When my son first asked me to help him with his second-grade math homework, I was all, “Heck, yeah! Let’s do this thing!” I was prepared to be a math rockstar in his eyes. I waited my whole life for this: to feel confident and competent in math, to impart math knowledge on someone. My time had come.
I sidled up next to my boy. Insert dramatic pause while my grandma’s voice rang in my ears, “What in the Sam Hell?”
Without warning, I was catapulted back to fifth grade where tapes of multiplication facts played at lightning speed while I frantically tried to write the answers on a grid of empty boxes. My palms started to sweat. My heart palpitated.
I pretended to have to use the bathroom.
While I was in there, I gave myself a pep talk. You can do this. It’s second-grade math. SECOND GRADE. But nothing on the page looked familiar to me. There were lines and circles where I expected to see numbers. The math language I knew, the language I tried to share with my son, was foreign to him. “Remainders” didn’t exist in his math world. Remainders! I could do remainders!
The cold, hard ceramic tile beneath my feet was fitting for my harsh reality: I could not even pass elementary school math. I have a master’s degree! What is happening?!
“Be out in a minute!”
This wasn’t the first time math sent me to the bathroom. I used to dry heave in the girls’ locker room before big pre-calc tests. I was convinced I wasn’t programmed to grasp mathematics; it was a self-fulfilling prophecy that was coming back around to bite me in the . . . math(?).
I couldn’t let my son see that side of me or embrace my frantic, desperate response as his own.
I sat back down with my boy. There were still a lot of circles and lines on the page.
“Ok, this is how I learned to do it when I was in school,” I said. “Now you teach me your way.”
His eyes lit up. He was the teacher, the expert who could show me the way. And I had to listen unlike some of those times I may or may not have zoned out 45 minutes into his summary of a Penguins game.
“So this number would look like this?” I asked scrawling on the page.
“Yep!” He smiled at me.
I got it. He taught me. Together, we filled in the gaps to make sense of the homework problem he couldn’t figure out.
A year has passed, and I’ve had to use this strategy time and time again. I’ve even watched Youtube videos to navigate this new math landscape. I’m mathing all over again. While I am, I’m seeing my kids get answers in ways I never would have considered. They’re seeing numbers differently. They’re creating pictures in their minds that represent math concepts, and maybe it’s good. Or at least ok.
It’s not comfortable for me, but it isn’t about me.
What is about me is my reaction to their math. What is about us, the adults—teachers, parents, grandparents, is our language and dialogue about this math and everything else our kids encounter in school and outside of school, on the playground, on the screen. We shape their inner voices, their opinions of themselves and others; we coach their reactions.
Common Core math—whatever that means—reminded me that I can’t always be the expert even when my kids are small. I want to be. After all, in unequivocal mathematical terms, 58% of parenting is pretending to know the answers, the other percent is pretending to have to use the bathroom to escape further questioning (see above). But the truth is, I have to face my inadequacies and there are a lot of them, too many circles and lines to count.
So, I’ll let my kids teach me when they can. And I’ll try to be a good student.
What choice do I have, really? The alternatives (complaints to every parent in the pick-up line, damning the system, cursing under my breath, rolling my eyes–to name a few) help no one. Besides, I’m III ooooo ooo% sure I’m right. (That’s 38%, by the way.)