Getting Smart (Finally!) for the Annual Science Fair

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Scientist at work. “Don’t get my dorky shoes in the photo, Mom.”

It’s that time of year again, when the makers of trifold boards once again rack up enough dollars to fund their annual cruises to the Bahamas. What a scam. Our underfunded schools must be in cahoots with the manufacturers and receive a kickback for every board sold. Try as I might, I couldn’t get last year’s trifold exhibit returned in order to reuse it for this year’s project. Of course, it’s entirely possible that the Little Man never remembered to bring it home despite my nagging. (You think?)Read More »

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Sometimes a Daft Notion

The week before last, Seattle Schools closed for a full week because of snow. More often, the schools here close because of the mere possibility of the suggestion of snow. If someone on the top of Queen Anne Hill accidentally drops a bag of ice on the sidewalk on their way to a kegger, Seattle Schools shut down. If someone on Beacon Hill shakes a rug out of a window, releasing a cloud of dust that might be mistaken for snow, Seattle Schools shut down. If 7-11 has a sale on ICEEs, Seattle Schools shut down. I pass no judgment (and I’m a skinny blonde Olympic skier). Clearly three of those days needed to be cancelled, so let’s not go into the school closure on Tuesday (NO SNOW) and how often the schools here close unnecessarily. I know it’s complicated, and I know that the bottom line is that the schools are trying to keep our kids safe in terrain that can be unpredictably treacherous.

Despite the difference in weather, last week brought back visceral memories of last summer. Visceral as in viscera, blood and guts and tendons and stuff you would rather not think about nor touch. Here in the Skinny House (where I got wider during the week because of compulsive snacking on peanuts and abstaining from my recent abstinence), the Little Monster practiced math every day during the unexpected week off. Not only did he practice math, but the Man I Married suggested that it would be a great opportunity for the Little Monster to learn long division. The long division unit is coming up in school, and MIM insisted that he’d already taught this minor skill to the Little Monster, so it would just be a teeny weeny recap.

Had I learned nothing since last summer? 

School let out for summer on June 21.

Math lessons began at home on June 22.

During the entire 77 days of summer (why does that number seem so much smaller than it felt in reality?), the Little Monster missed only a single day of math. He did math every day even during our two-week car camping trip. He did math on his birthday. Which means: his mother missed only one day of math, too. Genius Mom bought a book that didn’t include answers at the back. All of that work had better help to ward off Alzheimer’s for me. (But don’t tell the Little Monster that I still don’t know my times-twelves. I kept a cheat-sheet handy for those.)

But it’s only fair. If LM had to do math all summer long, why shouldn’t I? Oh, yeah, because I didn’t goof off and play Class Clown during math for the entire third grade, because I processed $1.5 million in payroll every month for a decade and thus am quite done with math and its negative connotations with calculating raises that were never mine, and because I can use something called a calculator.

He’s a stubborn thing, though.

“These are all great, Little Monster,” I might say when he brings me his completed homework, covered with holes that he’s drummed through the paper with his pencil so that it looks like it doubled as target practice. “You’re doing really well. You’ve got almost all of these correct! Wow! You’re making so much progress, but number six is not right. So please go back to your desk and see if you can correct that one.”

Let’s say that LM has written 13 as his answer.

He will return after a few minutes with his first 13 crossed off, with 13 carefully written above it, darker and bigger this time.

“That’s the same answer, Little Monster. It wasn’t correct the first time, and it’s still not correct. Try again.”

He will return a few minutes later with an arrow drawn toward the 13, and a note saying, “It’s correct.”

“Still not right.”

This will go on and on (not quietly on his part, I might add; he could put a grieving Ancient Greek to shame with his wailing and gnashing of teeth). He will fill up all of the white space on the page detailing why his answer is correct. The author of the math book is wrong (I did break down and buy a different book with an answer key, after I had a different kind of breakdown). His mom is wrong. The professors at MIT would be wrong. He is right, absolutely. He is eight, but he is correct.

One look at the math book and our little terrier begins trembling like cottonwood leaves in a stiff wind. At least she doesn’t piddle.

The only smart one in all of this is the Man I Married. “Great job, Mom!” he says to me. “You are really onto something with this. Wow. This is really good for him. Go, Mom!” He waxes poetic on the praise as he passes the math over to me to correct. The only time he couldn’t manage the handoff was when I was driving.

