Friday, January 01, 2021

The High School Drop Out and My Third Grade Self, A Letter to Abbie Zysk

 Dear Abbie,

    In the third grade, I was supposed to know my times tables by heart. I didn’t. My step father would abruptly ask me times table questions at dinner. I hated it. I grew to have terrible anxiety when it was time to eat. I thought to myself as I got seated, what’s six times seven? Eight times nine? All the while, my stomach in knots. Would I get spanked for not knowing? I loved it so much more when he was away, and it was just my mother and my baby sister and I at the table. There were still mashed potatoes, but no anxiety over math. No beady eyes through tinted glasses, staring at me across the table, stoic with fork in hand. Waiting for an answer.

  So, math was never my thing. I only associated it with anxiety and feelings of not enoughness. I attempted Algebra II twice in high school and failed both times. I believed I was not a “math person”. I began at Southwestern College when I was pregnant with my fifth child, Jeremy, who is now 16. Again, I took Algebra II, and finally passed. My teacher, Mr. Leonard, was kind and compassionate, much like you Abbie. He loved us. He loved his work. I passed Algebra II after taking the exam in his office, in tears, 8 months pregnant. Hormones raging. Anxiety at its peak. He calmed me. I passed and I was so proud of it.

    After fifty-something credits geared toward graphic design, I left the college to peruse my dreams of “becoming” something. And I did.With exhaustive work, I ended up with a three year contract and jewelry line with a major gift company. Creating and caring for my children became my life for a decade.Then I ran a little shop in town for several years, immersing myself in creating displays, window dressing, ordering, hobknobbing with customers, and making people laugh. I even ran the register with minimal screw ups. Depending on who you talk to. Insert laughing Emoji here. It would be 15 years before I took another math class, all the time, the image of myself not being a “math person” firmly embedded inside of me. Feeling not smart enoughness. My third grade self still in there, my dropout self still in there, telling me I was just stupid.

    When the corona virus hit and I left the beloved little shop, the between spaces allowed me to breathe and reflect on the next phase of my life. I had been a successful artist and the shop had become a thriving business, but the little light, the desire to do something more...something more meaningful, still shone inside of me. I decided to return to school. And that, Abbie, is how I met you.

    In my usual hasty fashion, I took whatever math class fit into the equation of finishing as soon as possible. How hard could statistics be? Didn’t you just plug things into a program and write down what you got? Au contraire. I would tell people that Stats class was kicking my ass. I wasn’t kidding. I looked around the class...I was old enough to be everyone’s mother, even yours Abbie. My own mother though I was crazy for going back. She said I didn’t have the mind for it anymore. So me and the stupid third grader and the drop out inside of me took those words. We drank them up like freshly cut tulip stems, thirsty for water. Not the words from my husband, who said that I can do anything I put my mind to, or the words of my kids who said, “you got this mom”.

    I remember the first few days of class so clearly. Within the first ten minutes, I though for sure I had gotten myself in too deep. For me, it was very much like sitting through two hours of a foreign language class with no clue how to say a single word. And I quickly found that I could not round decimals. That skill got lost somewhere. I would sit at my desk, with my third grade self, and the college drop out inside of me, staring at the numbers on the page with complete dismay. Seeds of doubt became weeds of despair. It was getting too crowded in there Abbie. I taught myself to round decimals, with your guidance. I mastered it. I worked and worked and worked, for hours and hours, at it. Balled up paper all around me. Breaking the leads out of my pencils, erasing holes in paper, until I got it.

    I learned the symbols. With your kind and tireless instruction, I learned. You are the kind of teacher the world needs. Passionate about the subject matter. Eager to help students in any way possible. People never forget their teachers. Especially the good ones. You are one of those.

    On final exam day, I was so nervous. My hands shook. That isn’t like me. I’ve gotten good at talking myself down from ledges over the past 51 years. But not that one. Not that. The high school drop out and the dumb third grader, and my mother’s voice all inside of me....that got the best of me. I took a deep breath and opened the test. I had three hours. Oh shit. I had a time limit?  Oh that’s right. We had a time limit. I must have blocked that out. That sent me over the edge. All the loud voices of “I can’t” became louder and crowded out the others.

    Abbie, you told me that I could do this. I clung to your voice, through unruly tears that I couldn’t stop. It wasn’t just about the test. It was about all of my failures. Failures as a mother. Failures as a person. Failures in life choices, husbands, moves, homes, things I said, clothing, all cascaded in that moment. It sounds ridiculous. I know. Shouldn’t I have worked all that shit out in therapy? All I did was look at the first problem. Everything I learned, everything I beat into my brain, flew out of the window the moment that I knew I didn’t know the answer to the first problem.

    But you were there. You took the time to assure me, even during the test, that I knew it. It was in there. The dumb third grader, who dreaded report card day, could do this. The pregnant college drop out could do this. The bad choice maker could do this. The 51 year old woman with the foggy brain could do this.

And I did.

Thanks to you.

I will never forget you. Ever. To me, you are a super hero. An angel. A light in the darkness.

    The third grader, the drop out and the middle aged artist in me made this for you. A tiny token of appreciation. I just want to leave this letter here for you, for always. My teacher. So you know how you made a difference in my life that was more than just teaching me about medians and decimals. You helped me to find within me, something I thought I had lost. Courage. Tenacity. A love for the sound of pencil on paper.

assemblage art, stitch art, sacred cake, stitch art, hand stitched art