As I let loose with an honest “What the fuck are you doing?!,” I snatched the pencil from my son’s hand and began to untangle the division problem myself.
“Four goes into 27 six times, and you put that here!,” rage writing on the mushy math notebook belonging to my sweet, dear 11-year-old, who, I swear, was coasting, “and then you drop the three, and you put that here!,” more rage writing — I was pressing so hard the pencil could have cut through metal.
Silent, patient tears cleaved A.’s beautiful onyx cheeks, a mask of innocence cracking.
“I hate this,” he growled from our spot at the kitchen table.
“Yeah?!” I snapped, my tired, unshaven face hot and red, “you think I wanna be doing this?!”
It was almost 1 p.m. on a workday, and I had taken only two sips from my coffee that was still sitting cold and dejected by my side, taunting me with the memory of the morning’s bright promise. “I’ve already been through fifth grade, paly,” now channeling the Rat Pack for some extremely weird reason, probably because, when you break it down, I’m just another dumb dago, “and I’m sure as hell not going through it again!”
Oh, but I am. I am.
The rain twinkled across the puddles in our sinking backyard. Our foundation is cracking. Add it to the list. I could see them through the window where I was now standing, breathing in, breathing out, tensing, loosening, breathing in, breathing out. I grew up in shitty weather. In my barbaric youth in Pittsburgh, it rained every weekend. Monday through Thursday was sparkling, sunny, gorgeous. Friday through Sunday afternoon, it shit-poured.
“Hey, buddy,” I said. “Dance party? To get us back to normal?”
A. shook his head.
“OK, come here a sec.”
“Fine,” he spat, dragging himself to a standing position, his shoulders slumped and head tilted to one side.
“Hey,” I said.
And we hugged, which was more like me wrapping my arms around him and him barely touching me. I squeezed tighter. He patted me on the back. Tap, tap. I took it as a win, considering he was probably a little freaked the eff out. With my arms still around his skinny frame and his hands still hovering above my dadtastic waist, I felt us rise above the anxiety and stress of the word problems in which we were drowning. I stepped back and looked him in the eyes. “I’m sorry, sweet boy. I’ll do better. I promise.”
Three rules of fucking up: apologize, promise to do better, do better. I learned this from my wife D., and, apparently — hahaha! — I’m still learning! Always with the learning. It’s like a bad toothache or a broken foot, all this nonstop learning that I’ve been doing as pain’s pincushion.
A. said “OK” and sat back down as I stood there in my ridiculous cargo shorts that I hadn’t changed since December and a stupid Pittsburgh Penguins T-shirt (they also stink), enumerating to myself all the reasons why we opted for virtual school this year. The biggest is that we don’t want our only child mowed down by a weapon of war because our craven state government and half our federal legislators are beholden to the gun lobby. Equally important, A., whom D. and I adopted from a third-world orphanage when he was about 2, is developmentally delayed, which leads to some drama in and out of the brick-and-mortar classroom. Basically, while his grades are decent, decent-plus in some cases, his ability to handle frustration is not. When something doesn’t go his way, he bolts, just unsticks himself from whatever uncomfortable situation he happens to be in — quickly. From fight, flight, or freeze, A. is choosing flight every time. This is a huge problem, especially when you live in a state full of incels and all of them have access to AR-15s and no one in power is doing anything to stop them.
The only remedy is, simply, for A. to make better decisions. To keep the frustration from spreading throughout the house — D. and I work from home with A. on Teams Monday through Friday — we have been having impromptu dance parties. That’s when the three of us get together and shake, shake, shake our booties to some disco, old-school hip-hop, or *groan* Huey Lewis (strictly A.’s choice). Subtract the frustration, and maybe the better decisions will follow. We will see.
As much pressure as it can put on those of us who agree to be available to help our kids with independent work and homework, virtual school has been good for our family and apparently a lot of others. Across 10 states in 2021-22, K-12 enrollment in virtual school rose 176% since pre-pandemic levels of 170% (2020-21), based on data crunched by The 74, an education news outlet. In Texas, the TEA (Texas Education Agency) has accredited seven fully virtual schools. All of them are free, including A.’s Texas Virtual Academy at Hallsville (TVAH), and all of them participate in the STAAR exams. Serving grades 3 through 12, TVAH has more than 10,000 students, including the members of A.’s reasonably sized fifth-grade class (about 30 total).