Somehow this happened again last week, when after suggesting that we “review” long division, he sealed himself off in the Barage to bottle cider.

Why do we torment the Little Monster like this? you ask.

Why not let the poor kid off the hook for a summer? Or for the snow week? Smell the daisies, eat the yellow snow (which he told me he did, reminding me of the toilet water conversation), blah blah?

Believe me, I asked myself that question every day last summer. Isn’t life good? Do I have to make it difficult? Who the hell cares about how to find the area of a square? Or the perimeter of a rectangle? Or how many weeks are in a year? Or what the equivalent fraction to 6/8 is? A machine can do all of that for us, now.

But on Monday, August 8, the Little Monster, for the first time, got every single problem correct on both sides of the homework page. I hung it on the refrigerator. We high-fived. We hip-bumped. We extra-desserted. This success was repeated on August 10. By jove, I think he’s got it! That’s why I’m doing it. No meltdown, no agony, no crying, no yelling, no tantrum, no Greek chorus. Breakthrough!

The Little Monster consistently tests right at the border of two grades. If 300 is the cutoff between third and fourth grade level, LM tests at exactly 300, across the board in all subjects. Not 299, not 301. It reminds me of my brother, The Agitator, who spent a great many hours computing the lowest score he could get on a test but still pass—instead of just studying for the test.

When the Man I Married voiced his concern to a friend about LM’s borderline passing of his grade level, the friend said, “Gee, considering his history, seems to me like that’s actually doing really well!”

Duh. Gosh, it’s nice to get an outside perspective.

But because of the work he did over the summer, LM successfully mainstreamed into the regular math class with his fourth grade classmates. He’d been having to take a hike down the hall to go to a “special” math class, and we all know how cruel kids can be to those taking the metaphorical short bus. So although we don’t necessarily care about his someday solving for pi, I realized why this arduous daily math was important: because it’s good for his morale and self-confidence, both of which are understandably well-below par. Helping him to be good at something is worth the time and aggravation, because he wants so badly to be liked (don’t we all?), and he makes bad decisions in order to fake everyone out, like being the Class Clown. And as he gets older, Class Clown will pale next to grim possibilities like gangs and drugs. Confidence and safety are the biggest gifts given to MIM and me by our parents, and I never even knew that until I met the Little Monster. I took both for granted. As all kids should.

Between LM’s achievement and the observation of our friend, I decided that maybe I could back off from the poor little guy. At the beginning of the school year, I met with his teacher and school counselors and confided that I thought that the math was hurting my relationship with LM (another DUH), and considering how hard we’d had to work on our relationship, I suggested to them that I not even look at his homework as I had in past grades. I needed to remove myself from the math equation. They heartily agreed. Not checking his homework every night made me feel like a bad, lazy parent, but the dog was happy. Everyone was happy. We were all so happy that we adopted LM, reaffirming the cosmic belief that math equations—particularly word problems—are the root of all evil.

When he asked me the difference between mean and median one night, showing me a chart he had to figure out and fill in, I refrained myself from saying, “Who cares? I’m 47 and don’t have the slightest idea, but that hasn’t hurt my career trajectory one bit.” The fact that my career trajectory is downwards is irrelevant. But I shrugged and said, “Ask your teacher.” It’s a feeling like when you finally cave in and buy a bigger size of pants. Such liberation! But also guilt and self-loathing. Ultimately this can’t be good but right now I can breathe a sigh of relief. Sure, I’ll have another peanut.

But a week of no school in January? No nothing? I could just as well allow that as I could keep my hand out of the peanuts during a claustrophobic, housebound week in which I ran out of gin. It’s one thing to abstain from alcohol while you have gin, which I’d been doing for months. But abstaining from gin while you have none is like having a loudspeaker in your kitchen cabinet making martini-shaker and ice-clinking noises, and then comes the dreaded “neener neener” taunts through a bullhorn.

Enter MIM and his suggestion of a long division “refresher.” Great. Easy. It’ll give LM a nice head start on the next unit, and won’t he feel great about that? Ahead of the mainstream class!

I came up with a strategy, because LM loves to dawdle and waste time. “Okay, Little Monster,” I said after going over a few dozen division problems with him. “Here’s a page of problems. As soon as you can get one page of problems done correctly, the rest of the day is yours to play.”  MOTIVATION is key.

