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.


Stephanie said...

When I taught elementary school, my specialty was fractions. Not saying you and C don't have it under control, but if at any time in the next couple of years you need a break from Math, I miss teaching and would love to do some free tutoring.

P.S. I have a confession to make- while you were at Rhodes avoiding Math, I was at Rhodes avoiding English. I haven't taken an English class since my senior year of high school!

Memphisotan said...

I was no fan of math, but I managed to squeak through everything but geometry. Damn I hated me some proofs.

Shannon said...

that is awesome. i will need to summon up that courage when it comes time for max.

(still waiting on your post about school options...:))

Kaleigh said...

I think the people of the world can be divided into two groups: Geometry people and Algebra people. (You can probably also divide Chemistry people and Biology people.) My mom is a Geometry/Chemistry and I'm an Algebra/Biology. Go figure.

Stacey Greenberg said...

i rock at math--except geometry.

Unknown said...

I was 7/8 finished building him an abacus when she had explained it all to him.