I suck at math. I’m not kidding. I really do. My last semester in undergrad — after rock starring in my Political Science major and killing it in my Spanish/French Lit minor (with long scarves and words pronounced straight from my belly) — I got a big, old, boring D in Algebra II. You heard it right: Algebra II. Not Pre-Calc, not Statistics, not all the other age-appropriate math classes….nope…Algebra II. Indiana University wouldn’t let me graduate with my cohort unless I brought that grade up.
I hugged my graduating friends and with my tail between my legs, I said goodbye to the Bloomington campus, drove 10 hours, and settled In Washington, D.C. I found a sun-filled 500 square feet studio apartment on the corner of 17th and U, next to a recovery house, above a Chinese takeaway, owned by who would later become my Chinese grandparents, “Sam” and “Amy”. It was an astounding $430 a month — and because that’s exactly the type of math I loved, I signed in blood in spite of the creaky stairway and the window air conditioner that sounded more like a lawn mower.
I felt so independent and adult except for that D:
D for damn, D for dread, D for downcast, D for disappointment, D for downtrodden, D for despondent, D for despairing. Ok, you get it.
I had all summer ahead of me. I found my very first job at an international non-profit working with global refugees and I found a tutor. Ibrahim was a Jordanian engineer getting his Ph.D. at George Washington University on a full scholarship. He seemed serious and stern which to my 3rd-grade math self translated into “stomping scary giant with hammer”.
I fawned, fidgeted, and wringing my hands I went into a long discourse of how hard math was for me and how I ashamed I felt and how he was surely going to get tired of me because of how long it took me to learn mathematical concepts.
He looked at me with his black rimmed thick glasses and unblinking focus, and asked one of the kindest things anyone has ever asked me.
“What is 0 + 0?”
I did then what I’m doing now as I remember this. I cried.
He smiled and he said in his tender, thick Jordanian accent, “We will start at the beginning with the basics because that is where we will find what went wrong.” What ensued were tutoring sessions three times a week where my 9-year-old self did mathematical pirouette’s and he had jolly, nerdy, fatherly laughs delighting in my “I did it!” moments. Oh, the safety and the sweetness! Ibrahim was filled with the magic of Humanity 101.
Needless to say, I passed my Algebra II exam and graduated that December. Wherever you are, Ibrahim, I love you.
Psychotherapy, coaching, guiding, spirituality, and leading are all woven together by the notion that just as we need assistance, just as we missed the mark somewhere (or many-wheres), we are worthy of a reach, a beacon, a lighthouse. Error and expansion is humanity’s e-squared formula. We need someone who will say, and yes, I quote Julie Andrews, “Let’s start at the very beginning, it’s a very good place to start…”