Here is the way I went about choosing a college to attend: I grew up in the flat, big-sky coastal plain, and I thought mountains were romantic, and I wanted to live where it snowed, and my cousin had attended a college in the mountains of North Carolina for a couple years before dropping out and I had once spent a weekend with her during which we saw, live in concert, Linda Ronstadt and Goose Creek Symphony for like three bucks, and, at the time, the admissions requirements there were not terribly rigorous. My father used to joke that the only thing you needed to be accepted by my college was a pulse. Mine beat wildly with can’t-wait-to-get-away-from-home bloodlust, and away to my mountain college I went.
They gave us placement tests during Orientation. Then we went away to party, and the next day met with an advisor. My roommate grabbed my schedule and nearly collapsed with wheezy, overstated laughter.
“What?” I asked.
“All the numbers here start with 100. Like, the intro classes are number 101. They put your dumb ass in Math 50.”
This did not surprise me. In fact, it was part of what led me to choose a college based on topography. I had flunked, in high school, both Geometry and Algebra One. I have no idea why I was allowed to graduate from high school, having passed no math. Admittedly I was twice as strong on the verbal end, and won a national writing contest my junior year which drew the interest of colleges all over the country I could never have attended, given my abysmal test scores and deplorable grades, but still, how was I allowed out of that school without even the most rudimentary abacus skills? At the time it seemed (as everything seems when you’re eighteen) that I had gotten away with something colossal. But then came Math 50.
The first sign of trouble arose when my roommate and I went to the bookstore to purchase our books for the semester. I tried to hide the Math 50 text in the bottom of my pile, though it was hard to conceal its garish redness, which brought to mind the word “primer.” No amount of shuffling could keep my roommate’s eyes away from the lettering on the spine, which contained, I swear, the word “Arithmetic.”
I learned from day one, before I ever took my seat in Math 50, to hide the textbook in a notebook, if for some reason I was without my backpack.
With most classes there was some choice for meeting times, but there was only one section per semester of Math 50. It met at six in the evening. No other class met at six in the evening. Six in the evening was when everyone ate dinner. By the time you got out of class, at 7:30, the steam tables in the cafeteria would reveal spots of gleaming silver beneath the crust of baked spaghetti and scalloped potatoes. Everyone would be gone to the library, or back to the dorms. It was like we were being punished for the way our brains worked. The administration was picking on us.
In my nervousness I arrived early, saw that the room was empty, spent the next ten minutes pretending to read the flyers on the bulletin board in the dingy basement of the Math building, which advertised calculators for sale, spring break trips to the Bahamas, summer job opportunities selling books out west. The hallway began to fill with others who also fake-studied the bulletin boards before, at six on the dot, filing slowly the classroom.
I took a seat in the back, as did everyone else. The first four rows of the classroom were left empty. The room reeked of quickly huffed cigarettes. Back then you could smoke in college classrooms, and when Sarge arrived at five past six, carrying a thermos in one hand, our embarrassing textbook in another, a filterless Lucky clenched between his teeth, every single one of us lit up.
Six girls, seven boys. Of the girls, I noted that two were beautiful, but no one, that first night, seemed very friendly. We sat in silence waiting for the teacher. The basement room was humid and mildewed, the desks horribly defaced. Virginia Is For Lovers, Math 50 is For Losers, read one line on my desk. The Proud, the Few, the Math 50 Crew, read another. It seemed to me a very bad omen, given the many course offerings in the math department, that this room had previously housed the same class, though the room had an air of institutional failure. One end of a florescent overhead light, unloosed from the dropped ceiling, dangled near the teacher’s desk; another light buzzed annoyingly for sixty second increments, followed by a blissful silence before it started up again. Ghosts of math problems faintly stained the ancient chalkboard.
We called our professor Sarge because he was retired military, though we had no idea what his rank was. He’d been a quartermaster for most of his career, and admitted to us one night when he was off topic (as he frequently was) that he only joined the military because he knew he could retire early and receive a decent pension and live off his wife for the rest of his years, supplementing her income with odd jobs, like the teaching of Math 50, which he mentioned in the same breath as running a booth at a local flea market and taking tickets at the cineplex.
