Carrie Morgan, the star of the math team, was in Ben’s calculus class as well. I camped outside his sixth period class, when I had a free period, hoping to have a minute to talk to her. Before she came out of the room, I spent a minute critiquing young Carrie—and boy, there was a lot to critique. She was at least twenty pounds overweight, but it looked more like thirty with the way she dressed. Her hair was a mousy, frizzy mess. Her eyes could have been pretty, but you never wound have known behind those thick glasses. And even from across the room, I could see that her eyebrows were desperately in need of a plucking. I wanted to attack her with a tweezers.
Ben was sorting through some papers at his desk and Carrie stopped for a minute to talk to him. He smiled up at her when he talked. God, Ben was so nice. I mean, he was just way, way too nice. I didn’t know how he could keep that smile plastered on his face all day, especially around a bunch of annoying teenagers. It was just unnatural.
When Carrie emerged from the room, I subtly fell into step beside her. After a few seconds of her being completely oblivious to me, I said, “Oh, hi, Carrie.”
She glanced at me in surprise. “Oh, hi, Ms. Woodrow.”
“How are you doing, Carrie?”
“I’m glad I ran into you, actually,” I said. “I wanted to talk to you about math team.”
“Yes.” I nodded. “I just have noticed how much of a shame it is that a bright girl like you lacks a strong female influence on the team.”
Carrie shrugged again.
Despite being smart, Carrie was a typical apathetic teenager. I had to try a different approach. “What do you think of Mr. Graham being the team’s coach?”
I expected another noncommittal response, but suddenly the teenager’s face came alive. “Oh, he’s wonderful!”
I recognized the look on her face immediately and the first thing I thought was, “Shit.” Seventeen year old Carrie Morgan was in love with her paraplegic math teacher. Unbe-fucking-lievable. Yes, Ben had a cute face, but he wasn’t the kind of teacher that teenage girls would wet themselves over. I recalled my own adolescent crush on Senor Munoz, my incredibly sexy Spanish teacher, who in his early thirties with rugged Latin good looks. Mmm. I wonder what Senor Munoz was up to these days…
OK, stop it, Holly. Need to focus.
“I know you like Mr. Graham,” I said. “But do you really think he’s what the math team needs? Don’t you want to win?”
“We win sometimes,” Carrie said with a shrug. “Anyway, Mr. Graham is great. He does a great job. He’s amazing.”
“Clearly,” I said. “But don’t you think that if someone else were running the team, then—”
“Is Mr. Graham leaving?” Carrie looked alarmed.
I sighed. This was hopeless. I wasn’t going to convince the head of the Ben Graham Fan Club that he needed to go.
“No, Carrie,” I said. “He’s not going anywhere.”
Not yet, anyway.
This week I got to attend my very first math team competition against another school. It was quite the big deal. We even got to ride in a nice yellow school bus to the other school. I think the last time I’d ridden in a school bus, I’d been wearing knee socks… and not in a sexy way.
As we waited in front of the school for the bus to arrive, Ben was giving the kids a pep talk. It was very hard to listen to. Ben might have been relatively young, but sometimes he reminded me of my grandpa.
I’d been wondering about how Ben was going to get on the bus and I soon got my answer. The back doors opened and there was a little ramp that lowered down for him to wheel onto. The driver helped him get his chair strapped in, I guess so he didn’t go flying or anything. When I got on the bus, I made a point of choosing the seat closest to him.
“I thought you could use some adult company,” I said. “Considering you didn’t have much choice of where to sit.”
“Thanks, Holly,” he said.
“So,” I said, “realistically, what are our chances of winning today?”
“Realistically?” Ben glanced around to see if any of the kids were listening. “Not very good.”
“And you’re okay with that?”
“Everything isn’t about winning,” he said.
I couldn’t believe he just said that. Everything is about winning. All of life is basically a game. “That’s the attitude of a loser,” I said truthfully.
Ben looked at me a long time and finally said, “I’m not sure how to talk to you, Holly.”
I didn’t know exactly what he meant by that, but things were kind of quiet and uncomfortable for the rest of the ride. Maybe I had offended him, I don’t know.
When we arrived at the school, the kids got off the bus first. Ben waited patiently, watching the kids filter out of the vehicle. “You should get out,” he said to me. “Make sure the kids are okay, that they don’t wander off.”
“I’m not their babysitter.”
He sighed. “Look, you’re here to help, aren’t you?”
“Isn’t that your job? You’re the coach, aren’t you?” I shrugged. “It’s not my fault that you have to wait to get loaded off the bus like a piece of luggage.”
Ben’s eyes widened. I guess he didn’t expect me to say something like that. But he needed to know that I wasn’t someone he could just boss around. I mean, he didn’t even say “please.” But then he was looking at me in a way that made me feel so uncomfortable, I did decide to get off the bus. But not for him.
Once Ben was out of the bus, he came back to life and was rallying the kids as much as he could, trying to get them excited about kicking some serious math team ass.
“Carrie,” he said, “I’m counting on you as captain to lead the team to victory.”
“I won’t let you down, Mr. Graham,” she said, even though she clearly didn’t give a damn when I talked to her the other day. She only was willing to try for her darling Mr. Graham.
The math team competition was a huge nerd fest. If I had a fetish for glasses or zits or fat kids, I would have been in heaven. As it was, I felt like I was going to asphyxiate from Noxzema. As bad as Carrie was, she was like a supermodel compared to some of the kids in this room. If she wanted a boyfriend, she’d pretty much have her pick of these geeks.
