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One Man

One Man’s Plan: Learning to hate math all over again

e_SSLqCan you help me with my math homework?” my daughter calls to me from the living room, motioning to an open textbook, pencil in hand. Nothing strikes terror in my heart like the words “math” and “help me” – except maybe “crawl space” and “clown suit.” Doesn’t she remember the last time I tried to “help”? All that remained were broken pencils, wrong answers and shattered innocence.

“She doesn’t even need me – she always figures it out on her own,” I think as I walk across the room, looking like “Happy Dad with Math Smarts” but feeling like “Moron with Self-Esteem Issues.” My heart races as a weird rage wells inside me. “Please let it be a number question and not a word problem – I can’t do word problems, and this will end badly.” I want to smash the math book and run into the street, telling my daughter and the world, “I HATE MATH!”

I’m a grown man with a career, a belly and a bad haircut, and I despise math. It wasn’t always this way. After high school, I nurtured a healthy, mature relationship with numbers. For my part, I agreed to use a calculator, and My Dear Aunt Sally promised to steer me away from a career in which making change was paramount, like a carny selling corn dogs on the state fair circuit. But this word problem in front of me ends the détente.

Right there in the middle of chapter 1.3 of Algebra 1, I learn to hate math all over again.

The question reads, “You are shopping for school supplies. A store is offering a 10 percent discount on binders and a 20 percent discount on packages of paper. You want to buy 5 binders originally marked $2.50 each and 10 packages of paper originally marked $1.30 each. Write an expression that shows how much you will save after the discounts. Evaluate the expression.”

I can think of a few one-word expressions that would help me evaluate this question, but none are very mature. After a distracting harangue about the price of school supplies and the merits of three-ring binders, I realize she senses my incompetence. I come clean, telling her, “I don’t think I know the answer.”

“Dad, most adults have a basic understanding of this stuff,” she says as she closes the textbook and walks away.

I know “hate” is a strong word. When I was a kid, my mother fined me a nickel every time I said it. One week I might owe 37 cents, and maybe $1.16 the next. Those 5-cent pieces really added up. I wish I could explain in mathematical terms, where x is “hate,” y is “pre-teen angst” and “genetic deficiency” is the variable coefficient of the commutative property, but I can’t because I don’t know what that means.

Please temper the lamentations about your carefree days at Long Division Sleep-Away Camp, and don’t remind me of the era when a cubit really meant something. And, please, can we not discuss Finland?

Yes, it’s true a few hundred Finnish fifth-graders have stronger math skills than the entire American public, but have you ever been to Finland? Me neither, but I hear they eat reindeer. Blitzen burgers and Comet nuggets? Finland’s one root cellar mishap away from adding elf chops to its national menu, so I’ll embrace my mathematical mediocrity. The Finns can have Jaako the Abacus Legend of Lapland, and I’ll stick with fonder memories of Christmas, except that time I got a set of multiplication flash cards in my stocking. Worst Christmas ever.

I appreciate those of you with a zeal for all things numerical. The world needs working bridges, accurate checking accounts, Mars robot trucks and 48-ounce Big Gulps. Without math, we’d never know how much Mountain Dew is really too much. So math students, teachers and rocket scientists, keep those quantitative noggins chugging. Leave me alone, but would one of you please call me to help with my daughter’s math homework? I can’t get past Chapter One, and it’s gonna be a long year.

(Email Tim at timcoshea@gmail.com)

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