He wasn’t a bad man but he was Good at Math, and therefore the enemy. Actually, it’s hard to say how Good at Math he actually was, since we were so terrible at it, and failed to learn much more over the course of the semester than we knew that first night.
We quickly became tight. Nothing like whopping common failure to cement solidarity. Numerals failed us, early and often. Or we failed them. Blame shifted—bad genes, an inclination toward word over co-sign, flagrant distinterest—before the reasons behind our incompetence ceased to matter and we were moved instead to interpret our lack of aptitude in the most positive light. Odd, since, singly and as a group, we weren’t exactly search-for-silver-lining types. I can only credit magic for our coming together, and a little of the indisputable power that arises from strength in numbers, whether or not you can add or subtract them.
After the first week we knew each other’s names. Eight of the thirteen of us smoked the same brand of cigarettes—Marlboro Reds—and we all tended to dress similarly, in the unisex style of the early seventies: jeans, concert t-shirts, wallabies or desert boots. After class we took to hanging out in front of the Math building, smoking and boasting about how badly we sucked at Math. At first we talked, naturally, about Sarge—what kind of teacher he was, why they’d chosen him to teach our class, how many Lucky Strikes he could smoke in an hour and fifteen minutes (none of us could count that high) his old-mannish polyester sansabelt pants, the flatness of his grey flattop. But as we got to know each other better, Sarge became less and less the focus of our conversations. By mid-term, Sarge scarcely existed. He stood in front of us, scratching his problems on the board, ignoring our blank stares, but we rarely noticed him, and almost never spoke of him in our post-class conversations.
Which continued in the cafeteria, where it hardly mattered that the place was empty save for the odd assortment of shy, friendless kids who would rather come late to dinner and risk scant offerings than endure the social stigma of sitting alone at those few tables in the rear corner of the huge room reserved for those with whom no one else would sit. We ate whatever was left, with indifference. Someone would decide which bar where we’d meet later, and then I’d head back to my room and pilfer my roommate’s larder to tide me over, and drink a glass of his milk to coat my stomach and around nine I’d head out to the bar, to share pitchers at large, greasy, graffiti-scarred tables at places called Antler’s, Holly’s Tavern, The Grubstake Saloon, or, if a good band happened to be in town, P.B.Scott’s live music emporium.
We were not the type of people to be inclined toward fraternities or sororities. We weren’t part of the preppie scene just beginning to sully our hippie mountain enclave. We weren’t terribly interested in fitting in. All of us seemed more than a little shocked at our friendship, mystified by the unlikely occurrence that had brought us together. We sat around the tables, drinking beer and talking all grades of trash. I remember these sessions as word-drunk, alive with put downs, irony, sarcasm. When I bothered to think about why we all got along so well, I decided it had to do with language, which was my love always, my earliest touchstone, the one thing I was decent at, on the page at least. I decided that the entire class roster of Math 50 that fall semester in 1977 was ablaze with literary talent.
But this, surely, was just another example of youthful romanticism. Some of my colleagues confessed, to my bewilderment, that they also sucked at English. Perhaps what made them appear witty and even sometimes wise, was the fact that they felt comfortable sitting at those long, beer-soaked tables. They did not have to prove themselves. No one present at that table was going to make fun of them if their backpack spilled open and out popped the firetruck red primer for Math 50, symbol all over campus for remedial hopelessness.
We weren’t allowed to run a tab, for figuring out who owed what could take days. We took turns buying each other beers, as if this would save us money. We took care of each other. When some drunk hassled one of the girls, we boys were there to pose as boyfriends. Several times Heidi, the girl I was closest to, offered to go talk to some girl at the bar I claimed to have a crush on, knowing how hopelessly shy I was when it came to talking to girls I had crushes on. People paired off. Heidi had a boyfriend back home she was always talking about getting rid of, and I thought there might be a chance for us, though we danced that awkward step of those for whom the timing is never quite right. It would have been a great anecdote, had we managed it: your mother and I met in Remedial Math class. But perhaps timing is finally a mathematical equation, and we lacked the acumen to tackle, much less solve it.
