When Math And Awesome Aren’t Considered Synonymous

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.

“It’s time.”

“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.

A Matter of Interpretation

I was looking through Hal’s papers that came home from Kindergarten recently. I took a special interest in the following paper:


I wonder why he didn’t write an M next to the man… I thought to myself. Then I turned the paper over:


Huh, I thought. Why an M next to the ball?

So when he came into the room, I asked him – as nonchalantly as possible. First I pointed to the ball and asked, “Why did you put an M here?”

He looked puzzled. “Next to the marble?” he asked, as if the only explanation for my question was that he didn’t understand which picture I was actually referring to.

“Oh!” I said. “I see. I thought it was a ball.” After turning the paper over and pointing to the man, I asked, “And why not one here?”

He began to look concerned about either my intelligence or my education. Perhaps he was thinking I should take some make-up Kindergarten lessons.

“Because that’s a Daddy,” he said.

“Oh, ok. I think maybe it was supposed to be a ‘man’ but I like your thinking. Daddy, it is.”

There were no red marks on his paper. I’m not sure whether this means the teacher didn’t grade the paper or whether she took the time to ask him about his discrepancies and then accepted his answers. I kind of hope the latter. I think perhaps we adults don’t typically take the time to ask kids about why they did what they did. The answers can be quite illuminating.

My Brothers and I… or Me?

Jane came home today with a tale from her English class. They are writing autobiographies and typing them using Microsoft Word. She had just typed this sentence before the teacher walked up: My dad takes my brothers and me to our sporting events.

We’ll ignore that I take them to as many or more of their sporting events as dad does, since it’s not important to this story. Although I did interrupt her to point out her weak facts. That just seemed to irritate her.

Continuing her story after waving me off, she said that the teacher had corrected her, “It should be ‘my dad takes my brothers and I.'”

My skin began to crawl. I’ve been working so hard to get Jane to get her me’s and I’s correct in these more complex sentences and I was envisioning it all undone by the English teacher, of all people.

“Actually,” Jane explained, “this is the way I was thinking about it. If you take ‘my brothers’ out of the sentence, you have ‘my dad takes I’ and that wouldn’t be right but ‘my dad takes me’ is so it should be ‘my dad takes my brothers and me’.”

Good girl. That’s exactly how you are supposed to verify if you are correct. Excellent!

“I have a degree,” her teacher responded. “I think I know what I’m talking about. Change it to ‘my brothers and I’.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Jane dutifully changed it and then raised her hand. When the teacher returned, she pointed out the green squiggle under ‘I’ and then right-clicked to show that Word said it should be ‘me’.

“Well go ahead and change it back if you want to but Microsoft Word is not always right, you know.”

Jane quietly changed it back and wondered to herself why some people have so much trouble admitting when they are wrong.

A few minutes later, a boy across the room had a grammar question. Apparently this time, whatever Word was suggesting actually was wrong. The teacher called Jane out of her chair to come over and look at the boy’s paper.

“See?” she said, “Word is not always right.”

Again, Jane said, “Yes, ma’am” and returned to her seat.

At this point, I asked Jane if she’d like me to print off some resources from the internet to back her up. She got an increasingly horrified look on her face as I made my suggestion.

“I can print proof from several reliable sites,” I said. “And send them along with a note… from your mommy… explaining why you were right… No? You don’t want me to do that? Well… okay.”

I just completed my research on the Oxford Dictionary page. I think I might just print it out and stuff it in her folder anyway. Just in case the subject comes up again.

Addendum: I was proud of the way Jane handled herself today and I think she learned a valuable lesson. She stated her case yet did not argue with the teacher, which is exactly how we want her to behave. She also didn’t let the authority figure intimidate her into believing she was wrong. Learning that the teacher (or boss or coach) can be wrong is important. Understanding that you still need to treat them with respect and some deference is also important. We explained to her that if situations like this become a problem, we will fight the battle for her – as long as she remains respectful to her teachers.