Every morning during my senior year of high school, I would slink into precalculus bleary-eyed, taking my seat in the back row of desks. This was 8:30 a.m. The breakfast I had scarfed down minutes earlier lay heavy in my stomach.
Even now, it takes me a long time to wake up. My dreams are vivid, usually taking place in wide-open spaces that teem with people. For an hour or two after I rise, the world feels like an extension of those reveries. As the teacher launched into a lecture on polynomials, the complex, abstract rules of precalc felt like dream logic. I forced myself to listen, but I couldn’t make myself understand.
I liked sitting in the back of the classroom to observe people. The social dynamics of the silent students intrigued me more than our teacher’s grating lecture. I enjoyed guessing the backstories of kids I didn’t know. Frequently, I invented my own.
The teacher required us to take copious notes and solve problems that he posed on the board. If you went back and looked through my daily entries, I imagine they’d look like a road abandoned halfway through construction.
First, a meticulously copied algorithm. The next few lines might contain a sentence or two describing how it worked. Moving down the page, my writing careened off the margin. By the next page, doodles and story ideas encircled the math equations. Finally, they disappeared completely, in favor of whatever subject my mind had wandered onto. Sometimes, it was a list of books I intended to read. Once, I (unsuccessfully) tried inventing my own form of musical notation.
But usually, it centered around the novel I had been planning for the past year. It followed a father and son who embark on a road trip from Wisconsin to Louisiana, tracing the path of the Mississippi River. Their goal is to reach the father’s estranged second wife in New Orleans, with the hope of piecing their shattered family back together.
The father is an eccentric historian whose greatest pleasure in life is visiting obscure historical sites, like the desolate cornfield where Abraham Lincoln’s first girlfriend is buried, or the barren cornfield where Buddy Holly’s plane crashed. (The joke was that it usually involved a cornfield.) He derails their journey toward New Orleans in pursuit of these hidden historical sites, forcing his young son to fill the role of the grown-up.
Eventually, I stopped planning my novel and started writing it in earnest. Every day, I woke up thinking about it. I loved writing early in the morning, when I was still half-dreaming. Writing felt effortless. The words came spilling out of me.
Math made me feel weak and stupid. My inability to concentrate on the elaborate sets of rules embarrassed me. By contrast, writing a novel made me feel powerful. Scribbling in my notebook, I could articulate thoughts and make connections without trying. My pen seemed two steps ahead of my brain.
I would take my seat and start writing before class had even started. I wrote from the moment I sat down until the moment the bell rang. After a couple months, I was averaging a thousand words per math class. I began to look forward to math because it meant time to scribble down a chapter in my notebook.
After a couple failed quizzes, the teacher caught on that I wasn’t paying attention. I knew that telling him the truth wasn’t an option. What good math teacher would accept “I’m writing a novel” as an excuse for failing his class? He marked me as a troublemaker and treated me with a degree of hostility. I felt guilty and wounded. It helped to channel these feelings into my writing. Recycling pain into art made me feel powerful.
As the school year neared to a close, I had 49,000 words of a novel and a 63% in precalculus. In the final weeks, I forced myself to put away the novel and pay attention. I needed to pass the class and graduate.
I barely scraped by with a D-. My parents were disappointed, but I was thrilled. I had discovered writing, which gave me strength and a sense of purpose. No matter what anyone thought of me, I was proud of myself.