keep the rubber side down
I’ve never been very good at maths. My cognitive processes just aren’t arranged that way. I like talking and writing, but my grasp of numbers has always been fraught with difficulty. So much so that I’ve occasionally read online studies into dyscalculia, convinced that my inability to quickly add up pocket change must be related to some serious neurological disorder. As an adult, I don’t think it’s caused me any great trouble. I’m not an engineer or an accountant. Nobody is relying on my numerical precision.
At school, though, it did feel like a problem and it worried me. Part of education, after all, is being tested specifically on your numerical reasoning. The night before a maths exam I’d be vomiting up GCSE Bitesize chunks, knowing that the one and only correct answer would do everything it could to elude me. Regardless of how hard I tried to understand the balancing of equations, or how many example questions I worked through on simplifying fractions, I knew I just wouldn’t be able to apply the methods in context. I’d also get distracted by the characters they used in questions. For example: 'Leroy is carpeting a room 3 metres long and 2 metres wide at £11.00 per square metre. How much does it cost Leroy to carpet the room?’ I would have to re-read such a question several times to understand what it was even asking because I’d be preoccupied with profiling Leroy. Before I could work out the answer I had to decide whether or not the leather bomber jacket he was wearing had a shearling collar. Moreover, what colour was the carpet? And 3x2m? That sounds about the size of a bathroom. Please don’t tell me he’s carpeting a bathroom. I advised against that, the mildew round my Nan’s toilet was an inch thick.
My real fear of numbers began in my first term at secondary school. I had cheated my way into the very top set of maths classes by copying every single answer from Jodie Forbes on the pre-induction assessment. Jodie knew what was going on and she let it happen. She sent me Valentine’s Day cards every year and I exploited her fondness for me. However, as it often does, the universe arranged an almost imminent payment plan. This arrived in the form of Mr. Busby, head of the Maths department, and teacher of the top set classes. Mr. Busby was a terrifying man, well known as one of the old guard of uncompromising disciplinarians.
He began each lesson with an arithmetic test. Referred to by him, rather fondly, as ‘speed maths’. These tests involved him shouting out rapid-fire sums that you’d then have less than a second or so to answer. I was utterly hopeless and humiliated on a daily basis. I just couldn’t keep up. You could almost hear the nimble minds of my classmates cascading through numbers like an old train station ticker board. My brain, on the other hand, was counting on a giant abacus, each bead the weight of a bowling ball.
The results of each test were totted up and entered into a league table on the back wall, so at the end of each lesson everybody would run up to look at the current standings. My shitness was itemised there for all to see. A thick red line three quarters of the way down the table represented the relegation zone and I never once surfaced above that line. It was embarrassing. The kids battling for the top spots regarded me with pity in their eyes. I’d occasionally catch the concerned, sympathetic gaze of Jodie Forbes and think: ‘This is your fault you stupid bitch.’
Every night I’d fret about the next day’s lesson. I found the homework too hard and a few times, I cried in front of my Mum. ‘Just keep at it,’ she’d say. ‘They wouldn’t have put you in the top set if you weren’t good enough.’ I could never tell her I’d cheated so I’d go in my room and cry alone. It was pathetic and I only had myself to blame. Once or twice I feigned illness so that I wouldn’t have to go to school. I wanted out. I longed for the middle set and Miss Leyland – an empathetic and generous young woman who raised students’ marks and self-esteem simultaneously. Even better was the lower middle. They hardly ever did any work because the teacher was a weak-kneed recent graduate who regularly spent the entire hour investigating who had stolen his expensive fountain pen.
Busby sensed my terror and it only made him punish me more. He wanted maths to be frightening. Mastery of it deserved respect and he knew, I think, I had tried to cheat it.
‘Who wants to have a go at solving this equation?’ he’d say as he was writing it on the whiteboard. There’d be one or two hands up, usually Ian Reid or Siobhan Hao, but Busby wasn’t interested in them. ‘Let’s see. Who haven’t I had an answer from in a while?’ he’d say. I’d look down, fiddling with my pencil case in order to appear occupied, desperately not making eye contact. Please don’t say my name. Please don’t say my name. ‘How about Joe Yule? Seeing as he’s only playing attention to his pencil case, I’m assuming he’s already worked out the answer.’ I’d look up red-faced. A few seconds’ silence. ‘Errrr.’ I couldn’t even attempt to work out the answer; the board was blank, I was paralysed with fear and embarrassment. There would be a longer silence in which I’d pray he’d pass it onto somebody else, but he was merciless. ‘I don’t know, sir’ I’d eventually concede.
‘I know you don’t know,’ he’d say. ‘I want you to work it out. We’ve just been through this. Apply the method!’ A few times, these moments became so excruciating that the lad who sat next to me muttered the correct answer under his breath to help me. Busby was all over it. ‘I’m pleased you know the answer William,’ he’d say, ‘but you were not asked.’ Then he wiped the equation from the board and wrote another one. ‘Let’s scrub that one and give Joe chance to work this one out for himself shall we?’
Eventually, at the end of the first term, I was moved down to the middle set and into the kindly embrace of Miss Leyland’s bosom. The door to her classroom glowing resplendently, and her smiling face framed inside the window, waving a calculator. Whenever I saw Mr. Busby in the corridors around the school I would shrink with terror. He never looked in my direction, but I hated him from afar. I had fantasies about stabbing him in the neck with a protractor and I never forgave him for so cruelly underlining my own inabilities.
