Monday, February 15, 2021

Why am I so bad at arithmetic? Do the math

you show your work when
it's in your head?

Until about 15 minutes ago, I blamed my big brother Ed for my lousy relationship with math. It's a sort of weird grudge that I never told him about, so he'll only learn if he reads this, but I'm here to report that my dismal arithmetic and math skills might not be Ed’s fault, after all. 

Before I explain, I should tell you about Eddie the math wiz. 

 Ed is 29 months older than me. (I’m actually proud of myself for doing that bit of arithmetic just now). 

He was two grades ahead of me and always made arithmetic look easy. Ever since I can remember, Ed could wow us all by rhyming off his times tables and doing complicated math equations in his head. 

The only reason you've not heard of Ed going on to win a Nobel Prize for math was his misfortune years later of winding up in the class of one very determined Sudbury High School grade 10 teacher who insisted “showing your work” was just as important as getting the right answer. 

Teachers liked "showing your work." I seem to remember Eddie and that particular teacher arguing the matter to the point where Ed wasn't welcome in class any more. I forget. I'll ask Ed later.

Ed went on to earn a philosophy degree and I believe he would still argue that having the right answer is way more important than showing your work. Besides, how can you show your work when it’s all done in your head the way he did it? (Teachers were also big fans of “buckling down,” another life lesson my mom and dad forgot to teach us.) 

I’m pretty sure it was that math teacher who squelched Ed’s love of math. 

But back to me. 

It's discouraging having a math wiz older brother like Eddie.

Plus I was the youngest of 10 and very spoiled. From the time I was born, older brothers or sisters looked out for me and if I ran into a problem, they did their best to help me fix it.  They still do.

So, to this day, faced with a difficult task that I don't have to have to do, I simply won’t. 

And I did okay in grades one and two arithmetic. In grade one, our teacher was the very little and very kind Mrs. Beckett.  The grade two teacher at St. Albert’s was a tall slender woman who went to our church and always sat up on the right hand side near the exit, Miss Winnie Trainor. 

We’ve all had aunts like Miss Trainor and she knew our mom and dad and I think Eddie might have been one of her favourite kids.

Come grade three. 
ED BADGE OF COURAGE: The stories he told...

When I was five or six years old in grade one, eight-year-old Ed returned home at lunch times and after school like the wounded soldier with the blood-soaked bandage wrapped around his head in Red Badge of Courage. Ed terrified me with tales of what unfolded in school that day. 

The stories went on all year.

The grade three teacher’s name was Miss Girolametto (we always knew whether our teachers were married or not). Miss Girolametto (pronounced Jerl-a-metto) was cut from different material than Mrs. Beckett or Trainor. Eddie said that she was so drill-seargenty that he suspected Miss Girolametto was in fact Mister Lametto. 

Failing grade two on purpose seemed like a reasonable plan. 

Time passed. Eddie moved on up through Mrs. Donovan’s class on to Mrs. Jordan. 

 I got to grade three. 

And it was there — in Miss Girolametto’s class — where any remaining enthusiasm I had for math fizzled out. 

Except. It wasn’t because of the tough teacher. 

It seems to me that, that year, a horrible concept was inserted into the school curriculum: The math problem. 
(Photo by Chuck Swinden stolen from Sudbury.Com)

Math problems. 

Completely made-up dilemmas, created for the sole purpose of giving young boys and girls something hard to do. 

Mrs. Beckett and Miss Trainor, they were all about solution. 

But problems? How mean can you get?  Take entire groups of happy little kids who just want to play and give them problems to solve?  

 “Johnny has six apples and he has to give his sister Polly two so how many does he have after that?”

My parents didn’t raise us to invent problems. It wasn’t Miss Girolametto who was cruel, it was the world. 

Creating problems for the sole purpose of solving them seemed just evil.

I don’t get it. I better ask my big brother Ed. I know can count on him.

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