"What . . . Izzy, are you sure this is even math?"
"Yes, I'm sure," she replies, laughing. "If you can't help me, I understand."
"No," I say, determined to get this right. "Just give me a minute, I'll figure it out."
"It's been thirty minutes since we started."
"Oh hush. Don't underestimate your mother's intelligence."
I get another giggle from the eleven-year-old as I stare down the math textbook, hoping if I maintain firm eye contact it'll bend to my will and start to make sense. Oh who am I kidding? I'm pretty sure math stopped making sense for me when they put the alphabet into it. Still, it shouldn't be this hard. Every time I try to do it I have too many variables or lines. Each time it gets worse. Do I carry over this two? Does this x multiply with this four? Is everything multiplied by x? I think I'm looking at an alien code.
I could have sworn algebra wasn't a thing in my life until high school. Then again, Izzy's programs are accelerated. Curse that lady with the brochure for getting us to choose this as Izzy's school. She may be getting a better education, but I'm far beyond lost trying to help her with her classes, math in particular.
Come on. I can do this. It wasn't that long ago that I was in college doing math classes. Surely I can tackle algebra and . . . the book says distribution.
This doesn't look familiar at all. I curse myself for forgetting everything. Stupid calculators. Stupid internet. You've lulled me into a false sense of security, convinced me I'd never need this math again. My old math teachers are probably laughing at me right now. Or being mortified. Probably both.
Okay, let's try again. Evaluate the expression? I've evaluated it's a math problem I dislike. That's not right, is it? This is ridiculous. I need a tutor to be a tutor.
I hear the door open behind us, and I turn to see Ben emerge from outside. Finally, someone who can help me with this forsaken piece of paper.
"Oh hello," he greets, smiling. "I seem to have stumbled upon two very beautiful girls. Lucky me."
Normally I'd roll my eyes at him and make some equally silly comment, but I'm too stressed from this algebra.
"I need to find an X!" I tell him, desperate and frazzled. "I've been trying forever!"
He looks strangely hurt at the statement, eyes downcast.
"Why would you need to do that?" he asks. "Did I do something wrong? Because if this is about me forgetting to take out the trash again, I promise I can change. I think you're being too hasty-"
"I'm talking about math, Ben," I interrupt, trying not to laugh at his misinterpretation. "You've always been better at it than me. Izzy needs help with her homework. It's good to know you care so much about our relationship though."
He pauses, clearly caught off-guard, then breathes a sigh of relief.
"Right," he replies, clearing his throat. "I knew that. Of course. I was just joking."
"Sure you were."
"Shut up and let me see the problem."
He comes to stand next to me to peer over Izzy's shoulder at the exercises.
"Did you try reading the section before the questions?" he asks.
"No, I thought I'd just go into it without any knowledge or help just for fun."
"Well at least you were the top student in your sarcasm class."
"I was also the top student in my "elbow snarky husbands in the ribs" class."
"I wasn't aware there was such an interesting class at our university," he replies, snickering.
He learns just how good I am at that particular subject, groaning upon impact.
"A plus," he manages to say, obviously pained. "You rose above my expectations."
"I could do some extra credit, if you'd like."
He scurries to stand closer to Izzy, avoiding further injury.
"That's not necessary," he says, hurried, then bends down to help our daughter. "Let's see here. This'll be a piece of cake, just leave it to me."
Izzy smiles up at him, excited to finally receive some actual help.
Ben scans the problems on the page, looking confident. He scribbles some numbers on a piece of scrap paper, concentrating. It looks pretty good until I watch that confidence slowly slip away from his face. His brow furrows, he clears his throat, then puts lines through his work. He tries again. Each times he reaches an answer, his frown deepens before he scratches it out once more.
Finally exasperated, he flips back in the book and starts reading the chapter. Five minutes later, he tackles the question again with enthusiasm. That enthusiasm lasts only halfway through his work.
"I don't . . ." he trails off. "There's no way this isn't working. How does this even happen? I don't get what . . ."
He slumps against the table, burying his face in his hands.
"I graduated with a 3.8 GPA," he laments to himself. "I took statistics. I took calculus. I aced both of them. How can I not know simple algebra?"
I hesitantly move to pat his back, letting him grieve the loss of his dignity. I glance at Izzy, apologetic.
"I'm sorry, sweetheart," I say. "I'm afraid we're not much help."
"It's okay," she replies, sighing. "I'll just call Josh. He usually helps me when I do it at school anyway."
She hops off her chair, homework in hand, and makes her way to her room while she dials her friend's number on the cell phone I'm not sure how she managed to convince us she needed. She’s already much smarter than I was at her age, and that kind of terrifies me even though it’s also a good thing. Oh well.
Thank goodness for Josh, I suppose.
I turn my attention back to Ben, feeling sorry for him. He looks pretty crushed.
"Honey," I call, trying to draw him out from hiding. "It's alright. I didn't know either."
"B-but how could I be so useless?"
"You're not useless," I coo, running my fingers through his hair to soothe him. "We graduated a little over twelve years ago. That's quite a while back. And this stuff was taught to us long before that. Nobody can expect you to remember it all."
He sighs like his life has sunken to a new low, but sits back up and lets me pat his cheek.
"I guess . . . I guess you're right," he admits. "I just feel like a failure right about now."
"Me too," I reply, taking comfort in our shared incompetence. "I'm sure we can help her with her other homework when she has it."
"Yeah?" he asks, seeming more hopeful. "You think so?"
"Well I can give her advice on writing essays. English is my forte."
"And guess what?" he questions, this time perking up. "I can help her with science. Any homework she has on something like chemistry won't stand a chance."
"That's right," I reassure. "See? It's no big deal to not know this one thing. We'll be just fine. And so will Izzy."
"Yeah, we're great parents and great at school," he cheers, standing up and pulling me into a hug. "Pssh, Math. Not an issue at all. Most people aren't good at it anyway. I bet even Josh is having trouble."
"I bet so too," I reply, beaming. "It's not just us."
Izzy comes skipping out of her room, a full sheet of paper in her arms and a grin on her face.
"I'm done, guys!" she chirps. "Josh explained it for me. It took me no time at all once I got it. Thanks for trying anyway."
Ben and I stare at her, nonplussed. It's only been a little while since she called him. How did they get it done so quickly?
"Can I go to Stacey's house now?" Izzy asks.
"Uh, sure," I reply in a daze. "Be home by the time it gets dark."
She happily leaves, but Ben and I are still frozen. After several long moments, he turns to me.
"Does this mean what I think it does?" he asks, voice solemn.
"It is just us," I answer, realizing it. "Oh my god, we really are failures. We've let down all of our middle school teachers."
Ben groans again, expressing the defeat we both feel. I hug him, deciding to give into the temptation to mope.
"Let's go back and revisit our studies," I say.
"You want to go study Math?" he questions, incredulous. "I know how you feel, but I think that might make us more depressed."
"I didn't mean in Math. I meant revisiting the study of eating ice cream to avoid feelings. I'm in dire need of a refresher."
Ben favors me with a small smile.
"Alright," he agrees. "I happen to be very knowledgeable about this particular subject, but it can never hurt to do some review."
"Especially when it's before dinner," I add, winking.
"I feel like a rebel again."
"That's because we are."
I check out the window to make sure we’re in the clear and Izzy won't catch us, then rush back to the fridge to grab the container of ice cream while Ben gets spoons.
"Let's crush this studying," I say, and he nods.
“A plus here we come."