How to Solve the Mystery of the Slope and the Line

By Cassandra Garbus | June 23, 2022
World Bank Photo Collection (Flickr/worldbank)
World Bank Photo Collection (Flickr/worldbank)

Her first fall away, you keep your daughter’s room ready for her return—sheets washed, string lights retaped to the wall, clothes finally put away. But the dark slit of her bedroom door is a constant reminder; you are in a new chapter now.

Mornings your son can get off to school on his own. You stir his oatmeal, pack his turkey in a plastic bag, and then leave before he does. On the 1 Train, you no longer finger your phone anxiously, waiting for his text. After all, at 13, he often travels on the subway alone, sometimes to his father’s all the way at the edge of Queens, by the sea, where, as a family, you used to go summer Sundays.

But you feel the sense of your own waste, riding every morning downtown from 145th Street and then crossing on the bus to the East Side, where you teach high schoolers, who stay the same every year while you get older.

You are not bored with the students themselves, but with the repetitions of Septembers; you are still correcting run-on sentences, molding thesis statements about The Great Gatsby and the American Dream. You prefer spending the classes chitchatting, sympathizing with the students about their parents, who pressure them too much, and their siblings who outdo them. They tell you everything, these 17-year-olds, though you worry some of them suspect you have gotten lazy.

You are the sibling who failed; that is why you teach not at a university, but at this particular private school. Your brother, a civil rights lawyer, is famous in certain circles, and your father is a retired Columbia professor. You slipped into this job almost 18 years ago because it was steady, and your ex-husband was—and still is—an artist. But you often find yourself listening to the students’ problems in the 11th-floor office, next to the real school psychologist’s fancier room. And that’s when you get the idea; you will make a change. You will become a school psychologist.

Over the summer, you study for the GREs. In June, you take a diagnostic test and score an eight percent in math, a good joke for your ex-husband. “That’s what you get,” he says and then tells his own story about how much he hates Bill de Blasio and how he had to pay $360 for his towed car that morning.

“Can you believe it?” he says, and you laugh too closely into the phone.

Your daughter, though, cheers you on. “I’m proud of you.”

Back for the summer, she offers to help with the math. After all, didn’t she study for the SATs two hours a day for a year? (Like your students’ parents, you forced her, pressured her, injected your anxiety directly into her. She has accused you of this and so much more.)

But your daughter is a good teacher, drawing diagrams, asking you to repeat what she has just said, making you copy down the rules. How you have missed her! Sometimes you just stare at her: nose ring, makeup-less eyes, black hair, as long as yours, curtaining her face as she graphs lines in your Kaplan book. You remember her in the playground, always the boss of things, directing elaborate scenes from her castle under the slide. (Why did you sometimes watch so closely, worried what the other mothers would think? There were those tantrums she would throw, alarming, endless.)

But Sunday afternoons in July. you and your daughter sit close together at the kitchen table, elbows almost touching, as she tries to explain quadratic equations.

“You’re not even trying, Mom,” she says, her face suddenly flushed. She can’t bear to see you so helpless. “You have to try.”

She points the tip of her pencil at you and then flips through the Kaplan book, circling page numbers; she wants you to practice two, three hours a day. “That’s what you told me,” she says. When her high school friends, home for the summer too, traipse by the kitchen, she immediately tells them you are studying for the GREs, that you will get your PhD, and suddenly you cannot fail her. You don’t know what will become of her now or later in her life, but you must show her it can be done—full turns and transformations.

You pay $1,200 for 10 weekly sessions with a 30-year-old Kaplan tutor you meet at the coffee shop on 141st. Blond and tony-looking, in his flip-flops and khaki shorts, he leans back in his seat, hands in his pockets, as you work through the problems. Though a decade before, he was an economics major at Columbia, he seems at sea now, scheduling meetings with you and others in the middle of the day.

If A travelled 60 mph and started fifteen miles behind B and C, traveling 65 mph and 70 mph respectively, how far would all three cars travel in two and a half hours?

Your tutor draws little cars in your notebook and neat algebraic graphs, but your brain still fuzzes. He keeps charts of every score you get on practice tests. This is why you think he is a good tutor, even though he can barely stand you, and you know what he sees when he looks at you—you are old, you have hairs on your chin, you aren’t even rich, you wear no wedding ring.

