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Counting Lessons

March 18, 2009

Graysen leveled his eyes at me the other night and said, deeply serious, “Mom, when I’m 70 10 100 I’ll know all the words to that song.”

The song in question was Bohemian Rhapsody. We’d been air-guitaring and head-banging to it all the way home — something we do every evening after I pick him up from day care. His announcement, however, was news to me. He seemed to lip sync the lyrics correctly, aside from “Scaramouche, Scaramouche will you do the fandango,” perhaps.

Does that line flow off anyone’s tongue, though, or do people gloss over or re-phrase those lyrics when singing along in moving vehicles? Is it somewhat akin to the famously misheard “wrapped up like a douche” or “excuse me while I kiss this guy”?

Thank goodness for Google, or we’d all be 70 10 100 before we knew any of the words slurred through the lips of rock stars.

But though Graysen hasn’t yet mastered the ability to search the Internet for clarification (I’m thinking he’ll be much younger than 70 10 100 when he learns how to read and spell), he has recently developed a confident relationship with numbers.

“Mom,” he asked recently, “what’s plus 3 plus 3?”

This made me wonder if he’d discovered the concept of negative and positive numbers on his own.

So I queried: “You mean what’s 3 PLUS 3?”

To which he replied, hands on hips, “NO! What’s PLUS THREE PLUS THREE!”

But if grasping math comes before reading for Gray, then he didn’t get that tendency from me. I spent much of my educational internment watching numbers swim on chalkboards. I could never quite get those pesky symbols to sit still and make sense.

In second grade, my teacher taught us addition and, I swear to this, showed my class the process by which you carry the larger of two numbers, rather than the number that falls in the “10s” place. For two years I religiously followed this formula, stumping teachers, parents and myself along the way.

When my mom finally grasped the depth of my mathematical shortcomings, she tried to disavow me of my stubborn certainty that I was doing it right … plummeting math grades be damned.

It took me a while to relearn it, and longer still to build on the shaky (non-existent) foundation laid in second grade. My talent ran toward words. I was a sixth grader with a post-high school reading level begging my teacher to let me read War and Peace for what I presumed would be a whole year’s worth of silent reading credit … yet I could barely comprehend a fraction, let alone add two of them. My ineptitude and consequent suffering continued through high school.

Eight years, a marriage, and two kids after graduation, I got a wild hair to tackle the “great books,” and launched myself unwittingly into hardcore academia. I enrolled in St. John’s College and, taking the convocation speech to heart, I “embraced confusion.”

Sort of.

Actually, there was no embrace. Instead, I jumped headfirst into a maelstrom that included math. Specifically, Euclidean geometry.

My Euclid book had a terrifying weight to it, and once opened it terrified me further because I couldn’t figure out what on earth I was supposed to do with it. I stared at the shapes that became ever more complicated as I turned the pages, and distinctly felt the absence of relevant brain cells.

Determined still to succeed, I decided to ask for help from my tutor. At St. John’s, the professors are called tutors and they must “teach” every subject at every level at some point. In most cases, this model works. But in my math class, things fell apart for me on day one.

“I don’t get this either,” she told me when I asked how I was supposed to approach the proofs.

She suggested I seek help outside of  class, then added something about how women don’t naturally tend to grasp math.

In that instant, every insecurity I had with numbers was substantiated. By virtue of my gender, I wasn’t likely to get it. Not even when I’m 70 10 100.

I left St. John’s after my freshman year, and not because of the math. Ultimately, it was difficult to balance my life as mom to two kids under age five with the demands of those great books.

But I kept them all, and a couple of years ago I dusted off Euclid and showed Soren the famous Proposition 47, also known as the Pythagorean theorem. I told him I still didn’t get it, but I wanted to. Working together we finally untangled the mystery and a light went on for us both — his sparked by the pride he felt in helping me figure it out.

Mine burned bright, if briefly — can’t say I remember my epiphany now. But I’m still proud … I didn’t have to turn 180 years old to get this silly number thing. Instead, I was 15 15 4 …  which, if my second-grade calculations are correct … is, uh, 61.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 18, 2009 6:58 pm

    Ah, good old gender stereotypes that don’t really exist. There have been several social / psychology experiments in which two groups of girls or women will be administered a math test with only one group reminded that “girls do worse on math tests than men, so try hard..”

    Without fail, the group that hears the stereotype does significantly worse than the control group.

    On another note, St. John’s is an interesting place; my girlfriend is currently doing her masters there.

  2. March 18, 2009 7:31 pm

    Couldn’t agree more. I am fascinated and disturbed by the messages we send our children–boys and girls alike–and am always trying to be aware of how I participate in that. It’s hard because so many of them are invisible. Now, I have three kids who struggle with math. Two of them are girls. The other is an “atypical” boy…but what does that mean, really? It means, get this, he’s empathetic and understands emotions.
    Obviously this is a far bigger topic than can be addressed in a blog comment…perhaps I’ll blog more on it later.
    Thanks for stopping by Aaron–what track is your girlfriend on at SJC?

  3. March 18, 2009 11:31 pm

    My mom was the math curriculum specialist at my elementary school. I was taught at an early age that those stereotypes are not true… regardless of what Larry Summers says.

    It distresses me to hear that your St. John’s tutor said that to you. Such thinking is not at all in the spirit of St. John’s. I’d hazard a guess as to which tutor it was… but not on this blog.

  4. March 18, 2009 11:37 pm

    Ah, this tutor is now an ex tutor. She was actually moved out of that class at semester. Then we ended up with a good tutor which also means the class got extra tough…esp. for those of us who never got the hang of it during the FIRST semester.
    My someday goal is to reacquaint myself with math. I am very interested in really learning it, if a bit intimidated. It’s very true what I wrote–that the numbers swam on that chalkboard so long ago, and I have a really hard time making them behave in my head. Someone once described this as dyscalculia, which gave me pause. Basically, I “see” words and letters…numbers slither right out of existence before I can make them stick.

  5. March 20, 2009 4:50 am

    Ha, you’re welcome. She’s doing the Western Classics program.

  6. Miranda Haley permalink
    April 6, 2009 2:55 am

    Aaaah…I remember well that St. John’s freshman math class and that awful tutor of ours! What torture! Remember the time she tried to “bond” with us by oversharing about her love of Valium?

    How lovely to read that you had occasion to share Proposition 47 with Soren. Who knew Euclid would come in so handy?! I eventually took Calculus (only b/c it was required for med school) and am happy to report that it sort of simplified things for me. Maybe as your babies progress through higher math, they will teach you what they’re learning in that impossibly elegant way that only kids have. 🙂

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