by Tajmee T Ali
I’m in the fourth grade yet Baba is teaching me grade six math. At times he teaches me even higher level math. Even though I lack the ability to fully understand, he tells me stories of how certain math equations came to be and how they help us today. Last night when I had proudly identified the Big Dipper to Baba, he replied asking me if I knew how astronomers were first able to estimate the distance of stars from earth. I said no, signalling Baba to explain Pythagoras’ theorem to me.
Baba views the North American math curriculum as nothing but a joke.
I stare blankly at the numbers being raised to other numbers - called exponents. He’s livid I haven’t grasped this topic right away. He picks up the grade six Math Sense textbook, licks his index finger and searches for chapter two. He motions toward question three.
“Copy these questions in your notebook. Two to three. A to E.”
I scribble the questions down. I hate doing math in front of him. Of course this is easy for him. He’s a chemical engineer; to him exponents must be as easy as one plus one. My face burns as I answer the questions with haste. Baba sits, stone-faced as he rests his chin on his fists. His eyes have sunk deeper into his face.
I hand the paper back to him. He takes my mechanical pencil as he marks the paper. I feel satisfied as I hear the swift motion of checkmarks slide across the paper. He pauses. He scrunches the paper in his hand as he dramatically forms a giant X next to three C with great force. The lead snaps.
“Roja, how many times must I tell you? When a number is being raised to another number, you multiply that number by itself as many times as that number. You do not multiply them together.” He rips a piece of paper from his notepad and writes eight raised to three.
“Eight raised by three is eight times eight times eight. What is that, sweetie?”
I know eight times eight is sixty four in my head, but I have to multiply sixty four by eight on paper.
“Five hundred and twelve, Baba.”
“Good. Then why did you write twenty four? Do you still not get it?”
I grimace as I reply, “No, I do. Every other question I got right. I just got mixed up for a second.”
“Then you did it too fast,” he says, handing me back the paper, “I told you before, mamoni. Don’t rush math. You keep making silly mistakes because of this. Remember our mock EQAO grade three exams? You made a few mistakes because of these silly mistakes.”
I shut my eyes. I don’t understand why he brings this up every time. I got fours on all of my EQAO exams last year.
“Everyone makes mistakes.”
“Not making silly mistakes is a skill that must be learned. That’s okay, I am sure with time you won’t. But look how lucky you are. How many of your classmates have a parent that can teach them math like this? Look how ahead you are,” Baba says without looking at me, massaging his left temple in annoyance. He runs his fingers through his sparse hair and squeezes his strands tightly.
Baba sets his reading glasses aside on the table and continues, “Remember to thank God everyday. You have no idea how blessed you are.”
I slump back into my seat. I feel far from lucky. Not a single person I know is subject to a two hour study session with their fathers every day.
“You don’t even know how to teach,” I retort. Baba’s jaw clenches but I continue, “You just explain the topic in one minute and expect me to get all the practice questions. When I ask a question you make me feel so dumb, Baba.”
Silence engulfs the room. Baba sits with his arms crossed against his chest as he stares at me. He looks completely dumbfounded.
“I don’t answer your questions because I know you can solve it. You are lazy. You always search for shortcuts. How many times do I have to tell you? There are no shortcuts in math. If you don’t understand the basics now how are you doing to do higher level math?” Baba spits as he slams his fist on the table.
I slouch further into my seat, cowering my head as I squeeze my palms against my thighs. Gusts of wind blow the curtains in front of the balcony window. Crimson streaks decorate the sky outside as our kitchen grows dim. Baba gets up to turn on the light. The fluorescent light enhances the bags under his eyes even more.
“I can’t force you to like studying math. But as long as you live under my roof, you will study with me, you understand?” A twinge of guilt settles in my gut as I feel the pain in Baba’s voice.
My eyes burn as I fight the urge to release my tears. I stare at our kitchen’s popcorn ceiling as I nod my head. Baba and I listen to the ticking of our grandfather clock in silence.
“Okay,” I mumble.
“Next time,” Baba gets up from the chair, “You will remember to bring me a pen when I mark your work.”
I glance at the broken piece of lead that lies beside my school bag.
Baba leaves without looking back. I retrieve my blue mechanical pencil from the table, pushing the lead out as far as I can. My grip is tight as I jam the pencil against my paper. The lead breaks into two clean fragments. I toss the pencil onto the ground as I bury my head in my arms. I feel sorry for myself. I also feel sorry for Baba for having me.