Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My Beautiful (Non-Mathematical) Mind

I volunteer in all three of my kids classes and am thrilled that my work schedule is flexible enough for me to spend this precious time with them in their world. For some unknown reason and despite the fact that I've told all their teachers that math is definitely not my thing, much of my time has been spent doing math. After a few months in the classroom, my multiplication skills are better than they've ever been, which is a good thing because when the multiplication mania took over my house this year with the twins zooming through 'rocket math' and I was getting glazey eyed at the numbers, my kids were beginning to look at me like I was...stupid.

Last week I sat in awe as Maedee's third grade teachers explained 'across and up, up and across' for double digit multiplication. WOW, my brain was literally exploding. No one had ever explained it like that to me before. Later that day, I introduced this concept to Julea who had been flying through packs of flash cards and who I wanted to get beyond recognition and memorization to actually knowing how to multiply any combination of numbers. After a bit of resistance, she took to it so well, she proudly brought in her home worksheet and showed it to her teacher. Before I knew it I was in front of six of her classmates teaching them 'up and across, across and up.'

You have no idea what a huge deal this is. I left that classroom feeling like I had conquered my Sisysphus, my personal math demon, the math monkey that has been riding on my back for the past 30 years.

But then I went to Mila's class and the coordinates arrived and bam, back in the land of the...stupid. It started innocently enough. I'd finished my Thursday folder duties and was heading over to the copy bin, but Mila's teacher asked me to take a group of kids to work on coordinates. I froze. Coordinates. I looked around at the room to see if I could ask Mila what they were, but I knew she would be humiliated, so I listened as her teacher ran through the directions, called the students I was to work with and we were off.

We settled into the conference room and I passed out the papers. I stared at the paper and tried to suppress a hot flash that was stirring, hoping that sweat would not start dripping on the graph paper. I was screwed. One girl took a leadership role and began orchestrating a well intended, but what would eventually turn out to be a complete math disaster. None of us had a clue as to what was going on. I remembered hearing their teacher talk about the benefits of good noise, group sharing and tried to take some small comfort that maybe some of that was happening. But coordinates? No way.

After about 10 minutes of this, I said, "We've done some great collaboration, but I have no idea how to help you with this. We need a professional and we should go back to class." The four faces stared at me with disbelief. How could Mila's mom NOT be a math whiz, considering that she was off the charts with anything related to numbers?

I wiped my glistening upper lip and stood up. I led them back to the classroom and wrote the following on the packet of papers:

"Dear Mrs. G: I have failed miserably to teach the students anything about coordinates. Ask Mila, I suffer from serious math trauma. I'm sorry."

Mila looked at me when I got back to the classroom and knew something was up. 

"Mrs. G gave me coordinates."

A guffaw would have been gentle. A snort would have been kind. But we're talking about a ten year old girl, here. 

"She gave you coordinates? Mrs. G, you gave my mom coordinates? My mom is HOPELESS at math."

Thankfully, the bell rang and my time in coordinate hell was over.

It wasn't always that way. I was an above average math student in elementary school, and loved Algebra and made solid Bs through junior high, aka middle school. But then I hit 10th grade entered Mr. Sternovsky's geometry class. 

Mr. Sternovsky, Sterno, was legendary. He was ornery, volatile, had had a series of heart attacks and in case that wasn't scary enough, my second oldest brother had not only aced his class, but was simultaneously taking calculus classes at U.C.L.A. He;d graduated at the top of his class and gone to Yale.

Nice pressure build up for the younger sister.  

I tried hard. In fact, I tried harder at geometry than anything I had done before or since. And  no matter how hard I tried, how many tutors my parents got me, how many hours after school I stayed and stared at those bloody proofs, I just couldn't get it.

Sterno was lovely about it and appreciated just how hard I was trying. He also knew I wanted to pursue a life in the theater and I think he had some unsatisfied theatrical leanings himself. He listed me in the class roster as Sarah Bernhardt and I normally signed my papers with some silent stars name. He wrote kind words on my C and D papers such as, "Ah but what does geometry mean to the theatre?" He told me my proofs were the most creative he'd ever seen, even if they didn't make one bit of mathematical sense. He was kind and funny and was the only person to ever tell me, when so many were trying to dissuade me from following my dream, that I didn't have to get into an Ivy League school and that being an actress was absolutely fine. I will never forget his 'seeing' me and I hope I properly thanked him for his kindness and guidance. At the end of the year, I think I passed with a B- and never took another math class again.

But the funny thing about being a parent is that it makes us want to be smart at all things, at least I do. And today, as I walked into my oldest daughter's class today at 2pm, right on schedule for my weekly volunteering, right there on the smart cart projector, was my 10th grade nemisis. Geometry. I settled into the back while Mrs. G. discussed variables and measuring the interior space of a obtuse rhomboid and my menopausal flop sweat started to form, like Albert Brooks in Broadcast News. When she finished, I headed over to the Thursday folder bin. Empty. She said something about my taking a group of kids out to work on the math, but must have caught the look that flew back and forth between Mila and I. Mila's was a look of disbelieving disgust, a look I'm beginning to get very used to. Mine must have been sheer panic because Mrs. G. kindly directed me to the overflowing copy bin which I scooped up in my arms and scurried off to the copy room.

There was a line. I did everything I could to not have to go back and face my geometric demons, so I finagled my way into getting a few of my big load done. I relished the copying, the collating, the sorting and stapling. I took comfort in the ease at which a machine knew which corner to staple, or punch holes. The whole thing was like a John Cage composition, until my packets started jamming the machines and the other mother volunteers waiting silently let me know that my time in the copy room was done. I took my pile of copies and slowly made my way back to the classroom.

The damn proof was still on the smart board. I stacked the papers three or four times and prayed that Mrs. G. wouldn't ask me to work with anyone. I grabbed another pile of papers to copy and headed back to the copy room, hoping the line was gone and I could escape back into my rhythmical world of paper and machine.

I finished up my copy duties. It was two minutes to 3pm. I sauntered back to class, slid the papers onto Mrs. G's desk. Mila came over to me and gave me a big, end of the day, I'm tired and do you have a snack in the car hug. We gathered her things and went to meet her two sisters. When we got to Julea, she came bounding out her class and exclaimed, "I passed W plus! I'm going on to division!"

After 30 years, I still carry the unfinished business of my creative, yet mathematically-challenged proofs with me. I will never get the Nobel Prize in mathematics and may never get the world's version of 'geometry.' But that's okay. I kind of like that I created my own personal geometry and chances are, that kind of creative thinking has gotten me through a number of life challenges.

As for division? I'm all over it. Except if there's a zero involved.

But that's another story.


Anonymous said...

I love this entry! Mrs. G, Mila's teacher

Lisa Trank-Greene said...

Thanks, Mrs. G! I've learned to embrace and love my 'creative' approaches to math.