Thursday, December 18, 2014

Are you smarter than a fifth grader? Because I am not.

I don't usually help Primo with his homework. This isn't a philosophy of mine or anything. I don't have much philosophy as a parent anymore; the longer I parent three kids, the more I see my carefully-constructed philosophies, the ones I'm really very fond of, go by the wayside. Life sends Philosophy to the chopping block.

The reason I don't usually help Primo with his homework is he usually doesn't need it. He's a self-starter, and he's really good about tackling his homework right away and finishing it all. This is one of several reasons I don't sell him to roving gypsies.

But occasionally, he encounters a problem that stumps him, and then he comes to me for assistance. Unfortunately, now that he's in fifth grade, I am finding that I can't always help because, while I am well-educated and of reasonable intelligence, I do not belong to MENSA and thus, am not qualified to do fifth grade math.

Do you have a fifth grader? Have you looked at their homework lately?

Holy mother of Euclidean geometry. It's HARD.

Last week, he came over to where i was working on my laptop and told me he needed help with math.

"Let me see it," I said, full of brio. It feels good to show off your many years of education and experience to your children, to wow them with your shocking intellect.

Within two seconds, I was having heart palpitations.

"Wow," I said, "This seems hard. But I'm sure it's easier than it looks. Let's just read it over again, nice and slow."

There are 120 students in Granville Elementary School. 66 2/3% of them volunteered to help with the collection of cans for a food drive. How many students volunteered to help?  
Step 1: Change percentage to equivalent fraction.  
You know what to do. 
"Is this last part supposed to be a joke?" I asked my son. "Or are you actually supposed to know what to do here?"

"It's not a joke, Mom," he said. I could tell I was compromising my standing as Head Homework Helper and Math Mastermind.

What got me was the fraction INSIDE the percentage. Is that even allowed? Can you even have a fraction of a percentage? I feel like such a thing will create a hole in the space time continuum. So my first piece of advice was to ignore the percentage sign. To aid in this endeavor, I crossed it out.

"What are you doing?" Primo asked.

"It's just making things too complicated so let's just get rid of it," I advised. "For now."

"You can't do that," he protested.

"Are you sure?" I asked, genuinely: "Because it would make the problem a lot easier. Let's just TRY it like that."

We tried to solve it my way, which is to say, the wrong way which totally alters the question being asked and makes it utterly impossible to arrive at the right answer, in the process robbing the student of the chance to practice the skills they have allegedly learned in school.

The problem was, we couldn't solve it my way either.

Who the hell remembers how to find a FRACTION of something?  Or a PERCENTAGE? Much less both at once!

So I did what people do nowadays to learn stuff. I googled it.

"How to find percentages"


"How to find a fraction"

But we still couldn't get an answer that made sense.

We moved over to scrap paper, and we started to employ wild renegade math strategies. I sporadically got VERY excited, sure that I'd cracked the whole question wide open. I felt like I was Albert freaking Einstein. In truth, I was a more like Russell Crowe at the end of A Beautiful Mind - the part where he's gone loco. My scrap paper was filled with wild mathematical equations, numbers crossed out, division symbols and parentheses and fractions being cross multiplied.

"THIS IS IT!" I yelled: "We've got it now!"

We played out my genius ideas and we got answers like 3.876.

"I think that's right," I told Primo.

"Mom," he said, "How could 3.876 be 66 2/3 % of 120? How could 3876 kids help with the food drive?"

"You're very smart," I told him. Not that my opinion counted anymore.

That was about when David came home.

"DADDY!" I yelled: "Thank God. We need you!"

He looked at the problem and the first thing he asked was why the percentage symbol was crossed out.

"I didn't like it," I said.

"Move over," he told Primo.

A half hour later, David had gotten us nowhere.

"I will write a note and tell your teacher that we don't get it," I said, "Just leave it unfinished."

"No!" my son protested, a chip off the old stubborn block. "We have to figure it out."

That was all I needed to take things to the next level.

I called my father. He was my go-to math help when I was in school and he LOVES this shit. It's been years since he was a deus ex machine for someone's pre-cal problem set and frankly, he's missed it.

And, just as I expected, Babbo saved the day. He knew just what to do and he explained it clearly. We solved the problem and the answer made sense.

Sweet victory.

Until Primo's teacher corrected his homework and we found out the answer wrong.

I still don't know how to find out 66 2/3% of 120. And honestly, I can't say I give a shit.

As for my son, well, that's what his teacher is for.