The way the competition worked was that the questions were handed out in sets of two. The students were given ten minutes to complete the questions, then the scores would be posted for each team.
The coaches were responsible for handing out the sets of questions. Ben was given a stack of papers to give to the students and I could see him eying the narrow aisle between the desks. He glanced up at me, “Holly, do you think you could hand out the papers?”
“Isn’t that the coach’s job?” I replied sweetly.
Ben looked like he wanted to kill me. “Fine, I’ll do it.”
I watched him trying to navigate his wheelchair through the small space between the desks. It was tight, but doable. Instead of turning his wheels, he grabbed onto the desks to propel himself forward. It was kind of a neat trick.
Ben handed me a copy of the questions to do. The first one involved two intersecting figures and calculating the area of intersection. I tried to do it in my head and realized that the question wasn’t so easy. Then I got out a pencil and started working on it for real. I could see Ben glancing over to watch me. At one point, he grinned.
“So what did you get for the first one?” he asked me after he had collected the papers of the students.
“What did you get?” I retorted. I actually hadn’t managed to come up with an answer to the problem. I don’t know why these questions were so much harder than at the last school. It wasn’t my fault though. Ben broke my concentration.
“The answer is 28,” he said.
“They told you the answer?”
“It’s a math problem for high school students,” he said. “I don’t need them to tell me the answer.”
What an arrogant asshole. Although it turned out he was right about the answer being 28. I decided I wasn’t going to bother trying to do the questions anymore. Ben was right—these were high school questions. So there was no point in a grown, intelligent woman like myself bothering with them.
Anyway, it would have been great if there were someone like Ben actually on the team, because we were really sucking. After the first set of questions, we were already behind. After the second set, we were even more behind. After the final set, we had lost miserably. Embarrassingly.
“Good effort,” Ben said to the team.
What next? Was he going to offer to buy them conciliatory pizza?
“How about some pizza?” Ben said. “For a job well done.”
I couldn’t keep my mouth shut another second. “Bullshit,” I spoke up. “We lost. Badly. We got pummeled. You guys need to step it up because that other team wasn’t that good.”
“Ms. Woodrow,” Ben murmured, his face turning pink.
“It’s pathetic!” I went on. “You got owned by that other team. Do you enjoy losing?” I turned to Carrie. “Carrie, where do you want to go to college?”
Carrie looked at Ben nervously, then back at me. “Actually, I’ve been thinking about Yale…”
“Yale,” I repeated. “Okay, so do you think Yale wants to accept a student from a losing math team? Don’t you think your chances at Yale would be better if you were state champions?”
“You kids have got to work harder,” I said. “Or else you’re all going to be a bunch of pathetic losers. And you’re sure as hell not getting pizza!”
Things were a little quiet during our pizza-less ride back to the school. It absolutely wasn’t my fault though. Those kids needed a wake-up call. It’s bad enough to be on the math team, but to be on a losing math team? That’s just crazy.
The next morning as I was walking to homeroom, I ran smack into Carrie Morgan. She had a concerned look on her round face. “Hi, Ms. Woodrow,” she said. “I wanted to talk to you for a minute.”
“Sure, Carrie,” I said. God, if I were that girl’s mother, I would give her such a makeover. For one thing, I would have put her on a diet. And what 17 year old girl didn’t have contacts? “What’s up?”
Carrie took a deep breath. “The things you said yesterday… I think you’re right. I think Mr. Graham hasn’t been pushing us hard enough. I… I want to win.”
I wanted to do a little dance. At that moment, I knew Carrie and I were going to push Ben Graham right out of his position as math team coach. Girl power! “And I want you to win, Carrie,” I said. “I want you to get that spot at Yale.”
“Right,” Carrie nodded vigorously. “But, I mean, the thing is, Mr. Graham’s a good teacher and we all really like him. He’s just maybe too laid back. Maybe you could just encourage him to push us more as a team.”
“I wish it were that simple,” I said sadly. “The thing is, Mr. Graham is… well, he’s sick.”
Carrie’s eyes widened. “He is? He seems fine.”
I nodded solemnly, imagining Ben’s face if he knew what I was saying. “He has that disease… you know, the one Stephen Hawking has?”
“Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis? Lou Gehrig’s disease?”
What? “No, the one Stephen Hawking has. The one where you can’t move and need a computer to talk for you.”
“Stephen Hawking has Lou Gehrig’s disease,” Carrie said.
Damn, this was one smart. “Oh right, sorry, I misheard you,” I said. “Yes, that’s what he has. It’s been stable for a little while, but now he’s starting to degenerate. Pretty soon he’s going to need one of those power wheelchairs. And eventually, he’ll even need someone to feed him.”
“Oh my god,” Carrie breathed. “That’s so horrible.”
“Yes, it is,” I said. “But it doesn’t mean that you guys have to suffer. I think if someone like me were coaching the math team, you guys would do better, and Mr. Graham could be freed up to focus on his medical treatments.”
“I agree,” Carrie said. I was impressed that she even looked tearful. Carrie really had it bad for her math teacher. Too bad she wasn’t a little older, because it sounded like Ben really needed to get some action too. “It’s so… horrible for Mr. Graham…”
“Yes,” I agreed. “And he’s very sensitive about it. So you probably shouldn’t mention it to him or anything. You can talk to Principal Hoppenfeld directly.”
“I completely understand,” Carrie said.
I watched her walk off and wished that everyone could be as gullible as high school kids.
To be continued....