Pen Marks

Storyteller: Diana (she/her/hers), 23, California

"Math was always the enemy. It was a foreign language to my 10 year old ears and the club I never joined. In 5th grade, my life went through a radical change as I left the only home, school, and family I had known since I was 4, and transferred to the whole new world of Ontario, CA.

I considered myself a 'good' student. I did my work, I was quiet when I needed to be, and I was kind to my classmates. But, I was unfortunate enough to transfer in the middle of the year, so I felt the sudden unattainable pressure of needing to catch up.

In my mind, math was always the unattainable, so I felt instant panic when the class would suddenly transfer from the beauty of Art or English into the dreaded numbers, timelines, and tables filled with symbols unknown to me.

One afternoon, my teacher instructed us to quickly and quietly put away our crayons and take out our multiplication tables we stored in our desks for daily practice. This was the time I always dreaded.

There was a part of me that wanted to throw that paper away and tell my teacher I had lost it and couldn’t do the practice! I quickly suspended these thoughts, however, as I knew she would only look at me with disappointment and hand me a fresh sheet. I reluctantly took out my practice paper and stared at the neatly organized problems messy with the unforgiving and far too obvious eraser marks that tagged my paper as inadequate.

These daily drills were marketed by my eager teacher as quiet time. It was meant as an exercise that would focus us back in and get our minds working in the sluggish afternoons. But for me, this was a time of high anxiety, and for that reason, my teacher’s next words startled me even more.

As she set her timer for 10 minutes, she made an announcement: 'Make sure you are answering the problems in pen! I want to see everyone’s pens moving as I walk by.'

'PENS!' I thought to myself in fear as I stared at my inadequate sheet.

As the timer started, I began writing in the lightest handwriting I could manage.

'A strong eraser should work on these lines' I naively thought to myself.

I struggled through each problem knowing that I was all wrong, but as my teacher walked through my row, I noticed she was checking everyone’s papers. When it was my turn, she simply kept walking.

I could not focus: 'Why did she not look at my paper? Is my work so wrong that she didn’t even bother to check?'

Suddenly, I heard a rush of rustling papers and noticed most of the class move on to the back side. I stared, defeated, at my light, incomprehensible scribbles. As the timer went off, I shoved my paper back in my desk hoping it would get lost in some dark corner by tomorrow."

Math was always the enemy. It was a foreign language to my 10 year old ears and the club I never joined.