Number of attempted school shootings at TVAH: 0. Number of book bans at TVAH: 0. Number of attempted classroom escapes by A.: also 0. Number of dance parties: at least one a week. As basic math would indicate, we are winning.
Fifth-grade math says something else.
My first act of recompense was to help A. reassemble his workspace. Maybe some implements had been thrown. Maybe some others had been snapped in half. Perhaps Inside Out & Back Again and Hidden Figures had been scattered onto the floor. Perhaps even a chair was kicked out of place. The kid and I worked together, rebuilding, then we settled ourselves and gingerly turned to his laptop whose bright, open face seemed to be … was it? … it was mocking us. Holy shit. Onto Problem 2.
The mass in kilograms of an ice chest is shown in expanded notation.
(1 × 10) + (3 × 1) + (6 × 0.1) + (1 × 0.01)
What is this mass in kilograms, written as a numeral?
“I think we should punt on this one,” I said.
“So, we skip it?”
In its absurdity, Problem No. 2 coaxed A. and me into a simple, powerful species of harmony, the two of us against math.
“Yeah, sweet boy,” I said. “We’ll hit the next ones hard, though, OK?”
As with every time my news app populates with tragedy, this time with the anniversary of the Uvalde shooting, I was anxious and off-kilter. And pissed. I could not unclench my teeth or fists. Their object was not my wonderful son — I put him over my knee and spanked him a couple times when he was younger, and because he had grown so much bigger and stronger in just a couple of years, our most recent exchange was so emotionally draining for both of us that I vowed never to touch him in anger again. It wasn’t him. No, my throwing hands were aimed thousands of miles away at the highly punchable face of the no-name Republican politician who said that nothing more can be done to stop school shootings and that he’s not too worried about it because his kids are homeschooled as if that’s a viable option for everyone. And once again I was confronted with the reality that people actually vote for these hateful, arrogant scoundrels.
Virtual school is not only safer than in-person. For my family, it’s also way less cruel and heartbreaking. At A.’s brick-and-mortar, he was surrounded by people — children and also adults — who judged him based on his bad classroom decisions when he was younger. He felt powerless, that no matter how well he did — and he brought home a few 100% daily behavior report cards — he was still that wild child who ran out of class or threw a book or chair every time he was overwhelmed by frustration. He also brought home some 70s.
With virtual school, there’s no more KISS. There’s no more G.D. Paul Stanley singing at me. I had grown so weary of the chorus to “Lick It Up” that I started to hate the former me, the dumbass who assigned that ringtone to A.’s in-person school to remind me to take life less seriously, to be as cheesy and fun-loving as that idiotic song. KISS soon came to represent despair. And worse. “Yeah, Mr. Mariani,” one call went, “A. ran out again. Can you talk to him?” “Mr. Mariani,” went another, “it’s about A.” And another: “Mr. Mariani, he just destroyed the bookshelf.” Every time “Lick It Up” pops up on my beloved “Cum on Feel the Noize!” playlist even now, I skip it. The wounds are still too raw — and it ain’t a crime to be good to yourself.
Our fear is/was not misplaced. Based on data from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), “Black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students,” and “students with disabilities” — like A. — “are twice as likely to be suspended than their non-disabled peers.”
Combine the totality of the risk factors, the DOJ says, and “you’re talking about a child who might as well stay home.”
Which is what we are doing — except school and some really stupid math are involved.
Ms. Fitzgerald had 2 1/4 gallons of fruit punch. She served 3/8 gallon of the fruit punch to her family at lunch. How many gallons of fruit punch did Ms. Fitzgerald have left after lunch?
- 2 1/3 gal
- 1 6/8 gal
- 1 1/2 gal
- 1 7/8 gal
What the fresh hell is this bullsh?
“OK, paly,” I said. “I think we’re gonna have to punt on this one, too.”
“We can always come back to it, right?”
As A. explained — again — TVAH students need to score an 80% or higher on every quiz, or they must retake it. The questions on the repeats are the same — or same-ish — but in a different order, and you have only three tries to reach 80. You say “virtual school.” I say “virtual fun!” (Kick me in the nuts. Please.)
