Fear of math: Go figure

Kevin Cowherd

March 29, 1993|By Kevin Cowherd

It was early in the evening when the boy appeared in the doorway of my office with a question about his homework.

The minute I saw his textbook, "Principles of Mathematics," I was seized by a raw, overwhelming fear.

Within seconds, a great surge of adrenalin was pumping through my central nervous system and my brain went into full fight-or-flight response.

Since the boy was blocking the exit -- he's a stocky fellow and can be meaner than a wolverine when crossed -- there was only one thing to do.

Quickly, I hurled myself through the window, the glass shattering everywhere.

Then I did a quick shoulder roll onto the lawn and sprinted down the street.

Naturally, the little brat climbed through the window himself and started chasing after me.

He is only 10 years old but is in good shape -- instead of sitting slack-jawed with Nintendo games for hours or sneaking Marlboros behind the school like any normal kid, this boy likes to stay active.

Me, I was fairly weak at this point from the loss of blood caused by several deep lacerations to my face and neck.

Plus, to tell you the truth, with all those shards of glass in my eyes, I couldn't see very well.

In any event, it wasn't long before the boy tackled me on the sidewalk.

As I lay there in a sweaty, exhausted heap, he pinned both my arms back and said: "Dad, you have to help me with this math . . ."

"No, I don't," I said. "And stop calling me Dad. I'm not your father! Who puts these crazy ideas in your head?"

"I think it was Mom . . ."

"God, that woman is so annoying!"

Anyway, after making me promise not to run away again, the boy dragged me back to the house.

After bandaging my wounds, we went back to my office and looked at the math problem that had him confused.

As I read it -- something about converting the liters of water in Sarah's water cooler at home to milliliters -- a thought occurred to me: The window would have to be replaced pronto.

There was glass all over the office now and a cold wind was blowing through the room, giving it the cozy feel of a meat locker.

When it comes to being handy, though, I can barely work a shower curtain.

"You know anything about replacing windows?" I asked the boy.

"Da-a-d!" he said. "You gotta help me with this problem!"

So I carefully studied the problem again and arrived at this conclusion: Why doesn't this Sarah just drink tap water like everyone else? What does she need a water cooler for, anyway? What makes her so damn special?

That's half the problem with this country: People are such spoiled crybabies. A little bacteria in the water isn't going to hurt anyone, providing the PCP levels are low enough.

Anyway, it quickly became apparent that I had no idea how to solve this problem. It's a hell of a thing to admit, but there it is. Fifth-grade math had me stumped.

Nouns and verbs, I understand them. Grammar, syntax, simple declarative sentences . . . there is an orderliness and logic there.

As I sat there wrestling with the problem, the cold wind blowing and a fresh round of bleeding erupting from my cuts, I flashed back to my sorry history with math.

Math was a struggle for me all through elementary school. In ninth grade, I barely passed algebra. Flunked geometry the first time in 10th grade, passed it the second time by the skin of my teeth.

After two days of trigonometry in 11th grade, I went to the teacher, a mournful-looking man named Mr. Scheinman.

"I want you to understand something," I said. "There is no way in hell I can pass this class. No matter how many times you make take it, I'll fail. I'll be 32 years old and still sitting in the back of your class. My wife will be yelling at me to get a job, our babies will be wailing . . . believe me, you don't want me here."

"I believe you," he said.

So my trigonometry requirement was waived, the theory being that since I was going on to journalism school and a career polluting the English language, trig wasn't all that important.

Anyway, as I sat there in my office reflecting on this wretched history, the solution to the boy's homework problem suddenly came to me.

My God, it . . . it was so obvious!

"Son," I said, "go ask your mother."

I'm not sure there's a better feeling in the world than the one that comes with abdicating parental responsibility.

If there is, I haven't felt it.

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