There was a time I didn’t understand subtraction. Oh, the theory made sense: things were being taken away from me all the time—television privileges and allowance by my parents, and my brother took just about everything else: Hot Wheels, the TV remote, pogs. What didn’t make sense was pencil-to-paper arithmetic. Addition I got. Hannah had three apples and John gave her two more; I knew Hannah, then, had five apples and a pushover. Subtraction was a trickier business.
First you had the minuend, a big number, on top. Then, you took away the subtrahend, the smaller number below it. Finally, you had the difference. I tested well in theory; but, the first few goes alone at it left my second grade teacher, Mrs. Reed, puzzled.
The words didn’t bother me so much. In fact, I loved names, the weirder the better. The words let me understand what the numbers were failing to show me. There’s a story taking place on the page of the math lesson of which, I’m sure, neither Hannah nor John could make heads or tails. You had the minuend—just feel it as you say it—almost royal, like the minuet of the French ballroom. There was the subtrahend, the wily hunchback living below the castle, greedily waiting to take what he wants and leave the minuend wanting. In the end, the kingdom was a different, smaller place: the subtrahend had had his way, the minuend suffered.
Mrs. Reed seemed to appreciate the drama in the same way my parents appreciated my tirades concerning the G.I. Joe caper of ’95, which is to say, not at all. Instead, she called my parents in for a conference. “I’m concerned about David’s math skills,” she began. “We’ve been learning about subtraction, and he doesn’t seem to be catching on quite like we would hope. Lately, he just bends over his desk and cries.”
This was not entirely false, but not entirely causal either. Mrs. Reed would not have noticed me crying that day if not for that stupid know-it-all Junie Wilde, whose pretentions as the teacher’s pet were only hindered by the shocking ignorance she broadcast every chance she had to open her mouth. It was she who heard me sniffling at my desk, my head not half an inch from its surface.
“What’s wrong?” Junie asked, leaning in close so I could smell the deep-fried frizz she called hair. “Do you need help with your math?”
“N-no,” I managed amidst a torrent of snot and saliva. I wiped the excess on the sleeve of my blue turtleneck and turned the other way.
Junie’s hand shot up, and Mrs. Reed walked over to our desks. “What is it, Junie?” As a teacher, she tried to mask her reactions to Junie’s constant irritation, but you could tell Mrs. Reed would just as soon chew insulation as carry a conversation with this girl. “You know this is silent time for everyone to work on their math.”
“Mrs. Reed, David’s crying because he needs help with subtraction.”
That wily hunchback.
The truth was that I was crying because subtraction reminded me that I was actually in school now (albeit a private Christian school whose rural whereabouts in an already small town rendered it the equivalent of homeschooling for a very large family, but a family nonetheless) instead of home with my parents. After two years being homeschooled, I’d joined the ranks of the classroom, and it was all still very new to me. Adaptation is another challenging concept to me. Subtraction itself didn’t reveal this to me; my struggle with it was actually a metaphor for the trouble I had adjusting to my new institutional circumstance. But I couldn’t expect Junie to comprehend that as she seemed to understand very little at all.
I very much wanted to learn subtraction, and, after my teacher’s conference with my parents, I paid close attention during lessons, making time to sort out the ones, tens, and hundreds place in their respective order. We used M&Ms and pennies to make the process as comprehensible as possible.
As it turned out, taking single digits numbers from numbers with more digits I didn’t have a problem with. What tripped me up was the concept of borrowing digits from one column to use in the next column over. For instance:
2 3 4
- 1 5 6
- 1 5 6
One must borrow from the 3 in the tens column to take 6 from 4. This makes 4 into 14, and 3 into 2. Remember, this is supposed to make sense to a seven-year-old. Only, at age seven, I was taught that a person who borrows must return the thing borrowed. So, in my mind, 3 helped 4 become 14; in turn, the polite thing for 4 to do would be to return 1 to 3. In effect, the transaction is a two way street, and instead of yielding a difference of 78, I would suggest 188 is the proper answer, as 3 would “pay it forward,” so to speak, when borrowing from 2.
Clearly what I did not take into account was this world’s penchant for selfishness, and common sense. Were 6 to be taken from 14, 4 would have nothing to give back to 3—now 2—because the loan had been given away—to 6. This taught me a valuable lesson about debt collection; and, later, this lesson would be reinforced by crime dramas like Law & Order, where high society addicts were reduced by the debts they kept with their dealers. Had Mrs. Reed introduced me to NBC primetime television, I might have gotten on board with borrowing sooner.