As parents of an easy type of special-needs kid, patience, as you slowly, perhaps painfully realize, is not the problem. Your patience is not always the only component of the concept of one, big happy family that’s tested. Your man-/womanhood is also questioned. By a child? Yes. The stomping of feet. The utter lack of movement when prompt movement is requested or demanded by an authority figure or situation. The next “whatever” 10 minutes after you just told him to stop saying that irritating, disrespectful word. Since launching our offspring into the sun is apparently frowned upon, you must hold yourself back, and if you’re as stubborn as I am, that takes some doing.
D. and I have the added bonus of raising a Black male in a sad, warped culture that sees them only as athletes or entertainers and absolutely nothing else. The shiitake he pulls, I got away with 10 times that as a young punk back in the day, a young white punk. In seventh grade, I broke the door on a bathroom stall just for yuks. Wild oats and such, as my coaches said. Sr. John paddled me three times in her office. That’s it. Whack, whack, whack, say three “Hail Mary”s and two “Our Father”s, and you’re on your way, stunad.
Black kids like A. are not afforded nearly the same degree of deference from authority. Black kids like A. are often deposited directly into the school-to-prison pipeline. Black kids like A. are often killed by rogue cops for next to nothing. In a text thread with my ridiculously conservative older brother and sister the other day, I said cops need to stop killing everyone but especially Blacks because cops kill Blacks at a higher rate than every other demographic, which, I thought, was a pretty reasonable statement. Bro and sis disagreed. They whatabouted me for nearly 15 minutes. Blah blah blah Black-on-Black violence blah blah blah Chicago blah blah blah California. Into their ignorant eyeholes, I, my thumbs ablaze, threw “1619,” “redlining,” “ghettoization,” and some choice — and highly appropriate — profanity. My siblings did some more whatabouting until I simply silenced my phone. That’s the thing about these reactionaries. Since they’re wrong all of the time, they’ll never respond directly to the truth. Instead, they’ll just say “what about this?” or “what about that?” until you realize you’re probably better off flipping to DND or dumping some rum into your cold coffee.
Black students, the DOJ says, “do not ‘act out’ in class more frequently than their white peers.” The discrepancy is that most teachers are white, and as whites, they’ve been groomed by conservative talking points and talking heads over decades into thinking that Black children — Black people — are inherently bad. Everyone must have conveniently forgotten that after slavery, the country’s white power system that not only still exists but is thriving ghettoized Blacks, hamstringing or often completely neutering their upward mobility. The slums in America are just as unsafe as the slums in Mexico, India, and Pakistan. The problem is not skin color. It’s poverty.
I don’t recall all the details and am too lazy to look them up (and I’m the person who filled out all the paperwork), but just know that we aren’t paying one dime for virtual school and that the curriculum is rigorous and well-taught. (Shout out to Ms. Jill. You rock!) For the first time, A. is grasping concepts, even parts of his super-stupid math, when he understood only the basics before. Our son is our son, and we know him as well as we know ourselves. Maybe your child learns better in an in-person setting. For A., in-person was a nightmare of sensory overload and random strictures that rubbed against his, to be polite, hard-headedness. And also his sense of justice (that I hope he can channel into positive change one day). Or maybe this is just what the tween years look like. Who knows. We’re talking boners now. (Rule No. 1: Don’t touch it. Rule No. 2: Do jumping jacks. Rule No. 3: Do more jumping jacks.) The gist is that, despite his jerkwad of a learning coach, virtual school is working out pretty well for him. So far.
I’d had enough of Adam Ant. And Bryan Ferry. And Grace Jones. And Richard Butler. And Let’s Dance-era Bowie. It’s like this: A couple of days ago, I had created a playlist of hits from high school, and from what started as a glorious all-you-can-click buffet of acid-washed, Polo-rocking nostalgia, “I Want My MTV” soured into a tuna-on-wheat left out in the rain. Cutting through the warm fuzzies that tickled me after the first few spins of “Slave to the Rhythm” — and “Angel Eyes” and “A Million Miles Away” and “Love Plus One” and all 49 other, carefully curated-by-me monster jams from the decade of decadence — pain and regret, and a massing, tentacled species of despair from all the bad shit that went down in my life circa 1985-1989, reminded me why I hadn’t started an MTV-influenced playlist earlier. I don’t blame my parents, and I don’t blame myself. In the words of one fictional high school philosopher, life comes at you fast. And if you’re middle- to lower-class like we were, it’s your head that’s going through the windshield — repeatedly.