Three days later, with the dog a nervous wreck, I begged MIM to try explaining long division to LM; sometimes a difficult notion can click in to place just by having someone else explain it differently. MIM returned from his mission at the kitchen table thirty seconds later to announce to me, “He can’t do division because he doesn’t know multiplication.”

“Yes, he does. He had the whole multiplication table memorized last summer.”

“Not anymore, he doesn’t.”

His current teacher tells them that it’s fine to use their fingers, so he does. Of course he’s going to do what everyone else is doing. All of those hard-won memorized multiplication tables were out the window. I cast no blame on the teacher—I’m filled with wonder and admiration that the teachers manage to teach anything at all with kids like mine disrupting their classrooms. Plus, as a couple of friends reminded me, it’s possible that the kids still need this aid in order to understand the concept. The Little Monster is a haptic and kinesthetic learner (blame MIM that I even know words and concepts like that), so he learns best with touch and movement. Still, he had the mother f&ckers memorized, and we were back to square negative one.

“What are you looking for?” MIM asked me as I rifled through the yellow pages. “Math tutors?”

“Pawn shops.”

“But you can’t drive anywhere.”

“I’ll manage.”

“What, another tiara?”

“No, a gun.” For me, of course. Someplace where I wouldn’t leave a mess, and the gun would be loaded with just the one bullet so as not to cause an inadvertent gun accident if it went off after my swift demise. 

“Okey dokey, how ‘bout I take over with the multiplication tables?”

“That’d be swell, sweetheart.”

“No problem, honey. You know, I think the road’s are clearing. How about I go get you some gin?”

“Thanks, shnookums. Just no bottom shelf stuff, okay, Bubba?”

“Of course not, Bubba Lu!” He returned home with a nice gin for me and a scotch that cost twice as much for him. Once I had a full bottle of gin in the cupboard, I had no need for it, and the cupboard harumphed itself back into silence.

I make suicide-by-gun jokes, although it still makes me sad that Meriwether Lewis took himself out that way. The man accomplished the unaccomplishable yet still felt hopeless. I use gallows humor because, 1) it’s in my DNA, and, 2) to illustrate how f&cking bonkers many moms I know felt during the housebound snow week. And they, to my knowledge, were not even doing long division. But they all, to my knowledge, were running out of booze and/or chocolate, and the distress signals from moms needing a fix or a break from their kids–or even a fleeting moment in which they felt like they’d accomplished one small task from start to finish–began to sound like Starlight Barking.

So now that LM’s re-learned his multiplication tables with the help of MIM and has returned to the classroom, do you think I’m going to be able to resist the urge to check his homework every night?

Damn straight I am. I’m going to beat that mother-lovin’ notion off with a stick.

I may have some daft ideas, but I’m not STOOPID. Parent involvement is important, but parent uninvolvement is more important for me and the Little Monster. We worked too hard to get to this happy place where I feel no anxiety about a small stranger who by some miracle and some tragedy became my son, and I can’t afford for that to go out the window in favor of 8×7. If I did that, somebody should hit me over the head with a 2×4.


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Motorcycling vs. the Math Mobile

Car Camping Trip, Part I

After nearly two decades of touring the country almost exclusively by motorcycle, The Man I Married and I took our first road trip as parents in the family station wagon. I mourned the loss of a mode of travel that I’d originally taken to like a turtle to skydiving, but which I had come to embrace as an adventurous way to fully appreciate the landscape. Motorcycling immerses me in the environment, whereas a car seals me off. Car travel is like watching television; the windscreen isolates me from smells and temperatures, from bugs and wind and the sun’s rays. Blast the air-conditioning, crank up the radio, and my insulated bubble could be passing through wintry Maine or summertime Montana for all my senses can tell. Motorcycling also offers an entré to conversation with strangers on the road, whereas no one much cared to converse with the owners of the filthy, diesel VW Passat.

Our Covered Wagon

We kept the a/c and the radio off for the most part, with the windows cracked, trying to replicate at least some of motorcycling’s appeal. But for all that I missed the glorified moments of two-wheeling, motorcycling had its definite disadvantages. On our last road trip by motorcycle, I had not had enough room to pack even a paperback book. Despite this, at a junk shop in the middle of nowhere, the Man I Married purchased a twenty-pound metal disc thingy that he thought was a cool something-or-other from an old tractor, but which turned out to be part of a washing machine. He bungee-corded the foot-in-diameter rusted junk to the bike’s rear rack, and as we hauled it around for days, I wondered why this could be managed but Heart of Darkness could not (other than the one beating resentfully behind my ribcage). The thingie is now lying flat in our front yard, used to keep the bike’s kick stand from sinking into the mud.

