When I was in fourth grade, I “lost” my math book for a few weeks just before the end of the year. I “lost” it because my teacher hid it behind a bookshelf. I have no doubt that’s what happened because there is no way it could have ended up behind the solid metal shelving unit unless it had been put there, and because that woman was fired over the summer for other, more evil things she had done to kids with parents more assertive than mine.
But for me, that was the beginning of the end of my confidence with numbers. I’d been effortlessly good in every subject at school up until that point, even though good study habits were not really stressed in my family.
After my math book went missing, a new rule was introduced. My teacher set forth that anyone who had not finished every homework assignment by the last day of school would not be allowed to attend the end-of-the-year party in the library. Mrs. Hollar promised it would be epic: There would be popcorn, cartoons, and no structured activities.
My parents were appraised of the matter, but no action was taken. I had a vague notion that they didn’t want to pay for a new book, but they had three kids younger than me to worry about. A possible bad math grade from their precocious oldest daughter wasn’t anything they were going to worry about.
As for me, the stress weighed on my eleven year-old shoulders day by day. Mrs. Hollar crept into my thoughts and dreams, her stern face demanding to know where my homework was. I can still hear the exasperated throaty noises she made when I had nothing to say for myself.
But as we were packing up to leave one day, Peter called out, “Hey, Keili, is this your book?” He pulled it out from behind the wall of cubby holes. I was totally shocked, but it was Mrs. Hollar who screeched, “WHAT?!” when he produced it.
She made it obvious to me that even though I had rediscovered my book, I still had pages and pages of homework to complete before I would be allowed to attend the upcoming class party.
My parents let me spend the night at Alexandra’s house that night, and she produced her own tidy stack of homework for me to copy.I tried, but my heart wasn’t in it. As miserable as I felt at the prospect of missing the party, I felt twice as sick at the thought of getting caught cheating. I was certain that Mrs. Hollar would know I had copied all Alex’s homework, that I would be in trouble, Alex would be in trouble, our parents would be notified, the principle (Mrs. Hollar’s husband!) would be summoned, the police might get involved, and–because our fathers worked for the State Department–the American government would keep a record of it, the kind of record that would follow me for the rest of my life, that others would always be able to access, but I would never be able to change.
I couldn’t do it. By then, I was so far behind that I had long resigned myself to missing the party, so I didn’t protest in the slightest when everyone else lined up to go to the library and I had to stay at my desk doing my homework. I knew I wouldn’t even be able to finish it in one afternoon, so I dutifully worked through one lesson at a time knowing that I just had to get to the end of the day, not the end of the book.
I’ve hated math ever since then; ever since it became the impassable hurdle between me and a good time. Eventually, my hatred of math became a conviction that I was no good at it, which was reinforced by my reluctance to engage in class or do my homework. By the time I got a bank account, my idea of budgeting was stopping at the ATM to check my balance. Anything else involved addition or subtraction (usually subtraction), and I wasn’t good at math, therefore I couldn’t do it.
But I finally had my financial epiphany the other day. I realized that every opportunity I have missed in the past ten or fifteen years has been because of money. It hasn’t been the difficulty of figuring this stuff out that’s been standing between me and a good time–it’s been the fact that I haven’t bothered to figure it out at all.
To that end, I’ve been reading lots of finance books, including Smart Women Finish Rich. Good at math or not, the situation is not going to get any better by just waiting for the clock to run out.
I also signed up for LearnVest’s Core Financial Plan last Friday. I had my first phone call with my financial planner today. I confirmed the details of my income and spending with her, and in about three weeks, she says she can give me a budget that I can work with. I also get unlimited emails with her, so I can get all my questions answered by someone who actually knows my situation. I don’t have any basis for comparison, but from what I understand, working with someone online like this is actually a really affordable way to get professional financial advice.
I can only hope that crazy Mrs. Hollar got the help she needed as well.