Math problems have other solutions, but what about other problems?

“Because I Said So” column for The Commercial Appeal

Sept. 26, 2013

Mathematical meltdowns pose problem with no good solution

Three-fourths of my children do pretty well in math. One-fourth is having trouble with the subject. If I recall my sixth-grade math correctly, that adds up to only one kid. So the problem to be solved is why is there so much noise in this house?

Nightly math homework for one-fourth of these kids has become an exercise more philosophic than algebraic. Instead of solving for a product or quotient, she wants to solve for why math exists at all, what it all means for her and for all of us in the grand scheme of her texting and television watching.

The reasons why she shouldn’t have to do homework multiply exponentially: She’s hungry, she’s thirsty, she’s tired, her pencil isn’t sharp, bad weather is looming.

Lately, the problem has been with multiplying fractions. Not my problem, of course, but hers. It has led us nightly into spasms of fits and wailing and gnashing of teeth. It’s also upset my daughter.

Time passes interminably as she stalls. The autumn sun angles lower, its light slanting in at a 45-degree angle. As this geometric event drags, I begin to wonder myself: Why? Especially in this age of computers and Google and telephones that can tell you exactly how fast that train from Portland must be traveling to meet the other train from New York.

I’ve traveled by train from Memphis to New Orleans and Chicago, and was never asked to prove a math theorem. So when one-fourth of my children plaintively asks when she’ll need to halve and integer as an adult, I can answer with certitude: “Not on a train.”

Of course, I know math is important, and that understanding the basic concepts at an early age helps to build the foundation one needs to grasp the more complex equations later on. And I know that without math we wouldn’t have these computers or Google or futuristic telephones. Nor would we have cake or television or banks that are too big too fail until they do, a result of amoral math.

Question: If an 11-year-old’s bedtime is in 30 minutes and she’s put off the 20 math problems for homework until just now, how long will the meltdown last? Answer: I’ve left the house, so I have no idea.

I’ve sat down with her to walk her through the homework, and I have to say that I’m not very good at it, either. And I don’t think this is because it’s “new math.” They look like the same numbers I used in the sixth grade.

These kids, all of them, are smart and curious and willing (mostly) to do the work. But they’re swimming upstream; they’re running into the wind because, unfortunately for them, they are the sum of the parts of their parents, and neither of us was all that good with math to begin.

To answer her question truthfully, neither of us uses math that much as an adult, aside from some basic accounting necessary to run a household and our nightly homework session. Other than that, I’m just trying to figure out how fast and how far a train pulling out of Central Station in Downtown Memphis will get me from this mathematical meltdown.

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