How a math project became a life lesson

They hoped to build a giant tetrahedron. But these students ended up creating something larger. For kids ages 9–12.

My seventh-grade math class needed a Mr. Collins.

Well, maybe not the Mr. Collins we meet at the beginning of Shelley Pearsall's All of the Above. In fact, some of the book's opening scenes could easily have come straight from seventh-grade math at Carver Middle School, where boredom and malaise hung as thickly in the air as did the Florida humidity.

Like Mr. Collins – who seems, at the outset, as exasperated with himself as he does with his students – I'm sure my teacher would have done just about anything to motivate us. And that is where plans to build a Stage 7 tetrahedron could have come in quite handy. (If only she'd known.)

The tetrahedron team Mr. Collins assembles to break the world record – or rather, the team that assembles itself to get into Guinness – is a motley crew of inner-city Cleveland kids, as different from one another as Caucasian Mr. Collins seems to be from them.

There's troublemaker James Harris III; outgoing Marcel; shy, motivated Rhondell; and bubbly Sharice. The story progresses as the students take turns telling their version of the events, while Mr. Collins interjects occasionally with questions and facts related to the tetrahedron's construction.

I'm rarely won over by multiple-narrator novels. Too frequently, one character dominates. Or, like the scenery in a school play, no character develops beyond two dimensions. But in Pearsall's hands, this approach is actually successful.

Every voice in "All of the Above" sounds authentic. And, like each of the 16,384 smaller tetrahedrons required to break the world record, each one is integral to the building process.

This book is all about building. In Mr. Collins's case, that means starting with what you have and building from there. For the students, it's about building trust, partnerships, self-esteem, even faith. But fundamentally, "All of the Above" is about building community: The characters, initially isolated individuals each with his or her own secrets, come together first as a team, and eventually, even as a family.

"An important fact to remember about tetrahedrons," says Mr. Collins about three-quarters of the way through the novel, is that "the tetrahedron structure grows larger and larger, the empty spaces within the tetrahedron grow larger and larger, too."

In inner-city Cleveland where it's easier to watch things crumble than to help to build, even the characters' growing connections can't always withstand the emptiness – read: poverty, crime, and tough times – that lies in their midst. But although "All of the Above" does deal with the grim realities of life in the ghetto, it is, ultimately, a hopeful book.

When vandals destroy the original, nearly complete tetrahedron, the students – and Mr. Collins – rally. So do Marcel's father and his customers. And Rhondell's Aunt Asia, who, along with her team of hair stylists and nail technicians, adds rhinestone-bedecked tetrahedrons to the structure.

Slowly but surely, a second Stage 7 tetrahedron rises out of the rubble. And Mr. Collins's final fact: "Because of its repeating pattern, the tetrahedron structure can expand to infinity. So, in theory, you can keep on adding more and more tetrahedrons forever...." offers hope not only that the students will keep aiming higher, but also that the community that rallied to support their efforts will continue to expand.

Pearsall deftly suggests the connections between math and real life – connections which add poignancy and depth to her tale. But at least one equation in "All of the Above," is quite simple: Seven characters + lots of heart = one really good novel.

Jenny Sawyer reviews children's books for the Monitor.

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