The Algebra of Kindness

Psychiatric Times, Vol 39, Issue 6,

There are only three kinds of people in the world, those who are good at math and those who aren’t.

POETRY OF THE TIMES

In real life I assure you there is no such thing as algebra. – Fran Lebowitz

Unless you were in my seventh grade

algebra class Fran, where gentle Mr. C.

did his best to humor students into solving

for X while guidance counselor Mrs. T,

scared us into believing college

and med school were out of reach

without an A in algebra, which kick-started

my career of grinding and grade grubbing,

feigning calm when a problem fought back,

my headaches so severe, Dr. Sheer

X-rayed for tumors and confirmed

the pressure on a firstborn Jewish son.

Sixty years later, I’m doing the math

on my medical career, still wondering

why I learned to solve quadratic equations,

Mr. C at the blackboard, his chalk stub

stuttering on slate, white dust coating

a shabby suit, his mercy like a doctor’s

when a problem pinned me down:

Mr. Berlin, your calculations are wrong,

but they’re not life threatening!

And he’d pause for a laugh from the class,

take a breath and soften his second blow

with another dose of math teacher corn:

Yes, Mr. Berlin’s solution is creative,

though not quite right, which confirms

what I’ve taught you all year:

There are only three kinds of people

in the world, those who are good at math

and those who aren’t. And we laughed

again because he made us feel safe

and loved, even when we stumbled,

his calculated goal to teach us how

to solve for X when X equals kindness.

Dr Berlin has been writing a poem about his experience of being a doctor every month for the past 24 years in Psychiatric TimesTM in a column called “Poetry of the Times.” He is instructor in psychiatry, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, Massachusetts. His latest book is Freud on My Couch.