Pre-Algebra, 1970

Claudia Emerson

                     — for Dr. Maria Dolores Choca

That she had earned a PhD

             in mathematics

                            at Universidad de La Habana

is not part of what she tells

             the Pre-Algebra

                          eighth grade, crowded

into an airless trailer-classroom

              tucked behind

                           the high school — afterthoughts,

the lot of us, already taller

             than she is,

                          some stinking of woodsmoke,

some with mud on our shoes.

             We figure out

                            soon enough, though,

the one question that will

             free us from her

                           ceaseless attempts

to convince us that algebra

             is the same

                           as bone-setting,

the missing with what

              is missing, the like

                           with the like. So

we beg her

              to tell us about the night

                           she escaped Castro,

and she does — on her

              gesturing arm the smallpox

                           vaccine scar the size

of a half-dollar, moon-

              cratered — pointing every time

                           at us as though

we are no longer

              there — telling again and again

                           about leaving with nothing,

the smell of rubber

              and gasoline, the engine cut,

                           swimming all night, breathing

inside a hissing vortex

              of water and salt,

                           swallowing her screams

like ground glass. We

              have never seen the ocean

                           she swam to get to us,

have heard little other

              than the familiar thickness

                           of our own accents —

but by spring, despite

              ourselves, we know it all,

                          every word, well

enough to perform

              for each other even the required

                           lapses, laughing, into Spanish.

And beyond the narrow

              classroom window, the field

                           of broomsedge and sumac

we have paid such hard-

              blind attention to

                           has turned into something

we no longer quite

              see, or try to see past,

                           and that will be our

inescapable —

              and most boring

                           of mistakes,

the like with the like.

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