| Teen Fiction |

X is for Algebra

I’m a little embarrassed to say I did this at the ripe old age of almost 15, but we were having a blast

Based on a true story

Studying math is boring. No, scratch that, studying math is BORING. Math is so boring, in fact, that YOU MAY EVEN TURN INTO AN X-AXIS BY MISTAKE. Yes, that’s better. Forewarned is forearmed. I got together with Tehilla, the wackiest kid in my class, to study for the math Regent, plus of course my good friend Esther. Tehilla kept up a steady stream of jokes, and Esther and I were cracking up straight through. Esther ensured we got studying done too, so I had the best of all worlds.

Finally, after eight hours of studying (okay, okay, of eating pizza and yapping and gossiping and jumping on Tehilla’s backyard trampoline) we were done reviewing all 16 grueling chapters of Algebra 1. Showtime! We needed to test ourselves to check if we had the concepts down pat. I ripped out some blank paper from the back of my math spiral, and suddenly we all yawned. Simultaneously, I promise.

Esther’s idea was to write up a math test using examples from the book, and then exchange papers.

No way I was gonna live through that one. I sighed. Tehilla’s eyes widened and she looked like she was going to give such a hearty sneeze, but I knew her better than that. It was the look she got on her face when she had a zany idea. I wasn’t disappointed.

“Let’s all write the math examples on each other’s faces, and then answer each other’s questions!”

“Yeah!” Esther and I screamed. The idea was complicated to execute, but we were determined. Wait until my classmates heard about this one! We sat down on the carpeted floor in a little circle. Pulling examples from the textbook, I wrote math problems onto Tehilla’s face, while Esther wrote onto my face, and Tehilla wrote onto Esther’s face. Our roaring laughter while we were writing examples was punctuated only by, “Stop laughing, you’re shaking too much!”

Our faces proved too small to contain all 16 chapters’ worth of algebra problems, so we moved on to necks and hands. After 20 minutes, we were all covered in ink!

I’m a little embarrassed to say I did this at the ripe old age of almost 15, but we were having a blast.

Then the fun began. We each turned to the person who was writing on our face and attempted to solve the problems written on their faces. I was busy subtracting, isolating variables, and solving for myriad x’s and y’s. Whoever said math was boring? It was a blast! There was an especially long problem on the bridge of Esther’s nose that had me moving further and further down till the very tip!

Her chin had a little graph in which I charted coordinates for x and y. We worked away, magically not going off topic or schmoozing one bit. After all, we needed to sit still to allow the one who was writing on us do her math work undisturbed….

After half an hour of adorning cheeks, foreheads, chins, necks, and hands with answers, it was time to grade the work. We turned back to the person who we originally covered in math problems, and marked the math problems using red pens to check off correct answers, and bold x’s to mark mistakes.

I was nearly done marking Tehilla’s work when the cordless phone on Tehilla’s bed started ringing. Tehilla lunged for it.

“It’s your mother,” said Tehilla, extending the phone to me.


“Hi, Leah. Forgot you have a home somewhere?” My mother chuckled to herself. She knew her daughter. “Tatty is going to Maariv now and he’ll come to pick you up on the way home. He’ll be there in about 15 minutes. Okay, sheifelah?”

A sudden fear gripped me. I was going nowhere looking like a mathematical loony. “Maaaaaaaaaa, we’re not done yet!” I wailed.

“That’s why you have 15 minutes’ notice. Then you’ll finish up studying at home. It’s ten thirty. Time to come home.”

“But— but— I really need some more time.”

“Leah, you’re not bad at math, you’ll manage to study by yourself.” My mother hung up the phone. I had to go home with my father, as my house was a 40-minute walk from Tehilla’s.

Tehilla and Esther, having gotten the gist of my phone call, were suddenly looking at me with huge, horrified eyes. “What are we going to do?” moaned Esther.

“I dunno. Scrub yourself down in the shower for three hours straight?” said Tehilla dubiously.

“But I can’t go home this way! Forget going home, I can’t leave your bedroom like this!”

Did I mention that Tehilla’s mother teaches the 12th grade in our school? Well, she was not spotting me looking this ridiculous either. Not happening.

Tehilla looked like she was going to sneeze for a minute. Then she yelled, “Rubbing alcohol!”

She grabbed her math notebook and put it over her face. She slipped out of her room and returned two minutes later bearing cotton balls and a bottle of rubbing alcohol. She dropped the notebook onto the purple carpet and announced dramatically. “Didn’t get caught. Phew!”

We soaked cotton balls in the alcohol, and proceeded to scrub, scrub, scrub. Thank you, Hashem, it worked! The ink just went right onto the cotton ball. The pile of discarded inky-blue cotton balls was growing while the alcohol was going lower and lower, and our skin was red from the intense scouring it was getting.

Esther and I were working in a frenzied panic, and only Tehilla was still cracking jokes. “Ah, treating ourselves to an exfoliating facial!”

Only when my face regained its pinkish color, did I dare breathe.

