Math, and the father-son equation

I don't recall a moment when I wasn't confounded by mathematics in school. More often than not, my coping mechanism was to stare out the classroom window, smiling blissfully as I counted the pigeons on the windowsills of the apartment building across the street. Now and then one of those birds would jump through a window, increasing my fascination tenfold.

Of course, it was at that very moment that the teacher would call on me for a square root or the volume of a cylinder. But even if I had been listening, it wouldn't have made a difference. For me, learning math was like skidding on wet ice: no traction, no direction, no control.

It is with the utmost interest, then, that I observe my son's aptitude for juggling numbers. My son is having a much easier time of it than I did. On those occasions when I chance upon his homework splayed across the kitchen table, it is clear to me that math makes some sort of native sense to him, in the way that cooking ability flourished in my Polish grandmother. Like the pigeons that occasionally jumped through those windows on Jackson Avenue, I find this an intensely fascinating issue.

Returning to my own childhood, I think part of my difficulty was that, although I consistently did poorly in classroom math, I was just as consistently recommended for advanced-placement math courses.

The result was that while the masses made their earnest way through arithmetic, I was sitting stupefied in "pre-algebra." When the proletariat was testing the waters of geometry, I was undergoing trial by fire in "pre-calculus." These placements were the result of standardized tests, which showed that I had an "aptitude" for math. Hence the years of hard labor as I tried to break big rocks into little rocks with the equivalent of a feather duster.

THE other night, Alyosha called me over to the table to check his homework on prime factorization. I all but broke out in a cold sweat as I experienced a real flashback to seventh grade, when prime factorization was on the burner and 10 pigeons were on the windowsills. Which would it be? Well, I opted for the pigeons, of course, and now the math had come home to roost, so to speak.

"Alyosha," I apologized, "I don't really understand this." My son looked up at me, his eyes wide. "You've got to be kidding!" he exclaimed. "I thought you were a teacher!"

Yes, I'm a teacher. I'm just not Socrates. "I'm a biologist, Alyosha," I told him. "If you want me to do math, you have to be patient with me."

I must have said something right. My son beckoned me a little closer. "Look," he said, and proceeded to demonstrate the basics of prime factorization with pictures and examples. And, by jingo, I understood it. How did he make it so clear to me? No pigeons vying for my attention?

I didn't dwell on this thought. My son had laid a foundation for my understanding, enabling me to help him with the larger numbers and longer strings of prime factors they demanded. But I could see that, as a seventh-grader, he was already on the brink of outstripping me in terms of math knowledge. What support could I offer him over the long term, then, when it came to trigonometry and calculus?

Interestingly, I've already prepared myself for the heady homework days that lie ahead.

After graduating from college, I came to rue my lack of "feel" for math. I could balance a checkbook and verify the grocery bill, but I knew that I had come away from school with the scars of having grappled with math, but none of the decorations. When I thought long and hard about it, I decided that one reason I was so poor in math was that I had never been properly oriented to the purpose or nature of algebra or calculus, the way Alyosha had oriented me to prime factors.

I decided to read about math: how trigonometry is a way to describe the world in terms of triangles; how to use geometry to solve practical problems like bridge-building; and why Newton invented calculus (to describe the motion of objects that do not travel in straight lines). I found these stories not only interesting, but engrossing.

Paragraph by paragraph I found myself exclaiming, "So that's it!" I was convinced that if Mr. O'Rourke, my college geometry teacher, had begun the course by saying, "Geometry is a way of measuring lines, angles, surfaces, and solids," instead of "Let's examine the seven theorems of congruence," I would have fared much better than I did.

I don't think my latent enthusiasm for math will go all that far toward compensating for my pigeon-watching days, or make me a better mathematician than my son. In fact, I am happy for coming to the math banquet better late than never, and I stand in awe of my son, who now primes his factors with abandon. It's important, after all, that children can do some things better than their parents.

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