Showing my work in mathematics was a constant struggle in high school.

In fact, I would get the answers right but would fail the class because I couldn’t show my work. I got frustrated enough that in 10th grade I simply went to the local college on my own and took the GED so that I could scrap high school altogether but it was mostly math that chased me away. It made me feel dumb. My intelligence is a source of major insecurity for me, maybe one day I’ll flesh that out publicly, but for now understanding that my intelligence is enough of an insecurity that I dropped out of high school and took my GED in one shot because I didn’t know how to “show my work”.

Here I am 25 years later, in prison because I ran away from everything that was hard. All I can think about is showing my work, a way to reclaim the life I threw away, because then I might finally understand the “how”. I spent hours arguing violently with my high school teachers about why I didn’t need to explain how when I got the answers right without a calculator. Walking away and ending high school so I never had to deal with that again seemed fitting at the time but all I can think about now is “how?”.

At the moment my life is complicated. I am doing some deep psychological work in preparation for finally releasing. I am facing things from my childhood (and beyond) that I have held onto for decades and it is the hardest thing. Fridays are therapy days. They are the days I face my childhood self like a ghost watching the painful memories of their life only, there is an angel who meticulously repackages them inside of my soul so they are seen in healthier lights. Then, 3 hours later I’m sitting in a classroom where I learn the “how” of math.

Every Friday is math day. 5 of us (incarcerated individuals) and a few college staff find an unoccupied classroom where we can social distance and we talk about mathematics.

There is so much about this I am still processing. My first packet of homework had me doing basic mathematics, for instance, “How many multiples of 10 are between 9 and 101? How about 11 and 103? Why aren’t the answers the same?” The answer is simple enough to spout off without much effort because that’s how my brain works, get it done and move on. However, my problem with math has always been understanding the how. How does it actually work? I was supposed to prepare a small presentation on how I came up with the answers 10 and 9. Show my work…

I spent some time with a close friend, a fellow Friday math-er, and together we came up with a solution that involved division. I felt good because it cleverly included fancy things like a’s and b’s with multiple layered steps that led your eye from 10, 20,…90, 100 to 1, 2, 3,…9, 10. Then, I had it all squared away, the how. I went back to my job confident I finally bested my brains laziness and feeling like might have reclaimed a little of my youth. But I didn’t write it down and when Friday rolled around I had no idea what to say.

Remembering the how of math for me is like asking a trauma victim to remember the trauma their brains blocked out, it makes me freeze up. Which, I did on Friday. I have spoken to rooms packed full of hundreds of people on topics that are difficult to explain privately, let alone publicly and in prison. I have faced some of prisons most dangerous and have had them stand up in the middle of my speech and shout “go off yourself!” and I didn’t bat an eyelash, I crushed that speech and won him over along with the entire room full of his clones…

But ask me to explain how there is only 9 multiples of 10 in the number set 11 thru 103 and I lock up like a neurotic pygmy goat in the middle of a bleat.

Neat-o.

But I did it. I don’t remember how, but I did and the more I do it the more I remember. Each time I edge closer to feeling like I am beating back my childhood shame and trauma and reclaiming my life as my own. It’s hard, but soul work is never easy, or clean. Sometimes we have to get dirty.

So, math, c’mon, let’s go roll in the mud for awhile.

With Love
Ruth Utnage