Math. What an odd love affair we have had in this lifetime. As a young child, your numbers were everything. How old was I? How tall was I? What was my address? My phone number?
In school your problems made me feel like I’d arrived. If a train leaves a station in Columbia, MD at 9:00 a.m. traveling 70 miles per hour, what time will it arrive in Pittsburgh, PA? I could find the correct answer only after unpacking so many variables. I loved the challenge of your word problems.
My fascination with you only grew when numbers and letters co-mingled. 3x+2=14. Solve for x. I can feel my heartbeat increasing as I write this. I have to stop and figure it out.
3x + 2 = 14
Change sides, change signs. I am getting giddy.
3x = 14 – 2
Skip ahead to x = 4.
I would ask my teacher for more math problems which landed me in advanced math, which meant being in classes with people older than I and eventually classes on a college campus when I was a high school junior. This, in turn, meant other classes at the college, small group literature clubs and so much more.
Thank you math. What a world you unlocked for me.
As I ventured into teaching, I would hear students suffer, “I hate math.” I could hear colleagues and parents grumble, “I’m not a math person,” and brush off the intoxicating nature of your calculations. At WCDS we actually made a pact among the faculty that no one would utter that sentiment, no matter how true …without adding the word yet. “I am not a math person…yet.” We believe in the power of learning something new. We also know the children are listening, so we need to proudly show our fascination with math or our vulnerability in the face of your challenges.
Last summer my favorite moment wasn’t watching the tide roll back out to the sea. It was watching a child who struggles with math roll playdough into different size rods to represent units, tens, hundreds and so forth, so he could use his hands to build his number sense.
Ah sweet, math, how you have served me…what joy you have brought me. Yet I regularly turn my back and dedicate myself to words, filling even this article with wit and puns that only words allow in their storytelling.
Still, you are there for me. When I need you most, you raise up and show me your brilliance. When my youngest struggled with stress that would sneak up on her unexpectedly, I could think of little to do but sit with her, encourage her to breathe and talk to her – use my words. Sigh. Then a wise friend and school therapist suggested I encourage her to “do mental math” in those moments.
Wait… what? Math?
When words fail… when the thinking brain leaves the station at warp speed to time travel to a destination unknown with worry, we can use math to arrive back in the present moment.
As something triggers worry and I see tears begin to swell in my daughter’s eyes, I smile and say “seven tables please.” The natural tendency to throw her head back in disgust, and exhale in disgruntlement is perfect. The head tilt changes the blood flow and the disgust is actually a deep breath and then she begins… 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49, 56…. Yesterday she said 58, which elicited a raised eyebrow from me…then giggles all around. …63…70…77…84…91. It doesn’t stop until we are all more focused on the numbers than the worry.
It feels like magic.
If math be the food of love, play on. Sorry Shakespeare.