Exams loomed. I had a D average in the class, as did nearly everyone else. We all got together the night before to study at Earl’s place, though as soon as we got there Earl broke out the beers and put on some Little Feat, and Chicken brought out the weed, and Diane and Heidi started giving hustle lessons on Earl’s coffee table, and when we stumbled outside at three in the morning, far less prepared for the exam than we had been before our study session, our cars were covered with a couple of inches of ice. Sleet hammered us. We stood gawking and shivering and cursing. Tree limbs snapped in the forest under the weight of the ice. Earl lived out in Meat Camp, a twenty minute drive from campus in the best of circumstances. He begged us to stay over, he’d get us all up in time for the eight o’clock exam. Someone rightly voiced some doubt over just how much sleep we would get, and whether or not Earl could be counted upon to wake us in time. We all piled into Chicken’s Subaru. As wasted as I was, I knew this was a foolish move. I did not know (though surely I suspected) that I would fail Math 50, and that a couple semesters later I would flunk gloriously of my mountain college, and move to the west coast and never see or talk to my friends from Math 50 again. I knew only that Chicken and Heidi and everybody else were pushing themselves into Chicken’s beat blue Subaru, and my place was alongside them, for they were my friends. To have bonded so tightly over our shortcomings seemed noble. The beauty of the ice storm confirmed it. We were so charmed the heavens sent down droplets of silver to honor us. When the sun rose the world would gleam and twinkle. The Few, the Proud, the Math 50 Crew! Marry me, sweet Heidi. Chicken, I love you too, you and your goddamn blue Subaru.
The ride back to town took an hour. We saw other cars spin out and slide into ravines. Trees fell across the road; live power lines snaked along the shoulders. Chicken cranked up Some Girls and we all sang along with Mick to “Beast of Burden.” “You can put me out/out on the street/ Put me out/with no shoes on my feet.” Diane and Charlie Barton made out in the very back. Heidi sat on my lap. She was soft and exhausted and leaned against me with an intimate resignation that convinced me I’d made the right decision. I would have been glad to go down with these people. “Put me out put me out put me out of misery!” No one would know of the bond that existed between us—we would be, to the rest of campus, the police, the newspapers, just a bunch of foolish drunks on their way home from a party in an ice storm—but we would carry proudly our shared failure to the grave.
Math—the simplest Arithmetic—is what saved us. A number of cars spun off the mountainside that night. Ours was among the larger number that did not. What you are at twenty, my Presbyterian minister grandfather used to say, you are twice that at 40. At eighteen, I was a proud member of the Math 50 crew. At 36, would I be two members of the 50 crew? Suck twice as bad at Math? I didn’t see how the latter was possible, though in fact, I might well have been wrong, for nowadays, at 50, I have been known to count with my fingers and to say, aloud, while trying to figure a tip, “carry the one.” I’m not proud of my ineptitude. I’d love to learn to understand, if not appreciate, the sublime beauty of numbers. Yet I doubt I’d feel any better about that night when the heavens sent down beautiful, treacherous silver to coat the roads that lay between my crew and our final exam if I’d stood around confidently calculating the odds against our crashing.
True, I have no head for numbers, but now I wonder if it was not Math itself I failed to learn, but when and how to apply it, and—most importantly—what it’s supposed to mean. My grandfather’s deterministic formula, for instance, is less about multiplication than it is our deep fear of failure, our desire to keep learning or get stuck forever in that stuffy, booze fumy Subaru, Beast of Burden having turned into an insidious round of questions to a lover who’s spurned you (Ain’t I tough enough? Rough enough? Rich enough?) repeating itself in ourselves and others in illustration of the concept of infinity, which old Sarge certainly covered while we stared out the window and smoked.