What Sense a Shape?

Black-and-white image depicting a wave

When the math teacher tells us he’ll be dead by December, I believe him. I nod even as the other teacher in the Zoom shakes his head, starts to speak.

You’re muted, I almost write in the chat, but then stop. Let him go on.

The math teacher continues: I’m up every night until two. I’ve made nearly 62 YouTube videos and I’m not even halfway through the material. I have to keep going. AP Calculus. Can’t do it in a semester. Online. Maddening.

I nod. Yes.

The test, the test.

I’m teaching an AP class, too, but I’m focused on more than the test. Students as black boxes, students as muted squares, students as voices from somewhere, struggling to come through.

The math teacher pauses. Can he tell what I’m thinking? Or that instead of looking at the camera I’m studying the way the late afternoon light streams in behind me, framing my face with glittering gold? I’m soaking in the shimmer and shaft of it. The sparkle and shine. On Zoom we face forward to see behind. Look ahead to look back. Forced to participate in the odd symmetry of self-reflection. I have to see me in order to see you.

The mirror makes mimics of us.

The math teacher tugs at his scraggly beard. His eyes sag—sad but clear. I blink and have no choice but to believe everything he says.

There is something comforting in believing him. In trusting there is an answer. An end. Even if we don’t want the answer. Or understand it. Even if we don’t want the end – for others or ourselves.

But I know the math teacher. And I believe him. We’ve worked at the same high school together for over two decades. We were both single when we started. He used to come to my room for the poetry club meetings. He would read his own perfect verse and talk about the intricate relationship between math and poetry. Formulas of sound, lengths of lines. The way one intersects the other. He had ideas and shared them: how to make sense of a shape. How to measure each angle, each word.

He married a woman with long hair, and they had kids. His wife got a job on campus as a para in the Special Day class, and I used to see her sometimes, walking through the library in her skirts, her hair parted in the middle, hanging down her back, bulky cloth purse at her side. She seemed patient and kind and I was glad the math teacher had her—especially after he was struck by lightning not once, but twice.

He is above the world now more than on it.

Since the second strike, he walks with a limp, talks a little to himself. Several mornings I have had to stop for him entering the school parking lot. Me, in a car; he, slowly stumbling across the street—stooped with a cane—a grim recognition of pain with each breath—a twinge that tucks the corner of his mouth in and under instead of up. We are the same age, but his aches are different from mine—visible in the ways nature marks us each differently. Nature and time. Experience.

If he could stand up straight. If he could stride. If he could replace his cane with one of those walking poles from REI, he might look like an explorer. A hiker from the backwoods with his long khaki shorts and sturdy shoes, his unkempt hair and beard, his wide-brimmed hat with the strings attached under his hairy chin. I can see him there: at the start of a long trail—map tucked in his vest pocket, compass hanging from his belt buckle.

The last time I saw him in person was in January at a staff development workshop. We were assigned to the same table group. We thought nothing of it: all of us crammed into the cafeteria, grabbing bagels from the same tray, sharing the plastic knife to spread from a communal tub of cream cheese. Passing papers, trading pens. Huddled for think-pair-share activities, snarky anti-admin whispers. Maskless. The air cold and still. Doors closed. Ventilation off. The winter sky bright and blue.

We had no idea what was coming—but the math teacher did.

On that day, he sat slumped in his chair, eyes downcast, hands a bit shaky. He didn’t want to do the icebreaker the admins had planned, the fun check-in: your favorite flavor of ice cream! Something you’re hoping for in the new year! A teaching goal for 2020!

When it was his turn to share, the math teacher leaned in seriously and said, I’m going to pass.

Really? Come on, you have to say something, the hovering admin prodded before wandering over to another group. The math teacher shook his head, reluctant to continue even though he knew I was waiting to hear more.

I don’t want to scare you.

Scare me? I asked.

You know, the math teacher paused for a long raspy breath.  I have these visions. I get these—they aren’t dreams. I see things. More and more, since the second strike.


These things I see, they…I see— the future.

Oh, wow—

And what’s coming for us—for all of us. It’s not pretty. Teachers, students. Students! These poor kids. They have no idea. Their whole lives are about to change. All of our lives.

I can’t remember now what I thought he was alluding to—what small fear was perched in my mind. What worry? But I know whatever I said made the math teacher grimace and laugh. He pushed my assumption aside dismissively—how simple it must have seemed to him. How innocent and easy.

You wouldn’t believe me, you really wouldn’t, if I said.

What look crossed over my face that day in the cafeteria? Did I blink once? Twice? Did my lips flatten? My nostrils flare? There was no way to see myself, then, to plan my reaction and gauge its sincerity on screen. We didn’t live like that then. I was a face attached to a body in a room full of other bodies. I was with them, not alone, here at the kitchen table, looking at them; no, looking at myself looking at them. I could hear them then, and the rustle of their paper. I could smell their bagel choices—blueberry, sesame, everything. The dull hum of the overhead projector a layer of sound drowned out by the chorus of teachers

I must have looked concerned, because the math teacher stopped, leaned back, picked up his pencil.

No, see, I didn’t want to frighten you.

Tell me, I said. It’s okay. And I was thinking, even then: I can write about this. This is a story.

I’ve seen a lot of things. These visions. And they all come true. Each and every one of them. But, I’ll be honest. I never thought I would see—


My own death.

The admin rang the chimes signaling the activity was about to end. Three chimes, wrap it up. Two, turn and face front. One, and we’re done!

I looked at the math teacher, but he had turned away to gather his papers. He stood up and shuffled slowly out of the room, a grimace of pain with each step.

I’ll be dead by December, he says now, again, here on Zoom.

The other teacher has found the unmute button. No, don’t say that.

It’s my job to prepare my students. I will. It’s— all I have to give, the math teacher says. I think I see the shadow of his wife in the cluttered room behind him. Is she bringing him water, another pillow to support his back in the chair? Tending the wild ivy growing up and around the messy bookshelf off to the right? I wonder how much she knows about her husband’s visions, and my guess is everything.

The math teacher’s eyes dim and droop—but there is a clarity to his stare. And this is what I love but shouldn’t: the resolve of it. The steely glare. The absolute fact of his future. I err on the side of disaster, too. Worst-case scenarios dominate my mind. I know too much about the freeze of fear. But my worries are not visions. I put only the flimsiest faith in them.

I failed math in high school; I have no idea how to travel from x to y with the grace of a poetic line. Infinity is a word to me, not a shape. What shape a sound? A story? I want the math teacher to tell me more, but he logs off. I stay for a second in the Zoom room alone to watch the swath of September sunlight shine down.

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