You cannot bring up your math score no matter how hard you try. Finally, you think, forget math, forget psychology. You already have a masters in English, you’ll go on for a PhD.

“What’s the point?” your father, the retired history professor, says. “There are no jobs.”

“It’s about the process, the studying. I want to do it.” And saying it aloud, it becomes even more true.

“And how will you support yourself?”

“I’ll work. I’ll do both.”

Your ex-husband, Granger, is still good-looking. His girlfriend, an artist, too, is not much younger than you, but much slimmer.

“Maybe Granger will support me,” you add, just to throw your father off.

Last summer, your marriage failed, and alone for the first time in 20 years, you struggled to get out of bed. Now you have a purpose. On a bench on Riverside Drive, overlooking Riverbank State Park, you study GRE vocabulary words on flashcards. You somehow slip your high verbal scores into conversations; you can hardly stop yourself from repeating the numbers, the percentages. In previous summers, you wrote poems and submitted them to magazines; you never stopped hoping something would come of it, and sometimes it did, in dribs and drabs.

The three doctoral programs you apply to are fully funded, with stipends, with at least 500 applicants for 15 spots, odds that, for some reason, you are also hopeful about, because hope is funny that way, and you believe your friends when they say schools will want someone like you with so much life experience: 18 years of teaching and those long-ago publications. You are special, they say.

You tell your daughter how the course catalog excites you; you want, really want, to take a course on Edith Wharton, James Baldwin, and James Joyce, in particular, because you always wanted to get through Ulysses. But descriptions of courses on literary theory seem written in a foreign language with triple layers of self-consciousness.

You don’t have a writing sample to submit either; your graduate school papers were on those old floppy disks, lost or thrown out.

To the department head of Columbia, you write:

Dear Professor Burham,

I am not your typical applicant. I am a 53-year-old woman. I have been teaching high school literature all of my life … I do not have any papers from my master’s program anymore …

You anticipate the kick in the face.

One might write in a scholarly way at any point in one’s life,” he answers archly, adding another drop to your tin of hope.

You decide to write on Tell Me a Riddle, by Tillie Olsen, because you wrote about her in graduate school, and it feels as if you are treading across ground you know. You order books from Amazon, following the tracks of bibliographies to come to some understanding of contemporary feminism, all the academic lingo that has seemed so impenetrable. You immerse yourself in literary criticism, on an ever-expanding circle of women writers, and it feels satisfying and right to have this project, this goal.

All through the fall, your daughter back at school, you wake up at five a.m. to work on this paper, and you continue to tell everyone you know about your plans.

“You’re always working,” your son says. He is proud of you too. You are setting a good example. If you tell him to get off his phone and do his homework, he is more likely to listen.

You go to bed surrounded by feminist books, piled on the floor, on the night table, on the windowsill. You think you have gotten used to this, that you can bear it, the half-empty bed, the moment the lights go out, and there is only you, curled up in the darkness.

“How is your paper going?” your daughter asks from far away in Washington, where her course load is all politics, no poetry or art, nothing connected to you and your ex-husband. But feminism, intersectionality, is something you and your daughter can talk about now.

“I can’t afford to go to school anyway. I can’t stop working,” you say to keep expectations down.

“Maybe I’ll support you,” she answers, and it’s no use to try to be realistic, to explain things she doesn’t understand about how risky it would be to lose your excellent health and retirement benefits at your age. Her sentiment is so sweet anyway, why would you ruin it?

“You’ll find a way. I believe in you,” she says in three separate phone conversations, in the exact tone you have used with her, and she becomes the person you want to fail least.

You take the GREs twice. The second time in early November, two months after the tutoring, the math suddenly clicks. In your cubicle, earplugs in, you feel oddly at peace, almost as if you are in your own spaceship, staring at the computer screen, guiding the old-fashioned mouse from one screen to the next. Somehow your mind feels relaxed, fluid, as if you are sliding in and around each problem. You no longer do your mad calculations. You need to know the formulas, yes, but it is all much simpler than you thought. The trick is to slow down, clearing your mind of the previous problem before absorbing the logic of the next. It seems a kind of magic, a truth you never believed in.

“Up 50 percentage points.”

“Wow, wow,” your daughter says, perhaps a little high, 250 miles away in the single she lucked into. You are glad to hear voices, laughter, in the background. She is not a complete grind, as you pressured her to be in high school. Now that she is a sophomore, you restrain yourself from asking about her grades; you let there be that space.