Virtual school was important for us for a lot of reasons but most of all for the fragility of A.’s childhood. Like most parents, D. and I want his adult self to have good memories of our brief time together. We also know that re-traumatizing him, even in a way that may seem trivial to us, like spanking him or spewing frustration all over him while “helping” him with math, isn’t going to be good for anyone — not for him, not for us, and definitely not for society.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, “can have a tremendous impact on future violence victimization and perpetration and lifelong health and opportunity.”
ACEs, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network says, “have been linked to increased medical conditions throughout the individuals’ lives.”
A.’s trauma is beyond his linguistic reach. The neglect or worse that he suffered as an abandoned infant in a third-world country imprinted itself in his DNA and lies deep within his amygdala. It’s all preverbal — other than in his oversized reactions and overall depression, which are a language all their own. A.’s psychiatrist and play therapist and The Body Keeps Score are teaching D. and me how to speak to him. Most of the time, we connect. Other times, it’s me trying to help with math. It’s that bad. Onto Problem No. 4.
What is the value of this expression?
10[3 + (7 + 5) ÷ 3]
“Bro,” I said. “Let’s take a little break, OK? Then we’ll hit the rest hard. Sound good?”
As soon as I flipped open my laptop to tackle some work emails that I knew were piling up, I was hit by “Under the Milky Way.” I popped right back up and like a robot marched to the back window. An Adam song. Fuck this. The rain had quieted a little, falling like snow now, sort of swirling around instead of dropping in hazy rows. “Sometimes when this place gets kind of empty / Sound of their breath fades with the light.” I inhaled deeply. I exhaled long. I struggled to unknot my stiffened neck and shoulders. In and out, in and out. Almost every year growing up, some older neighborhood kid rented a grove at a nice public park in a fancy neighborhood for a Memorial Day party. Burgers and hot dogs, volleyball, frisbee, girls in shorts, and, most importantly, beer — Joey “Bloop” did it right. Since Adam, my lovably cranky, completely neurotic older brother, refused to be responsible for me with all his friends and so many potential flings around, I had to A.) find a ride to and from North Park on my own and B.) avoid Adam while there. I never made it to one party, and on the first Memorial Day weekend to come when I was legally able to drive — and when I had sneaked the keys to my old man’s Buick Century with 180,000-plus miles on it — it shit-poured. “Wish I knew what you were looking for / Might have known what you would find.” These four cracking walls are going to bury us, aren’t they?
Joey “Bloop”’s epic picnics aside, I suppose I have my own trauma to work through. By the time that I, the youngest of four, had come along, Mummy and Daddy had totally checked out on parenting. I managed elementary school OK. Other than having to sign myself up for sports and forge my mom’s signature on waivers, I did not really struggle socially. High school was the opposite. My dad’s drywall business was going under, sunk by a series of risky property investments, and as he was drinking his unwanted free time away, he took out all his frustration on Adam, who was stuck still living at home, working at the men’s shoe store up the street to pay for college nearby and trying to piece together some kind of adult life. I advanced from signing “Ann Mariani” on waivers to doing it on report cards. I don’t know how I graduated. My dad died of cancer a few years later at 63, and my dear Adam, who was also an alcoholic, killed himself five years ago. He was 52, the same age I am now. This is partly why “I Want My MTV” is so ridiculously sour. I clicked off iTunes and actually welcomed rude fifth-grade math. Problem No. 5.
An elementary school had 90 boxes of glue sticks. Each box had 36 glue sticks. Teachers put all of the glue sticks into bags to give to the students. They put 6 glue sticks into each bag.
Which equation can be used to find b, the number of bags the teachers can fill with these glue sticks?
- 90 × 36 ÷ 6 = b
- 90 ÷ 6 + 36 = b
- 36 × 90 + 6 = b
- 36 × 6 × 90 = b
It seems that all of A.’s classmates agree that virtual school is the way for them. Early in the year when their teacher allowed them to talk a little about themselves, most of these sweet babies said they chose virtual school because they had been bullied at their in-person schools. That was the reason these children were learning from home: mother-hunching bullies. It was heartbreaking. I felt a kinship with these parents. Over the past few years, as I was dreading being informed by Paul Stanley that my child had another meltdown and was storming the halls or roaming the campus like some kind of mini chocolate Godzilla, these moms and dads were spending their entire days worrying whether their children had been hit or teased again. Our problems were the same but shaped differently. There were days during in-person when I couldn’t even shower for fear of being away from my phone when Paul Stanley came howling at me. More than wanting to be able to comfort my son instantly, I wanted to save his teachers from A.’s furious explosivity. Though I haven’t interviewed every fifth-grade TVAH parent, I feel pretty confident saying that virtual school probably added a few years back onto our lives.
