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“Best Wishes, J. sernaise”

by Julie Wilson

My Grade Nine math teacher was a reserved man who mumbled in hushed tones barely audible above the wheeze of his sneakers and the quick zip of his corduroys. We knew Mr. Sernasie – Mr. Sernasie-Sir – could speak louder; we’d all heard the occasional spat coming from the staff room. I wondered if his subtle demeanour was a ploy, meant to force our attentions to the front of the classroom and onto the task of reading his lips, pursed from behind the bristle of a close-cropped beard. If he’d bumped the volume just a titch we could’ve kept our heads down, appearing to busy ourselves with who-knows-what. As it was, we all bore the look of anguished anticipation, like waiting for the thick sting of a dodgeball, or a snowball, or worse – being called on by teacher.

In this quiet, safe place, with the blinds drawn, the lights low, his throaty inflections guided us into a world of Numbers. Math was fun. He told us so. And we believed his puckered puss, wafting swirls of coffee breath among flourishes of chalk dust, as he covered the boards with the language that had forever eluded me.

‘The answers are in the book,’ he assured me. For the third day in a row, I left, my homework unfinished and incorrect, a dismal mark atop my pop quiz. The answers are in the book. The answers are in the book. I’d asked for help and gotten a riddle in return. Perhaps he thought I was smarter than the others, I couldn’t be sure. But I took his confidences seriously, mulishly, as I sat slumped under my desk lamp long after the rest of the house had gone dark. I wanted good grades, but this was a new and exciting challenge; one clearly meant for me. Mr. Sernasie-Sir was offering a philosophical journey and I would take it; I would crack this code. I would find these answers he spoke of. And math would be fun.

Math. Is. Fun.

This went on for a week.

‘Sir, I don’t…’

‘The answers are in the book.’

‘Okay, now when you say…’

‘Julie – Look at me.’

Oh dear. I zoned in on his lips, his voice nothing but vapour spelled out in chalk powder. And slow, my god, so slow. My ears coursed with a rush of blood.

‘The answers……are in………the boooooook,’ in timed metre, all the while tapping my text with a dusty digit, before handing it back to me, each time with a little more force than the last.

‘The answers are in the book!! The answers are in the book!!’ I mocked, digging my heels into the pavement the long walk home, mindful of the cracks.

Meanwhile, I continued to fail the quizzes of Little Miss Whispers. Math wasn’t fun. Math sucked.

To make matters worse, as incentive, he’d started rewarding us with autographed pieces of chalk – signed by him. We thought this was silly, but kids always want what someone else has. The tiny stacks building on the surrounding desks – some were pyramids, others a harbour of logs – started to nag at us, so the race was on. The same chalk that had elicited groans upon revealing that night’s homework – applied so faint, so super soft it was hardly legible; changing-a-baby’s-diaper-soft; piss-me-off-soft – had suddenly become a coveted treasure. Indeed, jealousy lead to unsavoury deeds. A tell-tale snap; the snuffed out crunch under a wedged heel; the familiar traces of white outlining the edge of a coat pocket slipping out of class as last bell rang.

One could easily find his good intentions, save for one small clarification. Mr. Sernasie-Sir wasn’t awarding the students with the most correct answers – just the most questions answered. Was this some sort of reverse psychology? Was he trying to instill in us a desire to want to get things right? Could be. If all we had to do was scribble down any old answer to collect a prize it would reason that sooner or later we’d get bored, maybe up the ante by actually trying. I wanted to, just once, scratch out an arbitrary list of numbers, but, even back then I knew it could never be about the answers so long as the questions continued to evade me. I was angry; determined more than ever to understand this insipid riddle by the time class ended – if only because that’s when my teacher wanted to see me, and I wasn’t going to show up empty-handed, yet again.

‘I think you might be trying too hard,’ he said. ‘You need help in order to complete these equations. Don’t get ahead of yourself. There’s plenty of time for deep thoughts. But, right now, I need you to understand the basics. You need the —’

I’d had enough. It was time for clarity.

‘What are these answers you keep talking about?! I’m wrecked looking for the answers!!’

At this point, he turned my text around and opened it to a page of charts, leaving a caked trail of fingerprints up and down each column.

‘These…’

He could tell by the stupefied look on my face that I had no idea what he was talking about.

He roared. Head-back-falling-off-the-hinges-tears-streaming- rafter-shaking laughter.

‘All this time,’ he giggled. ‘I thought you’d tried to memorize it all! Julie, you need these charts to finish the formulas. You can’t do them otherwise. The answers…’ He couldn’t finish. The next day, I worked myself into a fit, and to my first and only piece of chalk. He placed it gingerly on my desk with a knowing smirk. Best wishes, J. Sernasie. Afterwards, I checked my answers, horrified that I’d only gotten half right. That was okay. No one needed to know. Each day, I applied myself to the questions at hand, working towards only the goal of getting the most right answers I was capable of. These tiny exercises showed me how much work I had to do. But what of it?

I’ve been butting my head against this theorem most of my life. And, ultimately, I’m facing it again in my writing. I believe in inevitabilities. It’s how we arrive at those conclusions that makes storytelling so precious, though. It’s a math of our own. So what if it spills into the margins and onto the table? We’re getting things down.

In life and in writing, which is more important – how many answers you get down, or how many you get right? If you figure it out, don’t tell me, I want to get there on my own.

Best Wishes, J. Sernaise

Copyright 2003. Julie Wilson.

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