Balanced Equation


Sure I needed help. But from Lawrence Guzewski?

Balanced Equation

On Thursday, Mr. Pearson asked me to stay after algebra class. He didn’t announce it in front of everybody, so it wasn’t a totally mortifying experience. And it wasn’t like I didn’t know what he was going to say. When you’re about the only Mormon in the entire high school, you get used to people’s unreasonable expectations of you. But just because I was getting straight A’s in English didn’t mean I had to be brilliant at everything. I was definitely not brilliant at algebra.

“I’m being as generous as I can, Liesa,” Mr. Pearson said in that I-expect-more-from-a-student-like-you tone of voice. “But if your grades don’t improve, I don’t see how I can pass you.”

I nodded contritely.

“Now, I was thinking. I’ve been organizing the tutoring sessions for summer school—No, you don’t have to worry about that at this point. But Lawrence Guzewski—you know Lawrence, don’t you?—he’s going to be working in the math lab. I thought maybe you two could get together. I think he could help you out.”

I heard an “okay” squeak out of my mouth. It was like the bishop asking you to give a talk in sacrament meeting. How can you refuse? Not that I had anything against Lawrence Guzewski. He was just one of those people who seemed to believe that intelligence alone was sufficient for a meaningful existence. It just wasn’t that he didn’t sufficiently appreciate those of us who strived for social betterment. He apparently didn’t care. Like the way he didn’t care about how he looked. And as Susan Redmond would say, “Apathy is anathema.” And so was Lawrence Guzewski.

To make things worse, by the middle of next week, it had become pretty clear that our “getting together” was supposed to be up to me. And every day I didn’t “get together” with Lawrence was another day I lived in dread of being approached by Mr. Pearson for the reason why. With guilt making me a thoroughly unconvincing liar, he would give me his I’m-disappointed-with-you look and ask what he could do to help. It was a horrid enough thought that I vowed to say something to Lawrence when the opportunity presented itself just to clear my conscience.

It wasn’t difficult to pick out Lawrence in the cafeteria. I walked over and sat down across from him. He looked up with a start, glanced at the empty chair next to me, obviously expecting it to be occupied soon.

“Mind if I sit here?” I asked.

“Oh, sorry, did you have this place saved?” He was already sweeping his things together to make a quick getaway.

“Oh, no.”

Lawrence stopped. He sat back down again. I got out my lunch. Lawrence returned tentatively to his sandwich and his book.

I remembered something Mr. Pearson had said. “You’re teaching the math lab for summer school, aren’t you?”

His head bobbed up. “Uh,” he said. He had to think about it. “I guess so.”

“That sounds interesting.”

He shrugged.

The conversation ended there. I hadn’t mentioned algebra, supposedly the reason for all of this, but I had run clean out of conversation. We finished our lunches in silence. I didn’t want to just get up and walk away, but if I didn’t he wouldn’t, so I did.

“Whew,” I heard him say with great relief.

I thought about that “whew” all afternoon. At first I thought it was a basic, “Whew, I thought she’d never leave.” But on further consideration, it might have been the more complex, “Whew, why can’t I carry on an intelligent conversation with a member of the opposite sex?” That was a “whew” I could identify with. When you’re about the only Mormon in the entire high school, trying to get asked out on a date your parents will approve of can result in a lot of short, uncomfortable conversations with guys who end up thinking you’re kind of weird. Like Lawrence Guzewski.

Lawrence was in my seventh-period study hall, a fact I had never given much attention to until now. But I noticed him right off. Actually, he seemed to have noticed me first. He had his chair scooted back from his desk and was holding a sheaf of papers. He looked like a hurdler debating whether or not to leave the blocks.

I tried to look like I wasn’t looking at him, and if I had, it wasn’t on purpose. I went back to my algebra homework. When I looked up again, there he was, right in front of me, still gripping his papers.

He sat down quickly at the desk next to me and made a considerable point of examining his papers. “Um, Liesa—” he said, turning to me again, “I was, you know, wondering if maybe you could help me on my term paper. If you don’t mind. I mean, you’re pretty good in English so I thought, you know—”

“Oh,” I said. He probably thought I said “okay,” so he handed me his term paper. I started reading it. Two pages later, I stopped and said, “Lawrence, what is it about?”

“Neutrinos.”

I didn’t ask him what they were. I said, “But you haven’t mentioned them yet.”

“I was leading up to it.”

“But how’s the reader supposed to know what you’re leading up to?”

“The title?” he said, hopefully.

I turned to the next page and found what looked like a thesis statement. I marked the paragraph. “Begin here.”

“But what about the first two pages?”

“Well, remember what Mrs. Greenbaum said: ‘Tell the reader what you’re going to say. Say it. And then tell him what you just said?’ You have to start out by saying what you’re going to write about, and how you’re going to write about it.”

