The coefficient was a constant and x eventually ended up on a slope somewhere along the curve towards y and Miranda had long since stopped paying attention. Her math book was propped up in front of her on one of the laminate tables lining each side of the eighth-grade classroom like rows of teeth. Elbows on the table and face in her palms, she trained her eyes on page 73 and watched the random symbols jump as she closed first one eye and then the other.
It was the waiting that was the worst.
The chalk stopped tapping against the blackboard, and the droning came to a halt, ending on the up note of a question. Next, a long and deliberately antagonistic pause. The feet began their slow heel to toe stroll toward the tables. Hands were up: she could feel the displacement of air as the math kids waved their arms in near hysteria, each desperate to be the one to spit out the answer. She’d been trapped in these moments with them since the fifth grade, when they raced each other to the teacher’s desk to slap down their arithmetic timed tests first.
He wouldn’t call on them. They had already given him plenty of what he expected from them, and he was ready to move on. The final part of every class was dedicated to humiliation.
The feet stopped, as she had known they would, directly in front of her.
“Perhaps you’d like to sit up and join the class, Miranda.”
She straightened in her seat, dropping her hands to her lap so she couldn’t play with her hair. He was particularly cutting when it came to nervous habits.
When she looked up, Mr. Denary was smiling, arms folded, one hand holding the chalk like a cigarette. He tilted his head as he peered down at her, and in the smudged reflection of his lenses, she could see two tiny Miranda heads, about to be sacrificed.
“Think you can manage this one today?”
It was a sneer, not a question.
She pushed back from the table and stood, dread turning her knees shaky.
He snapped his fingers at her. “Let’s go now. We don’t have all day.”
Sliding past the others in her row, she stepped into the no man’s land that was the teacher’s space. She reached to take the chalk from him, but he held onto it, chuckling, making her wait several beats too long. She pulled her hand back in confusion. Finally, he tossed it at her with a flick so sudden that it slid through her grabbing fingers and dropped to the floor. There were titters as she bent to pick up one of the cracked pieces.
On the way to the front of the classroom, she caught a sympathetic grimace from Patrick. Sympathy mixed with relief. Either he or Annie could have been up here instead of Miranda. Mr. Denary’s chosen entertainment in their fourth-period class was a game of three-way Russian Roulette with his hand firmly on the trigger.
Misjudging the distance, she stepped too close to the board. The smell of chalk dust filled her nose. Fluorescent lights buzzed above her. A million pairs of eyeballs lasered contempt into the center of her back. She took several breaths, trying to quiet the roaring in her ears. The lines of the equation stretched well above her head, and the symbols right in front of her were blurry swipes.
She took two or three steps backwards, and the writing came clear: 2x — 9 = 21 — x
At first, she could only skim it, too quickly to take anything in. She counted to five under her breath, urging her hammering heart to a steadier beat. Then she forced herself to focus. Behind her, she could hear whispering, and the distracted rustle of paper.
“All right, Miranda, that’s long enough,” said Mr. Denary. “Kevin? Take care of this, why don’t you?”
Kevin Matthews’ chair screeched against the floor as he shoved back from the table.
She ignored them both.
She knew how to do this problem. She had known all along.
Gripping the chalk, she brought the x to the left side of the equation and the 9 to the right, and then, with a flourish, wrote one brand new equation: 3x = 30.
The bell rang.
“x equals 10! That’s it, x equals 10!” She called it out and faced the class, chalk held above her head in triumph.
Kevin, half-standing in his place, nodded briefly and leaned over to pick up his backpack. One by one, her classmates were gathering their belongings, diving into crisscrossing conversations. The noise rose, a cloud of sound that filled the room.
Miranda dropped the chalk into the tray. Turning, she looked to Mr. Denary with a tentative smile. Surely, for once, he would be pleased.
But she saw only his back, disappearing through the door to the hallway.