What stumps you, now, is the Statement of Purpose, the SOP, as it is called on the Grad Cafe Forum, a website where you converse anonymously with 23-year-olds anxiously writing their own SOPs—1,000-word statements meant to capture all of your achievements, the brilliance of your intended course of inquiry, as well as something personal and unforgettable.

You want to immerse yourself in literature about middle-aged women whose husbands and children have left them and how they salvage their lives. You write extensively about Tell Me a Riddle, about Eva, a Russian immigrant, who, at the end of her life, is worn down by domesticity, but still misses the early days of motherhood. You add a bit of yourself, about dropping your daughter off at college for that first time. “You’ll be okay,” she had reassured you too often on the way there, but after you closed the door of the rented car, she had immediately disappeared inside the dorm, turning off her worry, or so it seemed. Which was a good thing, you write, for you never stopped worrying about your own divorced mother, whose sadness has often seemed like an escapable finish line.

“Is this really what it is supposed to be about?” your ex-husband interrupts over the phone after you have read the sentence about your mother’s loneliness.

You explain that a personal statement is supposed to be personal. “Personal, but academic too. That’s the hard part. A thousand words about everything and nothing.”

“You better check with someone,” he tells you, and you think you should start calling him less.

You have no one to attest to your scholarly prowess, no professors from 30 years back to write recommendations. Your boss and two colleagues, however, write such glowing letters that they embarrass you. They seem like they can’t possibly be true, and you think for a moment maybe you shouldn’t be leaving the school at all.

In the evenings, you let your son watch too much TV, put off grading papers, and you endlessly revise your paper about Tillie Olsen and your SOP.

Someone, a friend of a friend, suggests you ask to sit in on a class at the Graduate Center, the City University, to make yourself known there. Later, you will think this might have been bad advice, that it made you seem too pushy, but at that moment in, say, November, a month before applications are due, you are in a frenzy, on a train that can’t be stopped. You email three professors at the Graduate Center immediately, and one responds. He is teaching a class on Interpretations of Race and Bisexuality, and his scholarly focus is Critical Race Theory. When you check the website, however, you discover the professor is a white man, young, in his 40s, maybe even 30s, and gaunt with thick lips like Mick Jagger.

Okay, you think. Why can’t a white man teach race?

The afternoon of the class, your colleague who wrote the recommendation laughs when you trudge out of the school building, rolling your beat-up black suitcase of papers to grade. “Leave it,” she points to the suitcase. “You know what you look like?” she says, and you laugh together, the kind of big belly laugh you have almost forgotten. She, too, is a single, middle-aged woman, a playwright.

You wonder what the eight students seated around the seminar table at the Graduate Center think of you as you enter, smiling too much. At least you are not bumping that suitcase behind the backs of chairs. At least you have your long orange hair, which is still dramatic.

You try to act dignified with the professor, who is slim in his black pants and clangy bracelets. His hair is short and bleached. He has worked it out so that the class is taken up with student presentations, and he simply edges things along with ironic quips. The class is discussing a book that critiques the way other books discuss art by or about transgender African-Americans. The student-presenters read their papers, which refer to other papers written by other Black critical theorists, and then the students show a grainy movie short on the downtown trans scene.

But the students are smarter than you expected; they are fluent in a language you barely know, and you are inspired by their excitement, by their dexterity.

Before you leave, you thank the teacher too profusely, and on the way home, you copy and paste the same text to all your friends: “The class was GREAT. It is just what I need. I WANT to go to school.”

The websites promise the decisions will be released in March, so you are surprised when in late February an email from Columbia instructs you to check the status of your application.

Hope is a feathered thing, and it has sailed you to this point; you still somehow believe you will get into the Graduate Center. It’s a City University, after all. You are diversity at fifty-three. You sat in on a class, loved it. You belong.

It is the rejection from the Graduate Center, soon after, that kicks you where it counts.

And suddenly you are hoping, please, please, NYU … Why did you tell so many people you were applying? If NYU doesn’t say yes, one by one you will have to tell them, your friends, your colleagues, and, even worse, your parents. In the grand scheme, of course, yours is a life of privilege, but you have imagined the phone call to your father too many times: “Daddy. Good news …”

But NYU never contacts you. On the Grad Cafe, under results, you find that accepted applicants were already called by the department head the week before, and waitlisted students have received emails.

