“What I Didn’t Learn in School” by Maria Mazziotti Gillan

Maria Mazziotti Gillan


I didn’t learn geometry, except for the shortest distance
Between two points is a straight line. The rest was a blur
Through which I stumbled, confused and uncertain,
My mind tuning out when poor bald-headed Mr. McGinn
Tried to explain geometry to all the Alpha class
Math students who caught on right away.
Mr. McGinn was going to fail me that first semester.
I walked up to his desk, held out my report card,
The marks all written in neat black fountain-pen ink,
And his head snapped up in shock. On my report card
My marks, 95, 100, 95, 100, 100, 100. Is this your
report card? he asked, and I saw his pen hesitate
While he thought it over. Slowly, he wrote in a 75.
I went back to my desk, knowing I didn’t deserve to pass,
But knowing too that nothing would make me learn geometry,
Not Mr. McGinn with his big, shiny head, not the pity
In his blue eyes when he looked at me. He never called on me
Again. I did the homework each night, struggling to understand,
And for the first time, I knew what it was like for those kids
Who always had trouble in school. I was an Alpha kid.
We were the brightest kids in the school. Our classes were held
On the third floor, a symbol that we deserved the top.
How humiliating, then to watch the other Alpha kids learn
All those lines and angles without effort. I sat, still as a beaten dog,
Tears trembling in my eyes, while I tried to wrap my mind
Around theorems but always failed.

from Rattle #15, Summer 2001


Maria Mazziotti Gillan: “Poetry is my passion—writing it and sharing it with others through my own books, setting up readings for other poets, editing a magazine and anthologies, and organizing prizes. My mother always said, ‘The more I gave away, the more I had to give,’ referring to food, and I have tried to do the same thing with poetry.” (web)

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