Jane and I had a conversation recently as she struggled with her math homework and I grew frustrated with what she didn’t understand. I finally looked at her and said, “Honey, I’m sorry. But you are not a math person. I mean, you may do well in math sometimes. You are in the Pre-AP class and you are making an A, but you just aren’t a math person. That’s ok – I still love you.”
She shot back immediately with, “Mom, I’m sorry. But you are not an awesome person. I mean, you sometimes do awesome things. Like, you married him.” She motioned to her father. “And you gave birth to this.” At that, she shimmied her hands down her figure. “But you just aren’t an awesome person. That’s ok – I still love you.”
“She does, however, have an exceptional command of the English language,” my husband said with a smile.
“Yes, yes, she does,” I said, laughing.
This is a fascinating reality to me. Ask anyone who knows us – she looks just like me. I mean, she’s bigger. Taller, bigger frame, fuller features. But I could never deny her as mine.
She also talks incessantly. Just like me. And fails to guard her tongue when it would be best not to say something. Just like me (although I’m finally starting to learn). She can’t help giving her opinion, taking over, dominating a conversation. Just. Like. Me.
She loves to read. She writes very well. Her eyes are blue. She angers easily and has trouble letting it go. Just like me.
But she’s not me. She is definitely not me. I get that and I’m ok with that. But sometimes, in some areas, it’s still hard for me to wrap my mind around. And this is one of them.
I loved math. I mean, I dearly, obsessively, insanely loved math. When we got to story problems, I consistently worked the unassigned problems in the book because I thought they were fun. And since I had to know if I was right, I asked the teacher to check them.
Someone gave me a math calendar in early high school. Each day of the year had a math problem whose answer was that day’s date. I raced through the entire calendar during the Christmas break and carried it in my backpack when school resumed. I had been baffled by the repeated appearance of a variable without enough information to solve. It gnawed at me.
And then one day, my Algebra II teacher said, “Remember how we’ve always told you that you can’t take the square root of a negative number? Well, we lied. Meet ‘i’.” At that, she wrote on the board that i equaled the square root of -1.
That’s all I needed. I actually exclaimed out loud, “I!” and immediately began to rummage through my backpack. I pulled the calendar out triumphantly and began to work all those unsolved problems, oblivious to both the instruction taking place and all the incredulous stares of my classmates.
To love something so dearly and have your children not share your passion is difficult. And, quite frankly, confusing. When growing up, I was used to most other students not sharing my love of problem solving. But then I went to work as an engineer and I was surrounded by other people just like me. Life made sense.
Then I had children. And I wasn’t prepared to hear “I really don’t like math” or “this doesn’t make sense” or “why do I need to know this”. Or “none of the careers I’m interested in require any of the things I’m learning in Algebra I.” Excuse me? What’s that got to do with the price of tea in China?!
That’s what I got last night as I helped again with homework. Maybe part of the problem is that I truly delight in trying to get her to *see* how it works. And she’s not interested. She just wants to plug the numbers and get an answer and put a box around it and call it good.
She’s still stubborn and overly certain that she’s right. Which gets frustrating when she’s not. She worked a problem and eventually got to “t=3”.
“So what’s t?” I asked.
“It’s 3,” she said.
“No, what are its units?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, what is it? 3 what?”
“It’s the distance that Claire ran.”
“No it’s not.”
“Yes it is.”
“No,” I said firmly. “It’s not. Look at your equations up there. Claire was running 5mph, so 5t was the distance she ran, right?”
“So what’s t?”
“The distance she ran.”
“No! That’s 5t. What does t represent?”
“Miles. She ran 3 miles.”
“Yes! I know what I’m doing! I’m right! The problem asked for how far she ran and I got three.”
“No. You are not right. And just because the problem asked for distance doesn’t mean that’s what you solved for. Listen to me. I am an engineer. I love math. This is not challenging for me. I know what I’m talking about. So listen while I explain it.”
I still don’t get why she argues with me on these points. I really don’t. She eventually figured out what she was doing wrong and we moved on to another problem. Where I promptly made a subtraction mistake as I worked the problem on the side.
She again insisted she was right. I asked her to show me her work. She did. It looked right. I checked mine, noticed my mistake, and affirmed that she was right. She promptly and smugly mimicked my earlier comments. I explained that the difference between the two of us was that she insisted she was right and refused to listen to me explain why she wasn’t, whereas I asked to see what she had done and saw that I was wrong. And admitted it.
On that second problem, she had a division problem that resulted in an obviously wrong answer. She eventually got it straightened out and came up with “x = 290.” Again, I asked what x was.
“Ok, what units?”
“How do you know it’s in minutes?”
“Because that’s what the question asked for. It said, ‘How many minutes?’.”
“That doesn’t mean anything. That just means they want the answer in minutes. It doesn’t mean the number you calculated was in minutes. What if they gave you all the same information but asked for the time in hours?”
“She wouldn’t do that.”
“Oh? You think so. Why not?”
“Because she is trying to teach us. She wouldn’t throw a trick in there like that.”
I disagreed but let it go. Before long, we were on a problem where the rates of growth of some trees were given in inches per year and their heights in feet. We both missed that detail even though the last statement in the problem was to pay attention to units.
She was comfortable with her answer and was prepared to move on. I was bothered by the statement. Why make that statement on this problem in particular when the units match up, just like all the others. And then I realized that they didn’t match up.
“Oh! Ho!” I exclaimed in triumph. “She did it to you! She totally did to you what you insisted she wouldn’t do! Look at the units!”
I know I shouldn’t take such glee in being right around my children. But when you have really bright children who always think they are right, it’s hard not to. It’s also hard to accept that you are alone in your love of numbers and problem solving. Daryl is in line with Jane. I guess I’ll have to hope that Hal, against all odds, will *get* it.