Old Man and a Three

If you ever want to feel old … teach math.

Actually, substitute teach for a math instructor. No wait! Substitute teach for a middle school math instructor. And to make it a totally fun experience, hope that “middle school” includes sixth graders.

Nothing wrong with sixth graders. I just completed a two-day stint doing the above, and I had two sections of sixth graders. In fact, I had two sections of seventh graders, and two sections of eighth graders. To be totally truthful, I enjoyed every single one of those emerging teenagers.

But trying to teach math made me feel old. Not because those youngsters ran me ragged, but because in one small instance, I was “schooled” on the fact that math education has passed me by.

Before I explain, let me give you some background. I was not a real go-getter in junior and senior high school. I wasn’t dumb. Hardly. In fact, I was actually pretty smart. Oh yeah, smart enough to know how to (a) use the system to get by, and (b) get grades that were good enough for me to move from grade to grade and eventually graduate with the rest of my class.

In truth, I didn’t mind going to school. There was a certain social element I enjoyed about school, and, by going to school, I could participate in athletics. However, while going to school to learn wasn’t my highest priority, I did like some subjects: history, music, reading, English, social studies, art, and science.

Notice … not one mention of math. Nor did you see algebra, geometry, calculus, trigonometry, physics, or any of those other numerical subjects in that above “fave” list. I did not like working with numbers. I did not understand numbers. I didn’t want to understand numbers, nor their uses. I, pure and simple, hated math.

And thus, I did not try very hard in math classes. In fact, that was where I utilized the (a) I spoke of above — I worked the system to get by. And believe me, I barely got by.

But karma never fails to come rollin’ around. So when I had children of my own, I found myself having to help with homework on occasion, as they made their way through 12 grades of education. And some form of math haunted me for years.

But the ironic thing was, as I helped my three children with their math homework, wisps of my past lessons began curling through my brain. I began to remember formulas, basic rules of arithmetic, and even schematics of such things as long division and fractions. But once they reached algebra and geometry, my help was non-existent. I barely crawled my way to passing grades when I took those classes. I paid so little attention in those classes, nothing came back to me when my children needed help with their math homework.

But somehow, my children got through school with passing math grades. And math was essentially forgotten. Oh sure, I needed basic math skills to do the bookwork of my businesses. I needed to know addition and subtraction. Even the ability to count change back to people, that I learned in a college job, was a true help. But for me, most of my adult-life math was done by a calculator and computer.

Flash ahead about 20 years. Homework assignments have long faded into the far reaches of my memory. I sold my business. And other than keeping track of my checking account, I use math very little. Oh sure, on occasion I have to do some basic, as Jethro from the “Beverly Hillbillies” called it, cipherin’ — but overall, I rarely needed my meager math talents.

But I signed up to be a substitute teacher with my local school district. I said I was willing to sub in senior high and middle school classes. I okayed middle schoolers, even though I didn’t really want to and figured I could always cop out with a lame, “I’m busy,” excuse if called to spend a day with that age group of students. And in the first few months, I subbed in a variety of high school classrooms — from P.E. to home ec (errr, excuse me, “Family & Consumer Science” otherwise known as ‘FACS’), even agriculture and tech ed classes (“shop” to those from my era).

But then the dreaded call came. “Would you be able to sub for our middle school math teacher?” the principal inquired at a cheery 6:30 in the morning. My mind obviously had not engaged because despite the double whammy of middle school AND math subbing, I muttered, “Sure. No problem.”

Yeah … “no problem” cuz this fella won’t know the answers to those math problems!

The sick teacher had graciously emailed notes for each of her day’s classes. My first instinct was to bring on an acute case of stomach flu (I even wondered if I might be able to mentally cause myself to vomit). Sick sub goin’ home! Yep, there’s more than one way to avoid math and middle schoolers.

But I “mathed up” and made my way to the middle school office where I as presented with the teacher’s notes. First period: 7th grade math. Second period: 7th grade math. What the heck! Open the day with TWO classes of seventh graders?!?!? Aw c’mon! This is not happening.

Then the rest. Third period: 8th grade math. Fourth period: 8th grade Algebra 1. Fifth period: Lunch and planning period — thank goodness a 90-minute break, with which I could regroup my sanity, collect my marbles, and regain what was certainly going to be a total loss of my dignity. And it continued. Sixth period: study hall (8th graders). Seventh and eighth periods: 6th grade math — God help me …. two classes of sixth graders at the end of the day.

But something quite marvelous took place. Those seventh graders were calm, and they went right to work on the assignments I doled out via the teacher’s notes. Nary a question was asked, and not one time did I have to reprimand somebody for a smart remark or acting like a … a … a seventh grader. Both classes were really fun to be with.

The eighth graders were much the same. I’d experienced some eighth graders while subbing in FACS and an animal science class. A few individuals had tested my patience, but after a little verbal sparring, I’d managed to create in them a sense of responsibility and a reasonable level of quiet. So when most of those same eighth graders walked into the math room and saw me, well, I think they resigned themselves to maintaining a reasonable level of calm, rather than go another round with me.

They were … umm … active. Yeah, that’s a good word. They were an active bunch. But my three periods with them (study hall, remember?) went nicely. Honest! “Nicely” is a good word to use.

That brought me to the sixth grade classes. Here we were, stuck together in a room, mid-afternoon on a Monday, and we had to get through math. Each class had a couple “challenges” with which I had to deal. In each period, the students who’d deemed themselves up to the task of trying to take out the sub, were steadfast in their actions, loud, and had just a small dose of ADHD (or maybe it was sugar) to cause me heartburn and headache.

