the quadratic formula is my mortal enemy

By Elliot Pope


when i sat in my second-period algebra two GT honors class

and my math teacher stood up and told us we would be working with imaginary numbers

i knew my life was over.


not literally, of course. math is a temporary pain.


but math is supposed to be known.

the numbers fit together,

2+2 is four and

four times two is eight.


i don’t like math, but i love the simple predictability.

everything is as its always been,

and always will be.


but suddenly, there’s a new system of equations.


how is a number left up to imagination?


how am i supposed to add this unknown variable 

into my carefully planned and constructed reality?


2 plus 2 is four but 2i plus 2 is something i don’t understand.


understand, understand,

what does it mean to understand?


i don’t think teenagers are meant to understand anything.


i sit here in math class and i know that one day i won’t have to think about imaginary numbers.

one day it won’t matter what i to the power of twenty-six equals, 

because life will be set in stone.


but those years are miles and miles away.


i can’t decide if i want to skip back,

to when it was 2+2 and nothing more

and people made sense like math did,

and the future was simply

“what do you want to be when you grow up?”


or skip forward,

to when 2+2 is counting the months until i finish my master’s,

or 2+2 is counting the book deals and cross-country trips

and the future is now

and what i’ve planned and what i’ve wanted

is my reality.


but as a fifteen-year-old nobody who wants to leave

and wants to stay,

who wants someone to love them,

who turns away from the love they’re offered,

who doesn’t know exactly what they want to be when they grow up,

they only know that they want to be someone more.


life is not simply 2+2

like i grew up believing, 

but a confusing quadratic equation with letters and exponents and square roots

that i somehow need to add up to four

because that is the only answer i can fathom.


i am stuck in the middle of this unbalanced mathematical expression

and nothing seems to make sense,


especially when they introduce imaginary numbers

in my second-period algebra two GT honors class.