“Hello? Folks, we forgot to take pictures!” I dove into my schoolbag and came up with my trusty Canon that has faithfully recorded every important moment of my life thus far. I set it up on self-timer on Tehilla’s night table and Esther and Tehilla put their cameras there too.

We huddled together for the shot. Tehilla was holding the open bottle of alcohol and some blackened cotton balls over Esther and I, while I was holding my math textbook. Only Esther was good proof of our shtick as she hadn’t finished cleaning her face of the math gibberish.

The cameras blinked the preset ten seconds before flashing. At the very last second, something that I could never have imagined in my wildest imagination happened. I looked up at Tehilla, startling her, and the open bottle of alcohol splashed right onto my face… and… into my open eyes.

My world was on fire. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t scream. I literally felt fire burning in one eye. The cameras flashed relentlessly. Tehilla and Esther were screaming together. I thought I was passing out.

“Owowowow!” was all I managed. The two girls grabbed me by my arms, helped me stand up (for both my eyes were shut tightly), and dragged me down the hallway to the bathroom sink. Tehilla turned on the faucet, and I splashed cold water onto my face and into my eyes.

“Should I call Hatzalah?” Tehilla sqeaked.

“No, don’t, I’m fine,” I whispered. I managed to open my left eye. It was smarting with pain, but it was nothing compared to the blaze in my right eye. I bent my head into the sink and continued flushing my eye with water.

Just then, there was a honk from outside. “My father’s here!” Tehilla shoved my books into my schoolbag and she and Esther helped me down the front stairs. I stumbled into the car, and finally, I burst out crying. Mature almost 15-year-old, I know, but the pain was so absolutely unbearably crazy.

“My eye. It’s stinging me like crazy. I caaaaaaaan’t open my eye!”

Tatty peered over at me. “Oh, what happened?” He sounded unruffled. Just a hyper-dramatic teen, he was probably thinking.

I was so not spilling my silliest moments of my life, eye hurting or not. “Just got alcohol into my eye. It shpritzed over.”

We got home and my father helped me into the house. Mommy took one look at me and demanded, “What happened to you?!”

I said the same spiel. I was not telling them how immaturely I’d behaved. But Mommy didn’t give up, and I ended up telling her most of the story. After all, my face was quite red from all that rubbing and peeling, and mothers are known to be pretty smart. I had a feeling she’d figure me out either way.

I spent the next hour flooding my right eye with water, then called it a night. I took an Advil, hoping it would numb my eye, and went to sleep. The next morning, I woke up totally not rested, and tried opening my right eye. I was able to open my burning right eye just a bit. I bolted upright. I couldn’t see anything!! I panicked.

“Maaaaaaaaaa!” I sobbed. “I’m bliiiiiiiiiiind!”

My vision cleared just a bit, and I was able to see the blurry outline of my concerned mother hovering over me.

“Hey,” I said to her.

“Guess you’re not all blind if you can see me,” she responded.

“Yeah. Guess not,” I mumbled. But all I could see was oozy splotches of color slopping this way and that.

I was definitely not going to school that day. Definitely not taking the Regent that day. Definitely not telling my friends. Definitely going to have my right eye checked out by an ophthalmologist.

I called Tehilla. “Oh, don’t ask,” I blubbered. “Have the flu, I think. Not coming to school today.”

“How’s your eye?” she asked.

“Oh, that’s fine already,” I fibbed.

“But you didn’t look like you were coming down with anything yesterday.”

I coughed pointedly and hung up.

My father took me to Dr. Bender, who took me in immediately. He demanded I spill the entire story, which I refused. Until he got really strict and ordered that I tell him, or else. Shamefacedly, I told him. He just laughed.

He looked into my right eye with a special light and whistled, “Wow, wow, wow. Unbelievable!”

Turns out that a big part of my cornea had gotten burned from the initial splash of alcohol before I’d instinctively shut my eyes. Not a single drop went into my pupil, where it may have caused tremendous permanent damage. What a miracle. Dr. Bender gave me a regimen of cooling and healing creams to heal my corneal burns and we were off.

I spent the rest of the day moping around the house and somberly promising myself that I will never, ever try to make math fun again. I kept reviewing the photos of my (literally) burning shame.

I went to school the next day with a red puffy eye, which I kept covered with my hand that was pretend-itching it. No way was anybody allowed to see my eye.

In middle of Chumash I got a note on my desk from Sima Kleinman. Everything okay? You look down, are you crying or something?

Oh, that, definitely not! I hastily pulled out a new sticky note and scrawled, Nasty eye allergy, and sent it back to Sima. That was the story that got repeated to everybody that day, including Esther and Tehilla who looked very, very suspicious, but I avoided them for the rest of the week.

So, I didn’t officially tell anybody what happened to me, besides for my parents and Dr. Bender. Even Esther and Tehilla didn’t know what a close brush I’d had with blindness, Heaven forbid.

It’s a decade later, and I finally decided to spill the story under the cover of anonymity, just to spread the crucial message that if math is boring to you, leave it be. If you try to make studying math exciting, you may just succeed. Beyond your wildest expectations.

(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 845)

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