Q & A

“Do you prefer Mozart or Bach?” he asked between algebra problems.

“Have you ever been in love?” he asked as we walked to the cafeteria.

“Oh, sure,” I said.  We were working in a basement office.

“Mozart,” I said.


“Mozart is more romantic,” I said.

“It sucks,” he said.  “Being in love.”  We crossed the quad.

“Yeah, it sucks.”

“Did you ever think about selling your computer?” she said.


We had spent hour after hour scrawling on legal pads, through problem after problem on a website.  Her teacher had chosen assignments seemingly in random order, each section was unrelated to the previous, and I scrambled to recalibrate my own thinking before I could explain what leap we were making next.  For math work, it was hella illogical.

“No, I love my computer.  And I keep my stuff forever.”

I had told her I didn’t know how long I would tutor, maybe I would move away, adopt some kids.

“No!” she said.  “You can’t leave me!”

Teaching, there was always the understanding, the rhythm worked into all of us: this year I am your teacher, next year I will not be.  Tutoring, it’s up in the air.  I still live with the academic cycle, zooming around at finals time, albeit at a distance.

“You should adopt a teen,” she said.

“Maybe,” I said.

“Now I’m in love, but alone.  In love alone,” he said.

“Yeah.  That happens,” I said.  The campus had emptied out for the day, it was late afternoon Friday.  We walked down a ramp behind the art building, it curved toward the cafeteria.

I sat and recorded my student who had to perform on the recorder, and the harmonica, for her music education class.  She earnestly played “Mary Had A Little Lamb” on a hot pink recorder.

“This feels so silly,” she said.

I smiled.

“I don’t think he cares that much how it sounds.”

“I’m sure that’s fine,” I said.

“I slept from like six a.m.to ten,” he said.

I know most college kids can get by on less sleep than me.  This is hard to remember because even as a college kid I needed sleep.

“You have to sleep.  And you have to eat.  Are you eating?”

“Romantic?” he said.

“I mean, emotional.  That kind of romantic.”


We returned to powers to a power, square and cube roots and the quadratic formula.

My high school algebra teacher taught us to sing the quadratic formula to the tune of “Pop Goes the Weasel.”  I sing it to my students, and they groan and then they sing it.

“I don’t eat real meals,” he says.


“But then I got my blood work back, and I’m deficient in all these vitamins.”

“Well, it’s good you’re eating those carrots.”

X is the opposite of b, plus or minus the square root of b squared minus 4 a c, all over 2a.

My mother calls halfway through a six-hour desperation marathon of trying to finish enough algebra to get my student safely through her poorly organized class.

“You want to talk to her?” I ask my student.

They talk . “I know I can do it.  I know I can,” my student says to my mom.

“Are you sure you want to keep going?” I ask her five hours in.

She just looks at me.

“If I leave, will you keep going, or will you cry?”

I stay.

Six hours in, I can’t see straight, or think, we have written equation after equation, running out pads of paper, and suddenly she says, “Wait,” checks another section of the website.

“We’re done,” she says, lightly and mildly because we just have nothing left.

“Oh, my God,” I said.  Our language had fallen from formality to light curses to uncreative profanity over the afternoon, the evening.  “Really?”


I walked to the bus.

“I might get a B!” my student said.

I frown.

X is the opposite of b, plus or minus the square root of b squared minus 4 a c, all over 2a.

Image: detail of “Two Men at table with Test Tubes and Beakers,” Walker Evans.



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