So let’s just say that I came to embrace car travel mighty quick on our recent, 3000-mile, five-state journey with the Little Monster. I packed the electric tea kettle, single-serving creamers, two kinds of tea, and two mugs. Oh!a hot cup of tea every morning in a campground turned out to be mighty addictive. We were tenters, so I snuck over to an unused RV site and plugged the kettle in to the RV hookup, or else I’d plug it in to the bathroom’s electric outlet and stand around trying not to look like a pervert. On the one morning I didn’t make tea, because the bathroom was too far and the nearest RV post was right next to a motorcyclist’s tent, the Man I Married said, “Where’s my tea?” I was not the only one getting spoiled by life on four wheels.

Lovely Spot for a Cuppa

I packed a car-battery charger for my Kindle, my laptop, our cell phones, camera batteries, and the Little Monster’s Nintendo (which we didn’t tell him we’d brought, saving it in case of emergency such as a roadside breakdown, a scenario all-too familiar from our bike days that never transpired in the car—yet one more advantage to mundane travel vehicles). Neither did we bring LM’s portable DVD player. Boredom in back seats is good for kids as a kick start to the imagination, and if The Man I Married and I were going to not only drive, but suffer through watching the other one drive half the time (torture for both of us), the Little Monster had better witness the scenery instead of occupying himself with things that he could do back home on the couch. When he wasn’t looking out the window or reading, LM did math. Lots and lots of math. Our Math Mobile climbed over the Grand Tetons, the Bitterroots, the Beaverheads, and the Bighorns; it shimmered and wheezed through the Red Desert, the Snake River Plain with its fifty nuclear reactors, and the Palouse; it followed the Oregon Trail, trailed after Lewis and Clark, criss-crossed the Nez Perce’s failed escape route and the first cross-country road trip by automobile, all the while chanting this mantra:

Jane has 43 apples, and she needs to put them all in boxes. Each box holds six apples. How many boxes does Jane need? And if all of the boxes are full but one, how many apples go in the last box?

If the driver has x patience, and the car is traveling at y speed, how long before the mom takes off with this ranger in the nicely-fitting trousers?

The mantra should have been:

If the mom in the car has tried explaining the math to her son 43 times, and the dad in the car has tried explaining the math 43 times, how many times does the son say he does not get it, and who will lose their temper first? Part B: How many times is the driver tempted to end everyone’s misery by driving over a cliff at the next beautiful Scenic Pullout? Who needs Thelma and Louise when you’ve got Jane and her motherfartin Apples?

Besides math books and pencils (which LM prefers to use as drumsticks, so we had to buy more in Jackson Hole, where it’s a lot easier to find antlers than pencils), I packed juice, Fig Newtons, and a s’more maker thingie bought by MIM (where I come from, all you need is a stick). I packed plates, napkins, and utensils. Moist-wipes, sunscreen, extra shoes, and real towels. I packed lots and lots of water.

I packed a comforter to put under me (you’d think with all my padding that I could sleep on lava, but no, I might as well be as bony as a greyhound for my increasing dependence on a mattress), and, most wondrous of all, I packed pillows. Pillows! In two decades, two countries, and maybe three dozen states, I’d lacked a pillow. The lure of motorcycling pales when one lays one’s weary head down upon a lace-encased puff of hypo-allergenic foam every night instead of one’s wadded up, leather jacket with buckles that rattle like something out of a Charles Dickens nightmare.

Here’s what I packed for two months on a motorcycle: two pairs of jeans, three shirts, seven pairs of underwear and socks, a granola bar, and a “camping towel” about the size of a eyepatch (my undies are bigger). MIM and I shared a jigger of toothpaste, but I drew the line at sharing a toothbrush. In the car, however, I brought three full-sized toothpaste tubes! Imagine the luxury! Oh, the orgy of over-packing for this motorcycle mama!

Of course all of this packing was completely selfless and was solely for the sake of the child, for whom we reverted to this very American form of travel and for whom we are now thinking about acquiring a trailer.