Numbers are a problem

“I  HATE ARITHMETIC!” I was in fourth grade, sitting at our dining table with a math assignment, a yellow paper tablet, a pencil and (most importantly) an eraser. As I remember, the assignment was four sets of numbers. We were to add, subtract, multiply and divide each set. In my 8-year-old mind, that added up to a million-and-twenty-jillion problems. (This was before home calculators had even been invented.) Even my mom, sitting at my elbow helping me along, agreed it was a BIG assignment. After many tears, much complaining, even more erasing, and much past my bedtime, I was finally done. At that point, I was more exhausted than happy. I left the assignment on the table, ready to put into my book satchel before school in the morning.

That next morning (for who knows what reason), my 5-year-old sister got mad at me. She grabbed my assignment off the table, crumpled it into the smallest ball possible, and threw it at me. The howl I cried may still be echoing around the house. My mom called my teacher, explained what happened, then proceeded to iron the wrinkles as best she could.


Have I mentioned I hate math?

“Fifty? I have to do fifty before I can go swimming?” I was about 12 years old. My dad was a banker and he decided my first job would be writing service charges for checking accounts by hand. It involved individually counting each check in a statement, then doing the math. A customer was allowed a certain number of checks for 50 cents, then 10 cents a check above that amount. Those little yellow slips went out with tear stains on them. It wasn’t fair that I had to work while all my friends were at the pool.

Eventually, I graduated to a teller position. Naturally, that included counting money, adding deposits and balancing my drawer at the end of every day.

Have I mentioned I hate math?

I was thrilled when, early in my marriage, I saw a job opening at the makeup counter at a department store. This was my dream job. Before the interview, I imagined the multiple colors of lipsticks and eye shadows I’d get to demonstrate. But, when the interviewer looked at my (quite short) resume, all he saw was my “banking experience.” Immediately, I was offered a job in the credit department.

“No,” I replied. “I’m applying for the job at the makeup counter.”

“With your experience, we want you to work in the credit department. It even pays more.”

Again, I shook my head.

I got the job – in the credit department. There I was, counting money from the makeup department, the men’s department and the underwear department. Balancing it all at the end of the day.

Have I mentioned I hate math?

When I wasn’t struggling with arithmetic, counting checks or money, I was reading all the “Bobbsey Twins” books in the city library. I audited a college writing class for “no credit.” The instructor compared my writing to Hemingway. And asked what I was doing taking the class for no credit. All I wanted to do was write. I didn’t need a grade. I needed a reason to write and someone to read it.

But, here was the problem. I’d grown so used to doing work I didn’t like, I had come to think work had to be difficult to be worthwhile. I’d only ever been paid to work with numbers. Working with words was too easy to be called “work” and somehow that meant it wasn’t worth anything.

Jump back to grade school with me for a minute. Story problems were my nightmare. Combining words and numbers scrambled my brain. Those 75 people going 69 miles an hour for 100 miles? I didn’t care what time they arrived. I was thinking about the family reunion they were traveling to. Who would they see? What games would they play? Would there be potato chips? I only understood the “story” part of the problem, and that was the problem.

I’ll be the first person to tell you writing is a job that will not make you rich. (Unless you are a rare exception.) Most writers write because they can’t NOT write. If you are a writer, “words” are like air. They give life. They make sense of the world. The goal is my words will help others make sense of their world.

We all have gifts. Things that come naturally to us seem difficult to others. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, “I could never write a book.” My answer always is, “I could never be…(fill in the blank: an accountant, a teacher, a farmer).” Yes, writing is difficult at times, but I love it.

Find your gift and do it. “Work” isn’t work when you’re doing what you’ve been gifted to do. Our “job” is to use our gifts, to the best of our ability, to do good for others. That’s it.
Gifts + work = a meaningful life. (That’s a story problem I have no trouble solving.)

Roxanne (Roxy) Henke works with words (and avoids math) from her home in rural North Dakota. You can reach her at