“That Got Me To Thinkin’…?” “Math Problems” Chapter 83
By Bruce Williams
As I was helping my daughter with her algebra for the fourth consecutive night (and seven out of ten) I scribbled the usual y=mx + b formula in the upper left of my scratch paper, again labeling which letter represented the slope and which represented the y-intercept. She would scold me repeatedly that I was either doing it wrong or that I was skipping steps again, and oftentimes it was so near bedtime, after I’d spent all day at work on my feet, and she was drowsy—unreasonable, emotional, irrational—that we were just trying to get through. I would chide her and tell her there are no emotions in math, just equations, and talk her off of the abyss while we practiced conscious breathing. I eventually figured out that the only thing I was doing wrong was not drawing a through line from the top to the bottom of my equals signs, as well as writing out the obvious steps—the givens—like combining like-terms on the same sides of the equal signs. Hours of these problems, solving and then solving in the required formats to satisfy her teacher’s requirements.
I began thinking about how much I’ve actually used these equations as an adult. I hadn’t—unless you formulate how many times I’ve plotted the number of boxes of Girl Scout cookies on the y-axis versus the pounds I’m bound to gain the month that they arrive as a result on the x-axis, and then drew that 45 degree skyrocket towards the upper right as I relayed my order to my wife—her texting it to our dealer…a 12-year old nonplussed pusher who goes by the unsuspecting name of Reese. “Three Tagalongs and one Samoa,” I’d state confidently, in my mind wrongly apportioning them out over weeks instead of days. As a math problem it would’ve read, “If one fat bastard ate a whole box of Girl Scout cookies in one sitting, and he bought four boxes, exactly how big a belt would that diabetic blob need to buy?”
I guess this delving into the slope intercept form is important for the STEM classes (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), but I wondered if it wasn’t more important to know how to fill out a line-itemed tax return? Or how to format a resume and conduct yourself in an interview? Or how to budget your money or figure out an APR? Hell, even boiling an egg or learning how to change a tire would be more useful. My wife said they should teach classes on empathy and kindness (again—she’s a much better person than I am), and have more free-form art…less drawing the hand as a turkey and gluing of the macaroni just so. I wished for more creative writing—it was always my favorite part of any English class, yet was so rare that by the time I hit college it wasn’t even offered. Think of all the missed stories that evaporated in those fertile, unsullied minds.
At least there’s a greater emphasis on computers now than when I was in school and the screens were still green with a blinking icon. What jobs await these kids, with automation conquering nearly every entry-level job over the next few decades? “Dad—pay attention…” I’m summoned back from my hazy revelry to problem number 13. There’s usually at least one story problem where the English is so poor that the intention is unclear, or could be interpreted in a number of ways. “See—those creative writing classes would have certainly helped here,” I think silently with an air of satisfied self-assurance.
I’m not the first parent to bemoan the “new math” or to think of more practical curriculum changes. Second-guessing who we trust our children with is a parent’s earned prerogative, recompense due for all the lost sleep, emptied wallets and endless ingratitude. I’d never give any teacher grief unless they were an utter asshole—their jobs are maybe even tougher and more thankless than the parents’. I always vote for every school levy or improvement—I see dumb in action every day in general society, so infusing some wealth into the school system is a tide that raises all boats—a preventative measure to avert the next generation of “I seen ‘ems” and conspiracy pablum slurpers.
I’m sure this time next year I’ll be writing a column haranguing geometry, or this space will be vacant because the Powers that Be have heard enough of my glib rants. I keep circling back to my wife’s proposal about that empathy class, though. What a terrific idea, really. Maybe they could add a chapter on patience, too—because isn’t that probably the greatest gift we’re taught during our 80 years on this mortal coil—how to abide with dignity?