“Oh, I get it. Like an abstract.”

“You begin with this paragraph and go on to here,” I said, marking the first page.

It seemed to make sense to him. I never expected to be better than Lawrence Guzewski at anything. But what was even more surprising was that I had actually enjoyed helping him. That I hadn’t counted on.

“Oh, by the way,” Lawrence said, as he shuffled his papers together, glancing over my shoulder at my algebra problem, “the answer is 2X2+1.”

Lawrence went back to his seat, leaving me wondering where in the world 2X2+1 came from. It sure wasn’t apparent to me. What was apparent was that the only thing standing between me and yet another disaster at Mr. Pearson’s blackboard tomorrow was Lawrence Guzewski. My last period class was Mrs. Greenbaum’s creative writing class. I left as quickly as I could after the bell rang and caught up with Lawrence in B-wing.

“Hey, Lawrence,” I said.

Lawrence stopped and turned around with a puzzled, “you mean me?” expression on his face, as if there were dozens of people named “Lawrence” around I could have been referring to.

“Lawrence,” I said, approaching him, “I was wondering if you could help me with my algebra homework this afternoon, if you have the time, I mean.”

There was a long, uncomfortable silence. Finally, Lawrence looked at his watch and said, “Uh, I have to go to my violin lesson.”

“Oh,” I said. I took a step back.

He suddenly blurted out, “But I’m free this evening.”

I retraced my step. “What time?”

“Around seven?” he said, as if it were a question.

“Why don’t I come over around seven.”

“Okay.”

I had invited myself over to Lawrence Guzewski’s. If Susan Redmond found out, what was left of my senior year would be totally wasted, socially. Summer school was beginning to look like a reprieve in comparison.

“What were you talking to Lawrence Guzewski about, Liesa?”

I turned around and there was Susan Redmond, on her way to cheerleading practice, pom-poms in hand.

I opened my mouth and waited for the appropriate words to fill it. “Mr. Pearson—” I said, finally, “he assigned Lawrence to be my math tutor.”

Susan nodded with understanding, pity filling her dark brown eyes. She patted me sympathetically on the shoulder, and I left it at that.

Dad helped me find the little Cape Cod next to the Christian Academy on Fifth Street where the Guzewskis lived. Mrs. Guzewski met me at the door and welcomed me vigorously. “Oh, you must be Liesa,” she exclaimed. “Lawrence has told me all about you.”

I smiled nervously. I hadn’t thought that there would be that much to tell. Lawrence came down the stairs, looking even less reassured than I felt. We all stood there in the front hall, Lawrence on one side, me on the other, his mother in between, looking pleased. Finally Lawrence said, “Um, it’s probably easiest to work in the kitchen.”

“Oh, yes,” said Mrs. Guzewski, enthusiastically, “it’s right this way.” I think I heard Lawrence mutter under his breath that he knew where the kitchen was.

The kitchen smelled like my Aunt May’s kitchen, warm and friendly and delicious. There was a plate of fresh chocolate chip cookies on the table. “Please, go right ahead,” said Mrs. Guzewski, and I almost did, but I didn’t think it’d be polite to start the evening scarfing cookies. I decided I’d wait until Lawrence took one.

Mrs. Guzewski bustled in and out every other minute to make sure everything was all right. There wasn’t much to make sure of because we just sat there at the kitchen table staring at my algebra textbook, waiting for the other one to say something first.

Finally, I took a deep breath and said, “Lawrence, why don’t you show me where that 2X2+1 came from? You know, the problem you solved in study hall.”

I opened up my textbook to the page the assignment was on, and he immediately launched into a series of calculations which totally left me behind. But in the process he forgot to be self-conscious, which made it hard for me to be self-conscious. I had to slow him down most of the time, because what was obvious to him wasn’t so obvious to me. But by the time we got through the rest of the assignment, things were a bit clearer.

I put down my pencil. “I think I’m getting it,” I said. “Almost.”

Lawrence shrugged. “You know,” he said, “I never thought that you would ask me to help you. I mean, I know I never could belong to your group—I mean, I kind of had the feeling that if I ever asked you out Susan Redmond would beat me up or something.”

He thought that—come to think of it, I thought that as well at times. But when you’re about the only Mormon in the entire high school, you can’t always let your priorities be decided by the Susan Redmonds of the world.

“To tell the truth,” I said, sheepishly, “I asked you to help me with my algebra because Mr. Pearson told me to. I know what that sounds like, but I’m glad he did. Not just because I needed help with algebra.”

It was Lawrence’s turn to be embarrassed. “You know,” he said, “it was Mrs. Greenbaum’s idea that you could help me with English. She was right. You’re a lot better at it than I am.”

It was one too many compliments between the two of us, and Lawrence didn’t know what to say next, so he had a cookie. I’m glad he did, because I was starving for one.

They were great cookies.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Roger Motzkus