Thursday, August 27, 2015

Math Problems

I walked through the Swarm Inn, the fast food restaurant on campus, dejected and at a loss as to what to do next. It was spring semester of my senior year. I was taking Math Concepts for my math credit and things weren't going well. My friend, Charles, caught me on my walk through the building.

“What is the matter?” he asked concerned.

I crumpled and my answer came pouring out. “I just failed my math test. I don't know what I'm going to do. I just don't get the material and if I don't pass this class, I WON'T GRADUATE!”

“What are you talking about?” Charles was a math major, so flunking a basic math class was out of his realm of possibility.

“I am terrible at math, Charles. I don't understand any of it.”

At one point, I had asked a question in the middle of class. The professor said a few words and ended with, “I've already explained it, I don't know what else to say.” The math teacher/student humiliations were stacking up.

In fourth grade, I was in Mrs. McNaul's math class. We were learning long division. She told us that when we solved a problem without a remainder we were to put a smiley face next to the problem. I took the instruction one step further. When there WAS a remainder, I drew a frowny face. One morning, she asked us to swap papers with other students. Matt Somebody had my paper. Mrs. McNaul read the answers aloud. She paused and announced, “I have one student who draws frowny faces when there are remainders.” It was the worse thing ever that Matt Somebody had my paper. He was a stinker on a good day and now he had my paper and the proof that I was the frowny face culprit. “That's you! You're the one with the frowny faces!” Matt Somebody stage whispered. I wanted to melt into my chair.

“I tell you what. I'll help you study for your tests. Let me know when your next test is. I'll help you study for it the night before.”

I walked away feeling relieved that I had a plan. I was working my way through the test material and my answers kept coming up wrong. Charles looked at me and said, “Julie, your problem isn't math concepts. Your problem is you can't do third or fourth grade math.”

Cue flashbacks to the frowny face remainders. “Yes,” I sighed. “I know.”

With Charles' help, I passed the class and avoided the humiliation of flunking out of college because of third and fourth grade math.

It's only appropriate that now in my fortieth year as I'm slaying my fears right and left that I should have a third grader with math homework. That I can barely understand. She loves math, which is great, but by the time we work on homework she's tired and the work looks daunting. Last night's work focused on rounding to the nearest ten and hundred. I helped her with a problem and then turned to continue writing the letter I was working on. “Stay with me!” she pleaded. “You keep me brave.” I laughed because I hadn't left my chair. I melted because my presence brings her comfort. I coached her through the next problems and insisted that she first work through them herself before asking for more help. She finished the double-sided worksheet, but it pains me to admit that I second guessed myself more than once as she asked for help. Sigh.

Giving her homework help is a case of performance art. I cannot let her see me sweat, to see how much anxiety these problems give me. I'm the mom. I need to ably guide her. I'm the word girl. Her dad's the number guy. Dear Lord, help me conquer this!

I used to have the same trepidation when I spent time in the kitchen. What brains I had got scrambled like eggs as I made my way through a recipe. Cooking felt like a math problem, but it doesn't anymore. When I come up against a third grade math concept that needs explanation and I don't understand it myself, I'm going to breathe and think of my success in the kitchen and charge on. I may even resort to googling “how to solve a third grade math problem” for back up. Or getting Sylvan Learning Center's number on speed dial. But on second thought, my daughter helped pave my way in the kitchen. I have no doubt she'll do the same with math.

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