My twelve-year-old daughter couldn’t fall asleep. She was agitated and restless. I laid next to her, hoping my proximity would be calming. After a few minutes of tossing and turning, she said, “I don’t want to go to school tomorrow. I am afraid there is going to be a shooting.”
Her words tumbled out in one long strand of jumbled terrors. “My teachers aren’t going to be there tomorrow. I will have two subs. A lot of our subs have grey hair. I had a dream once that there was a shooting and right before the shooting, I saw a woman with gray hair. What if there is a shooting tomorrow?”
I wanted to say, “don’t go! Don’t ever go! Stay here with me and dad and your brother. We will homestead and I will teach both of you. We never have to leave again. Don’t go. Whatever you do, don’t go.”
Instead, I said, “you don’t have to go to school tomorrow. You can stay home if you want.”
Tomorrow was going to be the last day before Thanksgiving vacation. She was immediately relieved by the notion that there was a choice. She wondered whether she would miss anything. I think she said something about a movie being shown in one of her classes. I told her she could decide in the morning. She fell asleep.
Later my husband confirmed that he would have said the same thing I did. For the rest of her life, we are going to be telling our daughter to “leave if you ever feel uncomfortable”, “call us if something doesn’t seem right and we will come get you”, and “always trust your gut“. Neither of us thought there was going to be a shooting at school the next day. We didn’t think our daughter was having premonitions. We didn’t think anything. We felt. We looked into our guts. Our daughter is feeling scared, vulnerable, unsure, and alone. What should we do? We decided we had to give her the choice.
The next morning, my husband and I whispered to each other as we peanut buttered English Muffins and reheated our coffee.
“Should we just keep her home?”
“If she stays home, he (my son) will want to stay home.”
“So let them both stay home.”
“What if she wants to go?”
In the end, we left it up to our daughter. She said she wanted to go. She said she thought it felt okay. I confirmed for her that I would be at her school in the afternoon. She could come say “hi” to me in my office. Dropping her off at school that day was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
On the way home from school that day, she brought up her dream. She said she was worried. She wondered, what if she could see the future? I told her I thought she was experiencing intuition. I tried to explain it, but I am not sure I did it justice. I told her intuition is made of feelings and experiences. It lives in a space where our heart and our brain intersect. It gets more finely tuned over time. I tried to describe how intuition can be wrong or partially wrong. It can miss the mark sometimes. We can miss the mark. She didn’t say anything. I followed her lead.
I wonder whether our mathematical intuition lives separately from our other intuitions. Over the past six years, I have gradually wandered deeper and deeper into the center of my math self. I came to terms with some pretty deeply rooted shame and insecurity. I also discovered all kinds of knots and snarls in my intuition. My whole life I was told that I was too sensitive, too emotional, too naive. It was often suggested that I think too much. I got these messages early and often in my life.
Eventually I started to own them. After all, they are true. I am sensitive, pensive, emotional, naive. Unfortunately, I came to think of those traits as something that needed to be changed. It wasn’t until pretty recently that I have re-framed these traits as gifts. I get it now. I am a thinker. I question everything. I am always wondering. I trust easily. I am intense. I feel things deeply. It turns out, this makes me a natural mathematician.
My daughter and I have a lot in common. She is intense, sensitive, innocent, driven. However, she doesn’t see herself as a mathematician. Last year, she told me she hated math. This year has been hard for her too, but in a different way. Her teachers have tried hard to establish a math culture where students feel safe to take risks. Her struggles have been with her peers and her self. She says she is tired of them finishing before her, asking her if she wants a hint or help. She is tired of not being “good at math”. She cried one day and told me she was so sick of everyone else getting things faster than her. Through her angry tears, she said, “but I love my teacher. I told her about it. She is helping me.”
Sometimes, at night, the whole family sits in our big king sized bed. My husband is reading or sketching (he is a carpenter). I have my big sketch book out and I am usually anticipating student thinking. Lately, my 8-year-old son has joined me. One night, I was working on designing a Three Act Task about a ladybug. Max peered over my shoulder as I sketched number lines and tables. He started to sound out the words in the problem at the top of the page:
He thought about it for a while. He mumbled some numbers to himself. He manipulated his fingers. After awhile, he said, “Is it 84? Did she walk 84 cm in 1 minute?” Then he paused and said, “I don’t agree with my answer so far.” I asked him why? He wanted to borrow my notebook. I gave it to him and he played with numbers for awhile:
Eventually, he figured out the answer was 96. My son plays with math a lot. When we play Yahtzee, he likes to calculate his own score. It takes him awhile. Usually, I go do other things. Then, after about 20 minutes, he will come find me and say, “I won.”
My daughter plays with math differently and much less frequently. Sometimes, if she is in the right space, she will join me as I play with shapes. Recently, she made this:
She notices details in nature. She takes brilliant photos. Once when we were walking on the frozen pond, she found a clear patch of ice. She and my son examined the intricacies of that frozen water patch for a long time.
I can live with it if my daughter just doesn’t like math. I hope someday she will find a way to enjoy it, but maybe she won’t. Maybe it just isn’t her thing. But, what if she doesn’t like math because she thinks she can’t do it?
Recently, I took a rare weekend nap. It was amazing. I dozed off reading a book and my husband took the kids sledding so I could stay asleep. When I woke up, I saw this:
My daughter had found my new compass and pens. She must have curled up in front of the fire and played with them while I slept. My daughter is an amazing kid. She is in a really tough space right now. She isn’t a little kid. She isn’t a teenager. She knows she is growing up and that terrifies her. She is navigating all of the awkwardness and insecurity that goes with being a middle schooler, but I think she is also becoming aware of some pretty deep and scary truths about life: we can never truly know what another person feels and, eventually, we all die.
The other day, I was talking to a friend about how hard it is to watch my daughter feel so anxious and afraid. My friend asked me, “what is the best thing about Lily?” I said, “She has an enormous heart. She feels everything. It is her greatest gift and her cross to bear. I can only imagine what she will be like when she grows into her heart.”