The Rockwood Files: Math misery

By Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

Last night, on the eve of another week of school, my 14-year-old daughter remembered Monday would bring more math – geometry homework and tests, to be specific.

Silent tears slid down her face in anticipation of what was waiting. If her life was a movie right now, geometry would be the monster lurking in the bushes. She hates it. Fears it. Dreads it. And last night as I laid down next to her in bed to dry her tears, she asked the question students have been asking for decades now: “Why do I even have to learn this? It’s not going to help me.”

How can a parent answer this question? I asked the same thing when I was her age, and I still don’t know the answer. So, I did the only thing I could do. I commiserated with her. I acknowledged her math wrath. I told her how hard geometry was for me when I was in school. I told her it was the lowest grade I ever made and that I cried over my homework too many times to remember. And I assured her that, just like me, she would also get through it.

Daughter: “Can’t I just sign a piece of paper saying that I promise not to become an architect or someone who needs to understand geometry?”

Me: “If that were an option, I would’ve signed a form like that a long time ago and skipped geometry and a bunch of other math stuff they made me do in high school and college, even though I was an English major. I wish it worked that way, but it doesn’t.”

Daughter: “Why am I learning about scalene triangles or the surface area of a rhombus? But I’m not learning how to do CPR in an emergency. Or how to manage a checking account. Or how to do the Heimlich maneuver or recognize the signs of a stroke. Or how to do a tax return. Or how to understand what a credit score is. Or what an insurance deductible is. Isn’t that stuff a lot more important?”

Me: “You’re right. All those things are more important. I’ve needed and used all those skills, but I’ve never once had to measure the interior angles of a triangle since the day I finished geometry class. All I can tell you is that we have to play by the rules the educational system has in place, even when we don’t agree with them.”

But honestly, I hope she and others in her generation will grow up and change the rules. Because she’s right. Sometimes in the quest to make sure our kids are academically well-rounded, the system makes them book smart but not necessarily life-smart. The two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but our current system forces students to spend tons of time on theories and concepts used by only a small fraction of the population, while ignoring tools most of us need just to function in modern society as grown-ups.

Before I get all the geometry lovers riled up, let me clarify this by saying I’m not just picking on math. I’m a self-professed word nerd, but even I don’t think my kid’s future will be jeopardized if she forgets the definition of “dangling participle.” I’d much rather her skip over the term “split infinitive” if it means she has more time to practice how to write clear and effective essays, reports, emails, and job resumes.

Maybe we could have students study a little less Shakespeare and spend more time learning how to fact-check things they read or see in the news and on social media. Without those skills, a generation of people will be more easily sucked into conspiracy theories that hurt their own mental health as well as society as a whole.

Maybe we could spend a little less time on “sine” and “cosine” and more time on how to avoid an online scam, how to shop for an insurance policy, the warning signs of an abusive relationship, how a mortgage works, or how to decrease anxiety in high-stress situations – you know, real-life stuff that sometimes even adults don’t understand because they were never taught.

Who can blame them? They were too busy measuring angles, un-dangling their participles and dreading Monday mornings.

Gwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of nwaMotherlode.com. Her book is available on Amazon. 

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