For some reason, you hope, hope again, that there has been a mistake in your favor, and you call the department, an administrative assistant, who finally confirms that you have been denied.

You realize you are not so smart. You are serious, and you have more tsuris than you should, but that is not the same thing as intelligence—the ability to acquire information, to prepare in the right way, to be witty and ironic, to succeed at things. All you have is a self-defeating swath of emotions; it stays inward, always looking at and then defeating the self.

At work, there are people you have to tell too. You will have to tell your boss and the colleague who wrote recommendations for you, the other English teachers who read your statement of purpose and thought it was so good. “It actually moves me,” they had said, touching their hearts, because they too are middle-aged women, whose children are gone.

In the classroom with your 11th graders, you no longer feel the confidence, the buoyancy of believing you will leave. You are here, with your secret failure, surrounded by quotes by Emerson you have taped to the wall.

The students are writing practice college essays, and when you ask them to write what is true for them, many spill their souls, though some students can only skim the surface of themselves. (Or perhaps that’s all there is with some, a surface; why should everyone harbor grief?) You have private conferences with each student, trying to get them to dig deeper. And you don’t mind it, this close attention to the narratives they are constructing about their lives; you are bearing witness to this crucial moment, right before their liftoff.

Will this always be your life? Will you finally choose it?

For a while, you keep your news to yourself. You have until the end of March, until people will start asking. A few weeks. You are no longer setting an example. In the afternoons, you drink too much wine on the couch, letting your son play on his phone too long before starting his homework.

A week before spring break, you spot the Graduate School professor waiting to cross 86th and Broadway. You have to stare for a moment to make sure it’s really him. Squinting at the traffic light, in the bright gray day, he looks tired and older than you remember. Still, you blush, imagining how you must have seemed to him, in your baggy clothes, smiling and thanking him too much. You hide, turning away from the traffic light, though suddenly you wish you were the kind of person who didn’t care.

That would be the real trick, better than math—to let go, to stop caring.

The last time through the math, you had somehow turned off the pressure, the head noise. You were calm, focused in your cubicle. When the computer gave you your score, the numbers were both surprising and not so; you’d always had this odd, stubborn faith in yourself. Exiting onto 32nd Street, you felt somehow free, like anything was possible, like you should have somewhere else to go but home.

When you do tell your friends and colleagues the news, the embarrassment passes more quickly than you expect. Your colleague who wrote your recommendation and laughed at your black suitcase raises then lowers her shoulders. “Those losers,” she says, but she doesn’t seem to see you any differently. Will you apply again, she wants to know, perhaps after taking classes, learning the lingo, publishing the right things?

“Or you can do something else. Or you can stay here,” she says. “With me.”

“I could,” you say, though staying feels like a defeat. It doesn’t have to—who is to judge anyway?—but you have already put something into motion. At night, watching basketball with your son, you skim websites, night programs in this or that, psychology, social work, and the literature classes you have always longed to take.

Your daughter is the one you still haven’t told.

“I’m so proud of you,” she had said when you first started with the math. Her tone was the same as yours when she got into the college of her choice, though you were also hiding your sadness, your knowledge of the ending of things.

You remember the poem you once spied in her high school composition book, an assignment for English, right before your husband left. She described how you locked yourself in the bathroom, crying, “heaving, belching sobs,” and she compared you to Bertha, the mad wife in Jane Eyre.

“Ha!” You had to laugh at yourself. It was the sort of poem you might have written about your own mother at that age. But it still stings. You wish your own disappointments would somehow barely leave an impression on her, as if you might guarantee that she would go forth into the future, shiny and brave.

The first morning of spring break, you text her about how great you and your son are doing, cooking, playing chess, watching the Knicks together … A good life, you want her to know. (You are almost used to your home without her, but you don’t like to admit that, even to yourself.)

At the end of your text, you add: “Some bad news. I didn’t get into graduate school.”

That sucks. Good for you for trying.” She texts back immediately with three emoji hearts.

“Figuring it out,” you write and then put in a happy, puzzled, then happy face. She doesn’t call to check on you. Perhaps she is too busy, involved in her own life, her parties and politics, as she should be. Or perhaps she knows better than to give rejection too much emphasis. After all, she will be fine if you are.

Or perhaps she can’t bear to imagine how you feel; she simply wants to see you as the mother studying slopes and lines, still taking practice tests at night, still trying.

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