But I weathered the two classes. A short drive home, two aspirin, and my feet up in the recliner, and recognition that the day was finally over warmed me to my core. I reveled in a sense of pride, knowing I had survived a day of math and middle schoolers. Yeah! I did it and probably wouldn’t have to do it again.

6:15. Tuesday morning. Phone rings. “Hey, the math teacher is still sick, any chance you can sub today?”

I fought off the instinct to scream, “Are you kidding me?!?! You stuck me in a room full of middle schoolers yesterday. With math. The fact that we all came out alive should be declared a school holiday. And you want me to do it all over again today? Oh dude ….” Instead, I said, “You bet!”

But folks, as I sit here at my computer, recalling the second day of math and middle schoolers, I am pleased to report it went without incident, except …. except for those sixth graders.

I mean, the seventh and eighth graders were a bit more active. But it was a subdued active. The day seemed to fly by. Class after class just rolled along. Everyone understood what they were doing, got down to the task, and stayed on task. But I made that mistake any sub should never make.

I looked to the end of the day. Why oh why did I answer the swell of confidence and check the sheet that told what times those two final periods ended? Why did it enter my mind that I was nearly home free? Why didn’t the cold slap of reality that I still had two classes of sixth graders AND long division paint a red blemish on my cheek and brain?

I nearly broke into tears when reality teasingly kissed my temple and said, “You’re not done.”

But something completely unexpected happened. Those groups of sixth graders were happy. No, they were jovial. They accepted their assignment with no fanfare, and took to the task. They even pulled me into a lighter mood (not that I am a dark and damning person in the classroom, but I can project a certain level of seriousness).

The teacher’s instructions said the students had to do 20 problems of long (ie: ‘big numbers) division. And, she instructed, “Please do problems 13, 14 and 15 for them.” Huh! ME? Do long division? These problems had decimal points. You want Mr. Iwon’teverneedmathsoIwon’tbothertolearnit to show these students how to do division … with decimal points?

I opened what I was certain would be a weak effort, one that was certain to expose my lack of mathematical skills, by saying, “Well, this is how I would do it.” And added, “And I wasn’t all that good at math.” Yeah, and the Titanic wasn’t all that good with ice.

I proceeded to do the problem. Correctly, I might add. And I did a second problem … correctly. In fact, I was so darn proud of myself, I quit while I was ahead and told the students to tackle the rest of the assignment. I must have divided with an air of Vince Lombardi at Super Bowl 1 — those students excitedly tore into that set of problems with vim and vigor.

But they eventually their enthusiasm stalled out. Their spindly little arms began to raise, and questioning looks appeared on their faces. Instead of panicking, I waded into the bulwark of desks and began helping students divide. And conquer! I explained how to equal the decimal playing field. I showed how many times 16 goes into 108. I urged them into forging ahead, “Even when greeted with, “I don’t know how to do this.”

I convinced them they could divide! And divide they did.

After about 20 minutes of dashing from one end of the classroom to the other and back, helping dozens of stymied students, one little guy raised his hand and asked, “Are you coming back tomorrow?”

“I’ll bet your teacher will be okay. She’ll be back,” I answered.

And quick as you can find the answer to 18 divided by 3, that little Einstein muttered dejectedly, “Darn! I want you to teach us.”

My heart swelled. I just wanted to gather the whole bunch of them and hug them tightly. They want me! They really want me … to teach them division.

In a few quick minutes, the bell rang bringing a close to that glorious period of sixth grade math. As the students for my final class of the day — more sixth graders and more division — wandered in, my confidence continued to soar. I could teach, I told myself. I CAN teach!

After telling them of the assignment, I attacked my demonstration problems (since I had already done them once, my expertise and performance was flawless). I was rolling through the second problem, showing them how to do 8,482 divided by 19, confidently scrawling a 4 atop the line and then blasting into the multiplication of 4 times 19, when a tiny voice amongst my rapt and attentive group asked, “Why did you put that 3 above the 1 of 19”?

“Well, when I multiplied 4 time 9, I got 36, so I wrote the 6 down here under the 4 of 8,482, and then carry the 3. I wrote the 3 up by the 1 (of 19) so I would remember to add it to what I get when I multiple 4 times 1,” I deftly noted.

“We don’t do it that way,” the voice replied.

And that’s when I realized that all those years I was passing on math, math was passing me by. Suddenly I was haunted by things like “estimating” and other math terms my children had brought home as they worked to master “new” math their schools were teaching. It struck me that in the 50-plus years that had transpired since I had sat looking at a page full of long division problems thinking I could never grasp the concept, the methods of teaching math had moved forward, and changed. Probably changed often.

And that’s when I felt old. As I stood there staring at that lost and lonely 3, I felt age thrust itself deep into my bones. My mind began to dull. That swell of pride I’d just felt in my teaching abilities had become a monster wave of impotency.

Slowly I turned toward the class and confessed my sin, “Well that’s the way I did it, a long, long time ago, when I was your age. Tomorrow, just tell your teacher that some old guy showed you how to divide — she might understand.” In my heart I knew she wouldn’t. She’d probably curse me for trying to teach long division. She’d probably march into the principal’s office and demand I never be allowed to darken her classroom doors again.

The bell rang, and I dragged my worn out old body, and equally worn out old way of doing math, and went home. I sat for a spell and thought about the day, and said out loud to no one (since no one was home), “You have to carry the 3.” Yep … an old man … and a 3.


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