Ten Minute Breaks
Childhood was intense.
I grew up with seven siblings, and we’re all two or three years apart.
Now try to picture our house 10 or 15 years ago. My parents pulling their hair out as babies wailed, toddlers crayoned the walls, kids frantically ran around breaking things, and moody teenagers lashed out.
The family was in a perpetual state of chaos. Right?
All those things I listed — they did happen. But despite the million and one things that went on, there was rigorous order to everything. The unbreakable structure my father imposed on our lives was excruciating.
My parents grew up in the Philippines and immigrated to California when they were about my age in search of a better life for themselves and their children. Like most immigrant parents, they prioritized values like hard work and persistence, which they hoped would later seep into the minds of their children. My father was the core commander of his JROTC in college. Meaning he was the one yelling at the orderly formations of cadets to drop and give him 20. He was a disciplinarian since before any of us were born, and once we all started popping into existence, he applied his strictness to his child raising strategy. The backbone of his methods?
If you don’t know what Kumon is, it’s a learning program for math and reading designed to help students get ahead in school. When my dad discovered it, he was immediately intrigued by the sheer size of repetitive problem sets for every level of math. So he went and bought a copy machine. And when I was in kindergarten, he sold his water business to be a stay-at-home dad while my mom worked and put food on the table.
Kumon math starts out with worksheets that have you connect dots so that you can learn how to write numbers and count. Then you progress to the next level: simple addition and subtraction. Then you do it with two digits, then three digits. Then multiplication, fractions, algebra, calculus, and so on. There are literally thousands of these worksheets. Some asshole stuck a random number generator into formulas for what typical math problems look like, let the program run to infinity, and then printed the problems on paper. And no Sevilla kid grows up without doing them.
From the tender age of 5 until about 18, the kids did (and still do, note my younger siblings’ ages) these math worksheets at the same ‘Kumon table’ every day. Every day. Every. Day. Did I mention we did them every day? Ok fine not every day. Birthdays within our family were Kumon-free days. Same with a few major holidays like Christmas, New Years, and Easter. But not Halloween or Thanksgiving. We solved problems on those days too. When we went on family trips, we’d do math in the hotel rooms. I even remember a few times when I had to solve problems in the car. Just a few weeks ago, my dad had Joshua do math while waiting for the optometrist. It was pretty funny so I put it on my Snapchat story.
To clarify, there wasn’t a quota where if we did a certain number of worksheets, we could play outside the rest of the day. Every gap of our waking lives was crammed with math. And when we complained, he’d remind us that we had it good. That we didn’t have to rummage through garbage for food like he did in his youth. He somewhat understood the difficulty of what he was making us do, and was somewhat humane about it. He allowed us ten minute breaks after each hour of work.
Our childhood schedule:
10:00–10:10 Break (usually ate breakfast here)
12:20–12:30 Break (sometimes)
1:00–2:00 Lunch Break (a whole hour!)
3:10–4:10 Math (I’d start to get super tired around here)
5:30–6:30 Math (on Sundays, we were done with math at 6:00)
6:30–7:00 Family walk around the neighborhood (optional)
7:00–8:00 Dinner Break (another hour yes!)
8:00–8:30 Pray the Rosary (more about this in my Where’s God? post)
9:40–10:40 Math (my solutions were basically bullshit at this point)
Rinse and repeat baby.
This is what life looked like. During the school year, we’d get home at around 3 pm, do homework for an hour or two, and then get a ten minute break. From then on the rest of the day’s schedule was the same. When I turned 11 or 12, I had to wake up at 6 am and do math for an hour before going to school. All the way till high school, when school work and SAT studying completely replaced Kumon (high school summers were still Kumon filled though). For a good two or three years I woke up every day at 5:58 am, when it was still dark, and bumped into the walls in my sleepy stupor on the way to the Kumon table. I still find this especially insane. I would have to turn the lights on to do math…in the morning. The table was right next to the window, so at least I could watch the sunrise as I solved problems. More on that later.
Every one of these worksheets had a time limit, so we had to write down our start and end time. And the pass rate my dad decided was good enough to advance to the next ‘packet’ of math worksheets was 95%. If you could satisfy both of those things, then you ‘beat’ the packet. If you couldn’t beat it, you’d have to do it over and over and over again. If you took way too long or got way too many mistakes, you’d get yelled at or have your ear pulled. And if it was clear you weren’t trying, you got spanked. With a firm plastic bat. On the ass.
Like crying every single time hard. Like crying before it even happened because you were so scared of the pain hard.
We got spanked for other reasons too. Repeatedly not finishing our food within the hour meal breaks. Misbehaving in school (which I did a lot). One time I even got spanked for consistently failing to tie my shoes. That one’s actually pretty funny looking back. I tie my shoes really well now.
Out of all eight kids, I was spanked the most. For long spans, it happened almost every day. Often multiple times a day. And I don’t know for sure, but I feel like I got spanked the hardest too. I was the problem child of the family, so naturally, I hated my dad growing up. For a long time I imagined him getting in a car crash or getting cancer and dying because it would make my life better. I almost can’t believe I had those kinds of thoughts.
But I know I did. My childhood memories are crystal clear.
I remember solving problems while imagining all my friends at their houses laughing and playing outside.
I remember falling asleep at the Kumon table with my face resting on the worksheets — and then jolting awake and scribbling down random numbers when I heard my dad’s approaching footsteps so that it looked like I had made some progress. This happened very often.
