another school. I don’t recall his name, but he had short reddish hair and wore glasses. Almost a little Kevin Kline-ish. One day he came into class and wrote an equation that took up the entire blackboard. (Yeah–remember those? Probably not.) He promised to give an A for the entire semester to any student who could solve the equation. We still had to turn in our work, but we would have a guaranteed A.

It took us a couple of weeks, but two of us eventually solved that big old long equation. Oh man, I loved solving equations! And I loved earning that A.

My love for math died a cold cruel death just the next year, on account of my trigonometry teacher. Having been spoilt by the in-depth explanations and understanding provided by Mr. Hagen and his successor, I was anxious to understand the whys behind trig.

“Because that’s just what you do,” was the brusk, unsatisfying reply I got from my instructor. I don’t recall even finishing the course, but I tested out of college math and have never taken another math course since. Although I like to joke now and then with a sarcastic “math is hard,” I miss being able to solve equations. I think I loved math because the rules are finite and predictable. And I much prefer problems I can solve to those I can’t.

Since I went from bad to good and then good to bad, let me end this with another recollection. At some point during high school I had the opportunity to compete with other high school students in regional college-bowl type competition. One of my favorite moments of the event was when I was battling it out with a tough competitor and the questions got a little tricky. The entire audience grew silent as I quickly slammed the button almost before the following question was completed. “What is a four-letter word for social intercourse that ends with “K.”

Talk!” I exclaimed.

A huge sigh of relief eased its way out of the adults in the room, along with a few snickers from the peanut gallery.

They thought they had me.

But they were wrong.





Post edit: Lest I present the past through rose-colored glasses, might I add that also in between my not-enoughness in elementary school and my likely overrated accolades as a senior, there were plenty of awkward moments, dateless Saturday nights, broken heart(s), mediocre writing assignments, a geeky prom date, being stood-up for the homecoming dance by the bad boy who wasn’t looking for a nice girl, being humbled by the barbed and forked tongues of mean girls, and the authorship of a really bad rhyming couplet poem about mute swans (somewhat forgiven on account of a couple of decent haiku.