Memories of math

My son, Silas, is in third grade this year. Third grade is a big year. It's the halfway point of elementary school, it's the year he began walking himself to and from school, and he can read books that are interesting and have plots featuring characters other than "Jane" and her dog, "Spot."

Lots of great things happen in third grade. When I was in the third grade, I was in the same class for the first time as my best friend. We played together at recess and spent many weekend hours tending to our imaginary zoo. I remember walking to school while reading — and never once tripping over the curb.

The part of third grade that I didn't remember was the math. The fact that I don't remember third-grade math is certainly for one of two reasons. The first hypothesis is that I didn't pay very much attention during math time in school. This is a pretty good theory since I talked nonstop from kindergarten until seventh grade, focusing mostly on telling people about my zoo and my imaginary pet fox, and not discussing the theory behind the multiplication tables.

I always knew that third grade was the year we learned about multiplication and division. Now that Silas is in third grade, I've had to relive the embarrassment of having to admit that I actually have no clue what six times eight is. It was embarrassing enough when I had to tell my mom about my level of math cluelessness, but now I have to tell my own child that I need a calculator to double check his homework.

Now that Silas has moved on to learning about fractions, I have a new, second theory as to why I have no working memory of third-grade math. I think that fraction-induced trauma made me block it out.

I was helping Silas with his homework yesterday which included a problem that stated, "If 6 people each need one-and-three-fifths of a bench, how many benches do you need?" Silas and I set off bravely in our quest to find the answer. We drew pictures and did multiplication and double checked our answers. All the while I could hear a little voice screaming inside my head, "Who are these people that need one-and-three-fifths benches each?! I can solve this problem a lot faster; just don't ever invite these people over to sit on our benches, let alone our couch!" Unfortunately, I don't think Silas would get full credit on his homework with that answer.

A couple weeks ago I went to Silas' parent-teacher conference at his school. I was impressed by his handwriting and spelling and book report samples. The teacher showed me graphs and charts, which showed Silas' progress through third grade, both against state standardized levels and against other kid in his class. It seems like Silas was doing fine, even great, and then I dug deep and found the courage to ask how math was going. Silas' teacher was enthusiastic (though I think enthusiasm is a prerequisite for anybody thinking about going into a career as an elementary school teacher) and told me that Silas was doing well in math. I could hardly believe my ears; how could anybody genetically related to me be doing well in math? I admitted to the teacher that the math homework part of my day is the most stressful activity that I face on a daily basis. I admitted to checking his work with a calculator and to the fact that I have to use my fingers to do the five times tables.

Last week I picked up Silas from his grandparents' house and saw them helping him with his homework. Suddenly it all became very clear where Silas' math knowledge is coming from, and it's certainly not from me.

Zoe Abel is having Silas teach her what six times eight is. You can contact her at

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