Number of bullying incidents in A.’s class at TVAH: 0.
I had a bully in grade school. His nickname was Swat, and he was a year or two older than me and, while an inch or two shorter, with straw hair, pink skin, and a pronounced stutter, he was stronger, and a lot nastier, than I was. He lived next door off and on, and he made my summers hell. Sometimes I fought him off. Other times, he got me to submit. And everyone just watched. All of my friends/“friends.” Just let it happen. Adam would have been no help. He was five years older and twice the size of Swat and would have been seen as a bully himself trying to intervene. Fuck, why can’t I have my MTV? I deserve it. And isn’t that what Adam would have wanted? For his little brother?
As I’ve told my wife an annoying number of times since virtual school started, fifth-grade math was way easier back in the day. All this fraction stuff? And this “expanded notion” nonsense? I know I wasn’t doing any of that crap until seventh or eighth grade. As the father of a super-coder who builds entire playable baseball stadiums line by line, I’m not necessarily complaining. Please, challenge him. As his “learning coach” with a demanding full-time job, I feel like I’m going through seventh grade all over again minus — and here’s the important part — the sunny hope I had for the future. I love my family and friends and shit. I’m just not ready for Civil War II and World War III. Onto Problem No. 6.
Kendra earned a total of $625 selling jewelry.
- She sold 7 necklaces for $55 each.
- She sold 8 rings.
- Each ring was sold for the same price.
The equation shown can be used to find r, the amount of money in dollars she earned for each ring sold.
r = [625 − (7 × 55)] ÷ 8
What was the amount of money in dollars Kendra earned for each ring sold?
- None of these
I looked at A. He actively ignored me. He was working something out in his notebook with a new pencil — maybe the previous one had been trashed. I had conveniently forgotten. Following PMDAS (Parens, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction), he first solved 7 x 55 before subtracting the resulting 385 from 625 and dividing it by eight, arriving at 30, so the answer was A. My son clicked on it.
“OK, now hit the ‘check answer’ button,” I said, giving A.’s tiny shoulders a squeeze. They’re so tiny. He’s still such a little boy, a little soul. What kind of absolute ghoul do you have to be to have spanked him? Or have ever even raised your voice at him? I’m a monster.
“Correct,” the screen said in white block letters on a green rectangle.
A. and I hoorayed at the same time, then we did that silly fist-bump thing we do, when I give him a tight fist and he just gives me a limp hand because he’s either embarrassed or being a little shithead. D. had eased into the kitchen.
“Good job, guys,” she said, sailing past to the fridge to refill her water.
“Yeah, that was all A.,” I answered. “He didn’t even need my help, right, sweet boy?”
“Yep,” he said, closing his laptop and notebook.
“Wait,” I said. “Don’t we have to go over those ones we punted on?”
“The assignment isn’t due until Friday.”
It was Wednesday.
“I’d get it done today,” D. said flatly, screwing the cap back onto her full bottle. “Friday, there’s no school, and I know you’re not going to want to do any homework on your day off.”
I searched A.’s face for a prompt. He looked contented, comfortable actually.
“It’s OK,” he said. “We can do it now.”
“OK,” I said, taking my place over his shoulder. “Let’s get back to it.”
“And remember, Dad. If you’re feeling frustrated, just relax.”
Relax. Yeah, I thought. Just relax. Maybe I do want my MTV.
“Before we get back to it,” I said to A., “dance party?”
Without answering me verbally, he jumped up and sped from the cramped kitchen into the open family room and started bouncing.
“Hey, Siri,” I said, stretching my hammies and twirling my neck, my arms akimbo, “play Frankie Goes to Hollywood.”
This column reflects the opinions of the editorial board and not the Fort Worth Weekly. To submit a column, please email Editor Anthony Mariani at Anthony@FWWeekly.com. He will gently edit it for clarity and concision.