+ + +
Three years later, at the beginning of the summer holidays, my mates and I had become closely acquainted with a local lunatic by the name of Tim Baxter. Tim had behavioural issues and a reputation for being, not to put too fine a point on it, fucking insane. He had been expelled from nearly every school in the South Leicestershire district and had to take a daily cocktail of prescribed medication that supposedly sedated his disruptive tendencies. His poor parents, shattered by raising him, had abandoned discipline in favour of appeasement, buying him anything he wanted, whenever he asked for it. It seemed their thinking was, if we buy him loads of new stuff he might just like us enough not burn the house down while we sleep. As a result, Baxter always had the coolest things; the best trainers, the newest BMX, M&S cashew nuts in his lunch box. And that summer, aged sixteen, he had been treated to the greatest gift of all - a motorcycle. Well, it was actually a moped with a restricted 50cc engine, nevertheless, it was the first motor powered transportation my friends and I had ever had access and it meant adventure.
We went everywhere on that moped. We rode over cornfields, through the ford, in the half pipe on the skate park. Baxter once drove it down a slide on a playground and a man playing with his little daughter quite rightly called the police. We even did that thing that circus clowns do with the tiny bicycle – seeing how many of us we could fit on it at once. We managed five people for a few seconds but then the bike toppled over. One afternoon we were riding it, helmetless, on a recreational ground near our houses and one of my friends said that he had just spotted an old school teacher on the other side of the park.
‘Who is it?’ I asked.
‘You had him didn’t you?’
‘He ruined my confidence,’ I said. ‘Are you sure it’s him?’
‘Pretty sure. He’s still got the moustache.’
I hopped on the bike and went to investigate. After a couple of laps I had ascertained that yes, it was in fact Busby disguised as a normal person. He was wearing a sleeveless padded jacket and walking a large Labrador around the green. ‘Busby!!’ I shouted, a little tentatively at first. He looked round and I zoomed past. It felt so good, hurtling by at 22mph. Baxter’s moped sounded like a hairdryer on the cool air setting but I felt like a grizzly Hells Angel in leather vest and boots. Demented with adrenaline, I screamed back over my shoulder. ‘BUSBY YOU FUCKING NOB’ED!!’ My voice was wild. It quivered almost tearfully. ‘YOU FUCKING CUUUUNT!!’ I circled around some bushes in the corner of the green and made a second approach. Busby squinted at me trying to work out if I was an ex-student he recognised, but I was certain of my obscurity and encouraged by it. He would never have remembered me. I was a dunce. The Accrington Stanley of secondary school maths.
‘Oi Oi Busby!’ I shouted. ‘Taking your wife for a walk?!’ He stopped walking at that ridiculous comment and considered me properly. As I passed him again I made a loose fist and shook it from side to side.
Careering towards the bushes again, I was going to circle round once more and have another go. I’d get closer this time. Perhaps close enough to give him a ride-by slap round the face. I clamped down firmly on the front brake to slow the bike down. This, as it turned out, was a mistake. The moped slid away from underneath me and the hand I was gesturing with only seconds earlier was now outstretched instinctively as I was flung towards the floor. I hit the ground hard and gracelessly. It knocked the wind out of me so as soon as I stopped rolling I was making that pathetic noise that sounds like you’re experiencing strenuous constipation. Hnnnnnnnng. I couldn’t breathe. Baxter’s moped had skidded off, wheels still spinning and the ignition purring. The kick-stand had snapped and so, evidently, had my wrist; my forearm now had perpendicular qualities it didn’t have fifteen seconds previously.
I heard someone calling. Busby was hurrying over with his wife behind him calling ‘Don’t move, you’ve broken it.’ The kick-stand? No, he meant my wrist. He brandished a mobile phone from his jacket pocket and looked noticeably pressured by the responsibility of making an actual phone call on the thing. He was clearly not accustomed to using it with such urgency.
‘Don’t move whatever you do,’ he said again. ‘You stupid, stupid boy. Why the hell aren’t you wearing a helmet!’ I couldn’t look him in the eyes. ‘Did you hit your head?’
‘No, I don’t think so’ I said.
‘How many fingers am I holding up?’ asked Busby. What? How many what? Oh, god, speed maths all over again. I looked at his hands. I panicked. ‘What’s your name?’ I ignored him. ‘What’s your name,’ he said again. Then, into the phone. ‘Yes, hello. I’m on Milner Lane park. There’s a boy who has fallen off a scooter. A motorcycle. His arm is badly broken. Ok. Yes. No I don’t think so. Yes, Milner Lane, LE18.’
When the ambulance arrived, Busby told the paramedics that seconds before falling off the bike I had been hurling obscenities at him, and that he wanted some kind of justice for the abuse. ‘He won’t tell me his name’ he told them. ‘But he’ll have to tell you. When you find out, I would like you to inform me. I have a right to know.’ He passed them a little card. ‘This is my home number.’
‘Right, ok’ said the main paramedic. ‘We’ll see what we can do. Thanks very much for your help.’
In the back on the way to the hospital, they laced me with gas and air. Both my wrist and my collarbone had snapped cleanly and they needed to keep me high enough that I wouldn’t start to notice the pain. The paramedic seemed amused by Busby’s accusations and asked me if it was true.
‘He was my old maths teacher’ I told her. ‘He’s a horrible man. He bullied me.’
She laughed. ‘So you thought you’d finally get your revenge on him.’
‘Two wrongs don’t make a right though, do they?’ she said.
I’m not sure, I thought, I don’t have my calculator.