It is time to divulge a secret about myself that very few people know: I’m a math geek. Not a Rainman, slay-the-tables-in-Vegas math geek, just a place-out-of-freshman-math-at-Princeton math geek. My dad was a math geek, and we used to have fun making up goofy algebra problems for no good reason other than to entertain ourselves. I’ve held this secret for many years but have recently discovered that girls who can do math in their heads are able to surprise men who use numbers as power plays, so the gift I’ve been hiding now regularly proves useful.
My children get math geek genes from both sides. My daughter also gets from her father a careful meticulousness. She checks and re-checks her homework and tests. She erases and rewrites answers that look messy. My son, however, is his wild, careless, freewheeling mother’s child with an added arrogance and self-confidence that comes from God knows where. It’s the combination of these characteristics that resulted in a grade of 46 on his recent math test, brought home in today’s Wednesday folder paired with a note from the teacher explaining that the test was open book and that my son had failed because he told her he didn’t need either his book or his notes because math was easy.
If this were the end of the math test saga I would be musing about how time teaches us to slow down.
The teacher let him bring home the test to rework the problems he missed. She told him he wouldn’t get a 100 even if all his amended answers were correct, but she would give him appropriate credit for doing the work. Our children do their homework at our kitchen table, near the computer, Mom and Dad in case they need some help; so I was on hand when he began the task of re-doing the test. “I hate stupid math; I hate my teacher,” he said as he threw his pencil. He was angry because his teacher called him out in front of the class and embarrassed him. On top of being angry he was now also frustrated because he couldn’t understand why the answer he’d given for one of the problems was wrong.
He was frustrated, it turns out, because his answer was actually correct. I worked the problem three times, then asked my husband to confirm the work. My son and I then went back through the test, from the beginning, question by question. About half of the answers marked wrong were, in fact, wrong (carelessness). There were a couple for which the child didn’t understand the concept, even with notes and his book (easy to tutor). And then there were the ones that he answered correctly but that were marked as incorrect by the teacher. See, being a math geek comes in handy sometimes. But should I push back to the teacher?
When I was in eighth grade, at the beginning of the school year, we had to write essays about our summer vacations. I wrote about how bored I was having spent the summer at a boring place called Monteagle where there was absolutely nothing fun to do. As the teacher, whose family had a house at Monteagle, was handing back the graded essays a few days later, she stood in front of my desk and announced to the class that only boring people had boring summers, so I must be boring indeed.
My mother did not take report of this incident well. A day or two later we were sitting in the principal’s office, my mother, my teacher, Mary Alice Semmes Orr (after whose family several rooms in the school were named), the principal, Ms. Marks, and I, shrinking in my chair, mortified. My red-faced mother, in a deadly calm voice, told that very proper eighth grade teacher that her children were, in fact, far from boring. Apologies were offered, hands shaken. From that point forward Mrs. Orr was polite but never warm, and I was more judicious reporting things to my mother. Being a math geek was embarrassing enough for eighth grade without the added stigma of being the teacher’s least favorite.
The one thing I knew with certainty, though, was that my mother had my back. In her order of operations, my sister and I always came first. She believed in us, fought for us, made a fool of herself for us. If someone wronged us, she made it right. I wouldn’t trade that fierce love for an ounce of Mary Alice Orr’s favor, then or now.
Tonight I wrote a note to my son’s teacher, explaining that many of his test answers were correct to begin with and that while I understood her reaction to his attitude, a little give on both sides might be in order. He is nervous about giving the test, with my notes, to her tomorrow. He is nervous that she will somehow single him out again in front of his classmates. I assured him I didn’t think she would, and I hope that I am right.
As he was going to sleep, still uncertain, I said, “Don’t worry. If things go south, I’ll know just what to do.”