The not-so-perfect son

Parenting: A mom worries when her firstborn isn't above average in every way.

Precalculus: The teacher of a high school math class in California writes a lesson to be projected on the wall for the students to see.

"We expected our first child to be perfect." How many parents have said, or at least thought, those words? Most likely every single one.

I know that's what I expected with our oldest son, Joe. He would be perfect and I, by proxy, would look perfect, too. The terrible twos wouldn't exist in our house, adolescence would be a piece of cake, and Joe would sail through school from learning his ABC's to being awarded a PhD, all because our little boy, our firstborn child, was going to be perfect.

Joe, however, had other ideas.

He was always a good kid. He wasn't the kind of boy who threw snowballs at passing cars on a frigid winter day or who dropped water balloons on the mail carrier from an upstairs window during the humid heat of August.

But he wasn't perfect. Especially when it came to that nice little fantasy I had about sailing through school.

Slogging through is a more apt description. From the day Joe started kindergarten, he struggled – with scissors and handwriting and math. Always math. While he passed each grade, it was never with flying colors, and he was never at the top of his class.

How I envied friends who had children with the "math gene." For some reason, most of the women I knew had at least one offspring who excelled at math.

I don't know how many times I smiled while listening to another mom telling me that her daughter was doing high school algebra while in the sixth grade. Or that her son had just taken first place in the school district's annual Math Challenge. Or was sending both her son and daughter to Math Camp – that exclusive "resort" that was strictly invitation-only and practically guaranteed getting a scholarship to an exclusive college.

After hearing one of these stories – and there were, oh, so many of them over the years – I'd invariably hang up the telephone and look over at Joe – who would be happily playing a video game, drawing a picture, or simply enjoying a warm spring day – and wonder, Why didn't we raise a mathematical genius? How is he ever going to get into college if he doesn't get better at math? What is he going to do with the rest of his life?

Needless to say, my maternal angst never really amounted to much. Does it ever? Moms tend to worry and worry, while whatever they're worrying about usually disappears on its own (and is promptly replaced by another worry).

During high school, Joe slowly improved at math. He got through algebra I, geometry, and algebra II, our state requirements for math. I thought we were home free, mathwise, when he floored me by announcing that he'd be taking pre-calculus his last year of high school.

"Why?" I questioned.

"Because I need to keep my skills up," he explained. "I hate math, but I need to take it so I don't forget how to do it.

"For college," he added. "I want to do really well in college, Mom. I know it will be hard, but I think it's important that I try to do my best."

As I nodded, I thought briefly back over the long years of multiplication tables, fractions, and basic algebraic equations that had preceded that moment.

No, my oldest son wasn't perfect. He wasn't a math genius, either. But he knew what was important: He was focusing on his future while I was fretting over his past.

He was thinking about what he wanted his college experience to be about. Joe was trying to do his best, even when he knew how hard that was going to be.

And that, to me, is even better than being perfect.

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