Glass Ceiling

Math has never been my strong suit, but I was irritated recently when my eighth grader snickered at my offer to help him with his. Lisa is the math person in the family, but she was tied up with one of the other kids, so Isaac was stuck with me. He had that quizzical look on his face and so I asked him what was up.

“Oh, I’m stuck on this math problem.”

“Let me take a look at it, maybe I can help.”

Smiling, he looked at me and said, “Are you sure Dad?”

It made me feel like an invalid, but when I looked at the question I got that same swimming feeling I used to get in math class many years ago. The numbers just wouldn’t lie still.

It was an “interest” question, as in, “How much interest does a farmer earn when…yadayadayada.”

I said, “Yeah, but how often is the interest compounded?”

“What do you mean, Dad?”

“How often do you get paid on that amount of interest?”

“Well, here it says you have the loan for one year, three months and 28 days,” Isaac offered.

“Yeah, but is it compounded every month, or every year, or only at the end of that period?”

I was starting to feel like Benjamin, who at the beginning of the school year was complaining that there must have been something wrong with the computer because all his answers were turning up wrong.

“There must be something wrong with this book Isaac, because they’re not giving you enough information.”

“Look, I’ll just ask Mom.”

“Yeah, like she’ll be able to figure it out!” Naturally she did, which only added to my frustration.

I had hoped to keep up the illusion of omniscience until my oldest was in high school, but it was not to be. The secret was out.

The great thing about teaching your kids is not only the review, it’s the chance to “fill in the gaps” that may have been left in your own education. History is a case in point. In my own schooling I don’t recollect ever hearing anything about ancient Greece or the Roman Empire, nor anything about the Middle Ages, or even the Enlightenment. About the only thing I remember is the Pilgrims, the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War, World Wars I and II, and of course Texas history. War is fascinating stuff, but there must be more to history than warfare. I mean, what really happened in the world before America was in charge?

But, learning in a children’s environment is a great way to catch up. The books we bring home are written for children, with lots of pictures. You can read up on Roman gladiators, or the influence of Greek philosophers, or the glories and the horrors of the Middle Ages in a fraction of the time it would take in school. Most of the books can be read over a sandwich, or a trip to the loo. One can say, without exaggerating, “Yes, I’ve read over a dozen books on the subject of the Middle Ages,” and then prove it by quoting a number of interesting bits of trivia on the realities of life in a castle, or the role of the church in ninth century Europe, or the more fantastic elements of the Crusades. I’m not ready to write a dissertation on any of it, but I’ve now got some hooks to hang stuff on where before there was nothing but a heap of disorganized and largely imaginary ideas about the ancient world.

Math remains a touchy subject for me. There is no way to reduce the complexities of fractions or basic algebra with colored pictures and simplified text. In fact, the books we use are reprints of the same ones used 150 years ago. Math is pretty much the same, at least in grade school and junior high as it was for the pioneers (a subject that also received scant attention in school). The only real difference is the preoccupation in the books with farming weights and measures. Bushels and bails and horse trading are referenced in the word problems as if they were something a child was immersed in as our kids are in computers today.

So, I was doubly pleased when Isaac had the courage to approach me two days later with a question about another interest problem, this one the compound variety. He said to me, “Dad, this one says it’s compounded semi-annually. What does that mean?”

I felt like I was being given a second chance. “Well, that means you get your money twice a year instead of just once. So, you get to collect your interest every six months instead of just once a year.”

“Well, maybe you’d better show me.”

It was now or never; I had to produce some results or I’d be lost to him forever. With a quick review of the example at the beginning of the lesson I started cranking out the computations. I had the concept right, which I often did in school, it was just all the multiplications and additions that were troubling to me. That’s what always tripped me up. My teachers used to call them “careless errors.” It made me feel like a slacker, even when I really did care about getting it right.

It was a four step problem, but I worked it through then checked my answers with a calculator. I’d done everything right, praise God, and only had to have the answer verified in the key before running my victory lap.

$52.49…I heard the sound of smashing glass all around me.

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