The sandy haired girl presses her hand onto her cheek, and with a sniffle blurts into my ear, “No, Grandma, 9×1 is not 72.” I’m on a flight home from San Diego, sitting directly in front of a little girl (eight or nine years old), and I know she’s pressing her hands into her face. I know that her cheeks are crimson and tear stained, and her eyes are red. I know because for the last two-and-a-half hours her grandmother has been drilling math problems into her ear (AND MINE), and every so often, whenever I glance behind, I see the little girl’s face through the gap between the seats.
I want to save her. And myself too. The grandmother’s incessant drilling is infuriating. “What is 2×7?” The girl’s answer, “Fourteen.” The grandmother’s reply, “What is 2×7?” The girl, “I said fourteen.” Grandmother, “Say it again. Fourteen, fourteen, fourteen…”
Oh, my goodness! It takes all of my will power to NOT jump out of my seat and shout, “Back off Grandma! Leave her alone!” I’m not over exaggerating, literally 2 and 1/2 hours of this. I try plugging my ears and watching a movie on my son’s dvd player, but the battery dies. I hum a tune under my breath; I stand up to stretch my legs; I go to the lavatory to wash my hands; I buy a snack box and distract myself by crunching on chips.
At the end of the flight, for just a minute, the grandma stops drilling the girl to lean across the aisle and speak to a man with silver hair (the grandpa, I suppose), and I take the opportunity to glance behind me, at the gap between the seats. The little girl looks up at me. I whisper, “Are you okay?”
She whispers back, “Yes, I’m okay.” But her eyes say the opposite.
As we’re deplaning (btw: We are on the very back of the plane, and the last people to leave, along with the girl and her grandparents), my son stands to stretch his legs and I realize that he’s getting tall since he has to bend his neck at the overhead luggage rack, but get this: The grandma takes the opportunity to ask my son a question, “Young man, what grade are you in?”
My son gives me a look before answering (I think he’s put-off by her too), “The eighth grade.” Grandma continues, “What grade did you learn your times tables?” My son, “Probably the third or fourth.”
The grandma turns to her granddaughter and proceeds to berate her. “See, see,” says the grandma. “This young man learned his times tables.” The grandma addresses me. “She didn’t even try.”
This is my opportunity. There’s so much I want to say, but instead I speak directly to the little girl. “I heard some of your answers, and I think you did a great job. Very impressive.” I smile at the girl, and she looks grateful, but uncomfortable. The grandma interrupts, “Oh, no, she didn’t even try. She can do better.”
I want to smack the grandma, but of course I’m polite and say, “Well, there are many brilliant people who didn’t memorize their times tables, and did amazing things (I was thinking of Albert Einstein, in particular, who had a terrible memory).”
The grandma stands to leave, and continues on her tirade as the silver haired man and the little girl follow her off the plane. My son and I are the last to deplane. As we walk down the ramp, all lit in blue, I can’t help but wonder who or what that little girl will grow up to be. Does she live with her grandparents? Was she just visiting them for spring break? Are her parents or parent nice people? Will she really be “okay?”
I can’t do anything for her. But I can continue to write books and stories that will speak to ones like her. At least I will try, and keep trying.
I surely hope she’ll be okay. I really do.