Math Game

Published by Panoplyzine January 7, 2022

That rascal Tyshawn said yesterday he didn’t want Jessica tutoring him anymore. Give him credit: He was polite, albeit hardly tactful: “I’m sorry, Mrs. Harris, but maybe you’re too old. You’re showing me the old-fashioned way. I like the way Ms. Johnson teaches math.”

She studies herself in the bathroom mirror. Not having taught in two decades, she’d answered a plea for volunteers to relieve teachers in overcrowded classrooms. When a kid like Tyshawn found a new concept difficult, some one-on-one help might turn him around – and let the teacher concentrate on the class.

Virginia Johnson has 31 kids in her room. She, at least, fairly beams every time Jessica arrives, even if Tyshawn doesn’t. Surely still in her twenties, Virginia is just as surely better trained in modern pedagogy. She is also Black and very pretty.

The old face in the mirror nods agreement. Perhaps pretty when George fell in love with it, it seems to have a line for every one of its 71 years. Worse: George is no longer here to tease, make her blush, even erase a few years.

“Little rascal? I’d say little bastard,” George would have said. He was never patient. Jessica is instinctively patient. And she knows Tyshawn is far from alone: not getting it, fearful of appearing “dumb”, so resisting learning. Blame-the-teacher is easier than buckling down, taking advantage of help offered.

How to reach him? A trip to her hairdresser? Old wine in new bottles. Unlikely. Take a fresh batch of cookies to class? Too obvious. Then a better idea: At the phone, she dials the guidance counselor. “Sadie? Jessica Harris here. I’m coaching Tyshawn Martin in math.”

. . . “That’s the one. Can you look up whether he plays any sports? Sure, I’ll hold.”

. . . “Basketball? Varsity? Starter? Wonderful! When is their next game?”

. . . “This afternoon? Home game at 3:00? Thank you!”


“Mrs. Harris, was that you at the game?” Tyshawn greets her.

“Yes. You played a good game.”

“But I mean why did you come?”

“I wanted to see what kind of player you are.”


“To see if you were a smart player. I was glad to see that you are.”

“Uh . . . thank you.”

“Does coach have you memorize a lot of plays?”

“You bet. A lot.”

“It shows.”

“Thank you.”

And now the moment of truth. “If you can remember a whole lot of plays, it shouldn’t take long to learn a few math problems.”

He studies her, not holding her gaze. Like a smartphone trying to decide where to focus. Perhaps she should have tried the hairdresser after all.

Finally: “I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

She tries to sound collaborative. “Want to try?”

A long pause. At last: “Okay, I guess.”

She manages to wait through another long pause.

“I mean, thank you, Mrs. Harris. Let’s.”

Game. She still has a few plays of her own.



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