New Math - Old Problems

Normally I keep it pretty light around here, with the exception of expressions of love that bring to mind Viking death rituals costumed by Victoria’s Secret, with stage direction by Stephen King, but today’s topic is a little less humorous. Sorry if I’m chapping your buzz.

My sixth grader came home with some “factors” homework. Find the prime factorization of 270,000. Well, fuck. I mean, when you think to yourself, “Lord, I haven’t done this since sixth grade,” how important is this shit? I used it in sixth grade and then not again for 33 years. Understandably, I was a little rusty.

My son wanted to use his calculator to figure it out, but I vetoed that because I’ve seen what he does. He just starts typing in random numbers until something shows up on the display without a decimal point, and he calls that shit good. Sorry, no.

Under the pretense of emailing the teacher for the calculator use policy, I googled “factorization of 270,000” and got something like 32 x 42 x 53. None of you math whizzes out there need bother telling me that’s wrong. I’m pulling numbers out of my ass to act as examples. But holy crap—I had no idea how we were supposed to arrive at that answer.

Fortunately my husband was home, and he took over, but listening to him explain it to our son brought back the waves of insecurity I’ve always had about math, the feeling of being confronted with a problem I didn’t understand, and just wanting to put my head down and cry.

The worst thing is I know my son has the same anxiety. Even though I share it, I have no idea how to help him. Nothing anyone ever tried with me worked. Tutors, workbooks, one on one sessions with teachers—it all seemed like a complete waste of time. I watch him struggle and I want to put my head down and cry now, because I can’t help him, even though I understand the struggles his brain goes through. Nothing makes you feel more hopeless as a parent than not being able to help your child, even though you know exactly what they’re facing.

I know he looks at a problem with that many zeroes and shuts down. “That number is too big,” he thinks, “I have no idea what to do.” That’s when he starts typing random shit into the calculator, in the hopes that the little piece of plastic that never makes an arithmetic mistake will magically provide the answer. When that doesn’t happen, he’ll just give up, unless there’s someone pushing him. If that’s happening, it’s actually worse. One of the traits he inherited from me is stubbornness. I can see the same look on his face that I got on mine when I was determined I “didn’t get it,” and was going to give the fuck up. It's terrible to feel like you’re looking in a mirror and you just want to slap the expression off your reflection. But when your reflection is your first born child, against whom if anyone ever raised a hand, you would lash out like a vicious fury, cutting  down the threat with a single blow, you feel like a complete failure. What kind of monster wants to smack their kid for a feeling they totally get and have experienced themselves? Me. I am that monster.

I wish I could say this whole experience ended on a happy note. It did not. In my stress over my child’s math homework, I fucked up dinner, and ended up sitting on a chair in the kitchen while my husband tossed almost every (repulsive) thing I’d made out. Word of advice: if you normally make your stuffing with sausage (I do), and you don’t have sausage to put in it, don’t use slab bacon. Yuck.

But there I sat, on the verge of tears, ostensibly because of the disgusting dinner, but really for the reasons I’ve outlined above about my frustration over my complete inability to be of any help to my child, and my frustration over having seemingly passed on this math anxiety/stubborn asshole personality combination to him.

My oldest is the most caring, sweetest, loving little boy that ever lived. When he heard my husband ask, “What’s wrong with you? You look like you’re about to cry,” he came over and said, “What’s wrong, Mommy? Don’t cry, Mommy,” and hugged me as hard as he could.

That should have made me feel better, but it made me feel worse. I remembered being his age and finding my mother in tears. I remember asking her what was wrong (the answer was, lots of things over lots of years). She would tell me, and I would hug her, and tell her how much I loved her, and that everything would be OK. She would smile weakly, and hug me back, and acknowledge that I was right. But then I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t happy right away. Wasn’t what I just did sufficient to make it all better? Wasn’t that what you wanted to hear? Wasn’t I right? Everything was fine now, wasn’t it?

But it wasn’t then. And it won’t be now. And I don’t know how to make it be. And I know he walked away feeling like he hadn’t done enough, that he had failed at cheering me up, and not sure what else he should have done. The answer of course is, “Nothing.” Sometimes people just have to get through things on their own, and nothing you can do is going to fix it. There’s no magic calculator to give you the answer. You just have to work your way through it.


Chris Dean said...

Anxiety is a viscious, heartless bitch with the blackest sense of humor. I totally get what you're saying and I wish I could give you a magic word to make it all better.
I can tell you yelling, "Fuck it!" helps a little, but not enough.
But I can also tell you you're not alone and you're not a monster. You're just human. *hugs*

Tracy said...

Thank you! Hugs to you!! This was my Monday, and then you heard about my Tuesday, so I'm really freakin' batting a thousand on shitty days lately! Today's turning out a bit better, fortunately, because if it hadn't, there would have been hell to pay somewhere. But things are looking OK so far :)


Liz said...

Not looking forward to this new math. Not at all. I remember the math anxiety as well. Even though I would end up being pretty good at it, the anxiety and frustration were overwhelming. The only thing that helped me was walking away for a while, then coming back to it.

Tracy said...

I am not only anxious about it, I suck at it. So, I guess at least my anxiety was justified? The glass is half full :)

Cassandra said...

Oh my goodness yes. Only my current sixth grader is a math whiz. He was freaking getting the square root of 6 digit numbers using only graph paper yesterday (whaaat?!!!) (Go Montessori Math!)

It was my daughter who has successfully made it all the way to college and survived Calculus who shared my dyscalcula and broke my heart. And the stupid teachers who wouldn't let her use a calculator even though she has a perfectly good math brain if you just let her use the machine to figure out what the hell 7 times 8 is - like her mother. (Yes, I am a data analyst who can not add).

It is a long road. You will come out the other side.

Tracy said...

I made it but it wasn't easy. I'm sure he'll make it, but it's painful to watch. I couldn't balance a check book if my life depended on it.

Anonymous said...

I have math anxiety* as well. There is nothing worse than looking at something and realizing that while everyone else around yougets it, it is just gibberish to you.

And yeah, been there with the Girl as well. She is incredibly bright and I see her pulling the head-in-the-sand routine because it might be difficult. Just. ARGH.

Incredibly frustrating; makes me want to falcon punch a politician.**

* - along with a slew of other anxes, as well.
** - to be fair, I kind of always want to falcon punch a politician.

Tracy said...

I have a ton of other anxieties as well, as does my son. But the math anxiety is a tough one, because you're reminded of it every single day. I don't have to look my fear of flying in the face every day, but math is always there. It's hard.

I'm with you on the feeling toward politicians too!