A mother and son's life lessons from math

Each morning, I pull my chair up next to my son Mattie and quiz him on his postulates and theorems for geometry. Last year I spent a couple of hours a day wading through algebra with him. It is not that I am a superpatient home-schooling mother who loves math, but I can still remember my excruciating year of calculus.

I had not planned on taking calculus. In fact, when the small college I attended sent me a letter asking if I'd be signing up for calculus my freshman year, I wrote back, "Only if you make me!" For three years I carefully avoided math classes. But when I changed from a Russian studies major to an earth-science major, I was forced into high math, and I found myself sliding down the canyon of calculus.

During the fall term of my senior year, I squirmed in the back row of Calculus 1 while the local, brilliant high school seniors occupied the first-row seats. The professor lectured on about limits and boundaries, but those concepts never left their abstract realm and entered my baffled mind. Instead, they floated about my head like vapors during class time and dissipated when I left the classroom. Repeatedly I waved my hand in the air and pleaded with the instructor, "But I don't understand!" He would sigh and try one more time to explain the problem while those high school seniors elbowed one another and smirked.

At night I sat at my desk, staring at my textbook and hoping for a password into this mathematical world. I attended special tutorial sessions and constantly knocked on a friend's door, crying for help. Yet no matter how many hours I erased, refigured, and scribbled, my homework was rarely correct and I fell further behind in class.

The only idea that I retain from calculus is the thought that the concepts of limits and boundaries neatly apply to our lives. Indeed, in calculus I found my scholastic limit. With each dismal test score, I learned what it felt like to fail. No longer did I think success was proportional to the amount of effort a student exerted. I began to empathize with the struggling students in my other classes.

So because of calculus, I sit next to my son and explain each day's lesson. He works a few problems, and I try to pull weeds from his path of learning. Throughout algebra and geometry I have emphasized three questions. Look at each problem, I tell him, and ask: What do we know? Where are we headed? How shall we get there? I nudge him toward the answers, and I point out that these interrogatives are also pondered when tackling an essay or a science experiment. We walk through problem after problem until he can visualize those three questions and find the correct answers.

Despite the agony of the moment, both of us know that some spring morning Mattie will fill out his final exam, close his textbook, and finish his high school mathematics career. I trust that he'll remember more than the daily drudgery we've both endured. Somewhere inside him, I hope, those often-repeated questions will reverberate as he encounters life's problems: What do I know? Where am I going? How can I best get there? My son will have to labor to find his answers, but I am confident he will stride toward success.

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