Mad Minute

09/26/2008 By Shawn Burns

When I was in the first grade my family lived in Carp, Ontario. Or, more specifically, we lived in an old farmhouse across the road from the O.P.P. station outside of Carp. It was dramatically rural, and I have lots of those soft-lens memories of fields and treehouses that every kid should have.

I attended Huntley Centennial Public School. I’ve no idea who "Huntley" was. Huntley had different wings, with coloured doors marking off areas that certain grades were supposed to stick to. When I was in the first grade my wing was the Blue Wing (the cool older kids were in the Gold Wing) so all of my doors were blue.

My first grade teacher was Ms. Barr. I still remember her name. She would have us do math drills just about every day called Mad Minutes. She would pass out a piece of paper and on it would be printed between 20 and 30 math questions: simple addition or subtraction problems. We would be timed for one minute and we tried to finish them as quickly as possible.

I was fast.

I was very fast.

But I wasn’t the fastest.

The fastest student in our class was a little brunette named Sara. She blazed through the problems. No matter which version of the Mad Minute (the teacher didn’t make them up; they came pre-printed) the teacher put down in front of us Sara owned it.

Sara may have been my first crush. I don’t remember if she was pretty or not, but that doesn’t matter: she was smart. I’ve always been a sucker for smart girls. She was the only kid in the class who was faster than I was at those Mad Minutes, and she inspired me to do better every day until I closed the speed gap between us. Eventually she wasn’t beating me by much, and I remember being very pleased with myself while also still being a little annoyed that I couldn’t catch up to her.

She knew I was trying to catch her; I think I was pretty obvious with my disgust for myself whenever she’d put her pencil down and stick her hand up to announce her completion. And I think she liked the attention in some strange six-year-old way.

As the year wore on Ms. Barr would rotate us around the desks in the classroom. The desks were arranged in pairs, and each student at one time or another sat next to each other student. So eventually Sara and I were seated next to each other, and the game was soon afoot. The pressure to finally win that Mad Minute race against her, especially if I could do it while sitting next to her, was enormous.

But Sara wasn’t nearly as petty in her competitiveness as I was. So, as that first Mad Minute was about to begin, our first head-to-head race, she nudged me with her elbow and directed my attention to a sheet of paper she was sliding out of her desk onto her lap.

It was a Mad Minute worksheet, filled out in its entirety.

My nemesis, my crush, my rival, had been cheating all year long. And knowing how badly I wanted to improve my speed, and perhaps as a way to convert my overt animosity and competitive drive into friendship she was willing to share her secret with me. Because she mistook my drive for a drive to merely be fast, and not to excel. I wanted to excel: to be good enough that the speed followed naturally.

I was so stunned that all I could do in the time between her showing me the paper and Ms. Barr blowing her little whistle to start the Mad Minute was shake my hide and mutter "no" as my eyes grew wide.

That day, because I was angry, or she was suddenly nervous, or for whatever reason, I destroyed Sara’s time.

It may have been the fastest I had ever worked. Because I knew I wasn’t competing against someone who was taking any time to calculate, but someone who was just copying numbers. I knew that she would take less time to do it, and so I just let my brain guide my pencil with very little direction. The marks on the paper followed almost immediately from lightning calculations.

I was a tiny John Henry, up against the a Mad Minute Machine. But unlike John Henry my heart didn’t give out after the race.

My heart had been shattered before the race even began.