I remember messing up my packets so badly that I would cling onto the underside of the Kumon table as hard as I could. My dad would have to yank me by the arm until I let go of the table so that he could get me out in the open and spank me. The table would always shake.
I remember going to the bathroom, taking my pants off, and seeing the purple on my butt from getting spanked so hard.
I remember when I wore extra underwear and tried putting a small coloring book in my pants so it wouldn’t hurt so bad.
I remember looking up at my dad and asking him in between sobs, “Why are you always hurting me?”
I remember when my tears would fall onto the math problems I was solving. I’d have to write the solutions around where they fell so that my pencil tip wouldn’t rip the drenched paper fibers.
I remember sitting in my room, slamming my fist on the wood frame of my sofa bed because I couldn’t go to my friend’s birthday party for not beating a packet.
I remember when I tried to run away from home. I put all the stuff I’d need to survive (mostly toys) in my backpack and snuck out during one of my ten minute breaks. I ran down my street, thinking about which friend I’d run to, only to realize that my friends’ parents would just turn me back in. I walked back home crying.
I remember toying with the idea of killing myself, but always lacking the conviction to actually try it. Besides, I couldn’t do that to my siblings. We were in this together. I couldn’t leave them.
I remember thinking about how many years of math I had already gone through, and how many more I had in front of me. Being enveloped by time — that was the worst part. Zooming out and seeing that the end was nowhere in sight. Knowing that even if I doubled my age, I’d still be sitting in the same chair at the same table.
Remembering how trapped I felt as a child makes me tear up instantly if I think about it for more than a few seconds. It always will.
I’m writing this part of the blog post in a coffee shop right now, and the people around me have noticed me wiping tears away and blowing my nose for the past 20 minutes. I avoid thinking about this stuff because it’s hard to relive, but I want to write this. And I could give you so many more details, but that’s for a book someday. So anyway.
We had to beat packets to go on play dates, to go to Chuck E. Cheese, to get new Pokemon cards, and even to open our birthday presents. Every ounce of joy was earned.
Every 10 minute break.
We’d have to time them on the oven timer, which would loudly beep at the end. My dad would yell at us if we didn’t get to the Kumon table within a minute or so of it beeping, so we’d have to listen for it even if we were playing outside. If my dad wasn’t paying very close attention, sometimes I’d bump it up to 11 or 12 minutes. Anything over was pretty sketch.
The ten minute breaks were the tiny windows into the normal childhood I fantasized about. And even then, there wasn’t much I could really do. Ten minute chunks of free time don’t let you develop many hobbies. You can’t get very good at sports (although my dad did let me do Tae Kwon Do until I got my black belt). You can’t learn new skateboard tricks. You can’t get good at video games. My siblings read often, but I never had the attention span for it (yay ADHD). When I was very young I’d use my breaks to play make believe with my toys, all of which I earned with packets. But as I got older, I was itching for something else to do. The boredom was so intense that I like to think it gave me superhuman creativity.
I’d pick apart pens, watches, lasers, broken toys, unbroken toys, and whatever else I could find around the house, and reassemble the pieces with nuts, bolts, and rubber bands into spaceships, guns, slingshots, and other projectile launchers. I made bracelets out of pure hot glue. I made a device that strapped onto the bottom of my shoe and protected the rubber from melting when I stepped on my Razor scooter brake pedal while bombing hills. When I taught myself how to hacky-sack in middle school, I’d make my own hacky-sacks with socks and rice. In high school, I engineered intricate bongs that had detachable chambers, percolators, and ice catchers. I’d torch a thin metal rod until it was bright orange and cut very precise holes in plastic. I used iron sockets for bowls and retractable steel antennas for down-stems. My middle and high school friends will attest to my craftsmanship.
When I was making things, I forgot how terrible life was.
In between math problems, my mind was churning. I had a mental catalog of every one of my knick knacks, and would theorize how I could fit them together. If they wouldn’t fit in my mind, I thought about all the toys upstairs and imagined how they worked mechanically. I’d think about which internal components could be useful, and kept a mental tab of all the toys I needed to find and destroy. Then when it was break time, I’d set the oven timer, sprint to my room, and test out what I hypothesized. By constantly thinking about what I could build next, I figured out how to have fun at the Kumon table.
Creation seemed like just an outlet then, but as I grew older I understood that it defined me. It’s why I made a beer wall, why I write songs, and why you’re even reading these words. And even though the years of Kumon math are way back in the rearview, I still remember what it was like to only have ten minutes to play. So whenever I feel impatient, bored, or unsatisfied in any way with my current state, I often think to myself, “Hey, you could be crying and doing math right now.” And if I focus, I can still squeeze all the joy out of every second, as if I only had ten minutes left. For that, I owe my dad a lot.
I used to wish him death, but I’ve come to respect the man more than anyone else I know. His methods are too extreme, but they’re fueled by a profound kind of love that I know I can’t fully understand until I raise my own children. He thought of the best way to ensure his children’s success, and executed his plan to the best of his ability with a burning grit that hasn’t fizzled out to this day. So despite all my suffering, I can’t find it in me to fault him. I’ve forgiven him completely, and our relationship is great.
I’m nowhere near the smartest, or the most hard-working, or even the most creative, but through the years of physical pain, torturous exhaustion, and emotional trauma, my dad planted a kernel of unbreakable confidence in me. Because although I didn’t get the childhood I wanted, I get to live the rest of my life feeling like I was forged in fire.
Regina takes pictures of the 6 am sunrises from the Kumon table.
Here’s some from her growing collection.