Thursday, March 29, 2007

Math Wiz

I don't remember having a lot of homework in third grade, but homework is definitely part of our daily routine now. Calvin has been bringing home daily homework since first grade, and Joshua has some homework now in kindergarten. I know everyone has an opinion about the merits of homework for children this young, but I have to say that theirs is usually not excessive, and it does seem to be getting Calvin into good study habits that will serve him well later on. It's usually not a big deal unless he has a project that we've known about for two months but put off until the night before. This week, his math homework has been about fractions, and he has needed me to help him.

In case you don't know me that well, let me fill you in on me and math. I hate it. I can't do it. It makes me feel stupid. I can tell you about the plot, setting, and characters of just about any book I've read in the past 25 years, but if you ask me what seven times five is, I'll have to think for a minute. And believe it or not, I want to like math. I think it would be so sexy to understand physics. I'm fascinated by things like String Theory, but a PBS documentary about it is as far as I'm likely to get. My Forest-Gump-like aptitude for math is frustrating to me because I feel like I'm a reasonably intelligent person, and I should be able to do it, but I can't rationalize my way to grasping the skills any more than I can think myself into being able to sing well or paint beautifully. There's just always this feeling that if I tried, and if I had the right teacher, I could do it.

I spent my ninth grade pre-algebra class walking the halls looking for boys my best friend had a crush on. We'd ask for a bathroom pass five minutes into class, and come back for our stuff right before the bell. We had one of those teachers that kids just run right over, and somehow I passed the class for the year. Not so "lucky" in Algebra I, I had the baseball coach, who spent a lot of the class time telling us how AIDS was a big conspiracy, and we could really get it just from being in the same room with someone who had it. Between his ignorance, the big UT-orange bulletin board beside my desk (I loathed the color), and the hated baseball players who hung out in the room, there wasn't a whole lot of math learnin' happening for me. I failed the second semester. Being myself, I went ahead and registered for Geometry the next year. Better to ask forgiveness than permission, right? And surprisingly, I rocked the house. Finally, here was math that made sense! It wasn't really about numbers, but about the relationships and logic of angles and shapes. I could do a proof up one side and down the other, and even though my teacher was another coach, he was excellent. Sometime before Christmas, though, the jig was up. I was called into guidance and questioned as to why and how I was taking Geometry when I had not passed Algebra. "You tell me," I replied snarkily, "isn't that your job to keep up with?" When told I would have to repeat the second semester of Algebra I, I flatly refused, pointing out that I had straight A's in Geometry for the semester. Flummoxed by my attitude, especially since I stayed pretty well under the radar and had never been in any trouble before, the counselor made one of those statements to me that helped shape me into the very angry young woman I was becoming: "You're such a pretty girl. I can't believe you're acting like this." Wrong. Answer.

I ended up agreeing that I would repeat the semester in question, but only if she put me with my Geometry teacher. For some reason, she did it, with the result that I now had not one but two math classes a day. I tried very hard and made all A's for the three grading periods left. I felt tremendously proud of myself, and started to think that maybe I was not as bad at math as I had thought. Sadly, I chose not to take Algebra II my senior year. It wasn't required, and I wasn't in the habit of taking gratuitous math classes. Fortunately I went to a small liberal arts college where B.A. students did not technically have to take a math class. Then foolishly, in my senior year, I decided that I would sack up, stop hiding from math, and take a class. The lowest math offered at my "Kudzu League" school was Finite Math. This means ten-page functions that no one does by hand any more. And it was only offered at 8:00 am. I hadn't registered for an eight o'clock class since my first semester freshman year, for reasons I'm sure I need not explain. Here's what I remember about that class: my professor coming in and systematically setting out stacks of books and materials on his table at the front of the room. He wore his wedding ring on his pinky and I always wondered why, since he wasn't especially overweight. He wrote on the board a lot. I did not understand a blessed thing. I asked a friend who was an engineering major at another school to tutor me, and she tried. This mostly resulted in me crying and wondering why I was so stupid. I withdrew failing from the class and took a summer biology class at then-Memphis State in its place. It made me an August graduate. Math had beaten me, and I still hold a grudge.

So when Calvin came to me with his math sheet, frustrated that he wasn't getting it, I felt his pain but I also felt mine. Images of my ten-year-old self sitting at the kitchen table crying while my dad tried to hammer an understanding of long division into my head surfaced with all the queasy frustration I felt then. I became determined that it would not be that way for him. I would show no fear. I would let no hint of frustration or derision enter my voice or demeanor. I talked about breaking chocolate bars into pieces and drew pictures to illustrate how 4/10 was the same as 2/5. When I had exhausted my arsenal of fraction analogies, I looked at him hopefully and asked "Do you get it?' He looked away for a second, then smiled and nodded. I watched him stare at a spot on the wall for a minute, going back over what I'd said to make sure he still understood it, then he picked up the sheet and ran off to finish it.

I felt great.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

How Can This Be?

My students have just informed me that not only have most of them never played Trivial Pursuit, they've never even HEARD of it!

I'm really old.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Ok, I'll talk

Everyone in our circle of friends seems to be blogging about why Memphis is still a good place to live even though it's not. Or even though three of us have been victims of crimes in the past month, to be more specific. It seems I have been cast in the role of hater in this little love-for-our-home fest, so I thought I would talk about why I want to leave.

Yes, Memphis has been my home for all but about two years of my life. Yes, my parents and friends are here, and leaving them would be sad and difficult. But it's not like moving a few hours away means we'd never see or hear from any of you again. I know that we would miss the weekend hangouts and watching our kids grow up together, and yes, I'm tearing up as I write that. Still, I have to believe that in another city we could not replace, but add to our circle of friends, and make a life for ourselves just like we've done here. Just with less crime and prettier scenery.

The crime is bad but it's not the main problem for me. Ok yes, yesterday the librarian here at school mentioned that she had seen my address on some paperwork and realized we are neighbors on the same block. In the course of the conversation, she told me that last year she came home and surprised a robber, who kept her in the house for two hours, lying face-down on the floor, while he went through her stuff and took what he could find. When I said I had heard about that from another neighbor but thought it happened in a nearby cove, she replied in a low voice "No, that was the rape. That was terrible." And we live in a pretty good area, in what we jokingly call the servants' quarters of one of the city's oldest and most expensive neighborhoods. Why don't the crack heads steal from the rich people in the million-dollar mansions and leave us alone? I have to ask if I'm just biding my time until I come home with my kids one day to see the door kicked in, or how I will help them recover from the fear after we all get carjacked. We are just, today, two full months into the year and there have been 23 murders in Memphis so far. The big story in the local news is that the bloated monopoly of a utility has been giving certain political figures a free ride on utility bills registering in the several thousands, for who knows how long, under the guise of a program designed to protect the elderly and disabled poor from unexpected cut-offs. The separate-but-not-equal dual school systems are still zoning for overcrowded schools along racial lines and still trying to say they are not doing any such thing. I won't even get into the disgustingly inept and corrupt city council, mayor, et al. It's too depressing.

I feel like it's time for a serious risk/benefits analysis. When I spend time thinking about whether it is better to try to talk an armed attacker into letting me live, or saying nothing so I won't anger him, I think it's time to go. I realize there is no utopia, and that every community has crime and problems. I just can't believe there isn't a better place than this in which to raise my family. I can't help but think what a big world this is, and what a short life, and that I could live someplace beautiful, but instead I live here. Consistency is always easiest, but I'm not afraid to leave my comfort zone. And even though I do love and thrive on change, I'm not advocating change for its own sake. There are just so many reasons to leave, and just too few to stay.