Family tradition counts

Math: Each year since 1995, a member of the Sweet family has taken part in the fast-paced "24 Challenge."

April 24, 2001|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Over the past few weeks, Robby Sweet has developed a fixation on the number 24.

Using flashcards borrowed from school, the 10-year-old practices mentally manipulating numbers to reach the magic sum -- adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing faster than most of us can say our own names.

Robby's under a lot of pressure, you see: Not only does he have a title to defend, he has a family tradition to uphold.

Robby is the fourth Sweet child -- and there are only four -- to represent Violetville Elementary-Middle School in the 24 Challenge, an annual citywide math competition being held today at Camden Yards.

The Sweet family has sent at least one child to the tournament every year since 1995, and this year, it's the same story: Robby, a fifth-grader, and his 13-year-old sister, Sandy, a seventh-grader, will compete in separate divisions against pupils from 49 other city elementary and middle schools.

Last year, Robby's first in competition, he was his division's champion; Sandy came up short in the finals.

The 24 Challenge competition, which is being sponsored by Allfirst Bank, is about thinking fast and moving even faster. It's played with a deck of colorful flashcards, each containing four numbers (the easier ones have whole numbers, while the more difficult ones include decimals and fractions).

A judge lays a card on the table. If you slap it before your opponents, it's yours to "solve." The goal is to arrive at the number 24 through some combination of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, using each number only once. There are usually multiple ways to get there.

One recent afternoon, Robby, his brothers Dewey, 17, and Matt, 15, and their mother, Trudy, gather around the living room coffee table for some practice rounds. Trudy Sweet, who is in customer service at a local health insurance company, lays down a card with the numerals 6, 5, 7 and 3. Robby slaps it immediately.

"Six minus five is one, seven plus one is eight, eight times three is 24," he says so fast you can barely understand him.

The boys whiz through another few cards, consistently reaching 24 in about three or four seconds. The next card has a pair of 4's, a 7 and an 8. Again, it goes to Robby.

"Four times --" he begins. "I have no clue."

He pauses for a few seconds, then all of a sudden, he's got it: "Eight minus four is four, four times seven is 28, 28 minus four is 24!"

Robby says he was so terrible at the 24 Game in third grade that he didn't even make the schoolwide competition at Violetville.

"I didn't get one card the whole year, you can ask my teacher," he says.

He concedes he's gone through the cards so many times that he remembers some of them. But his siblings have also taught him how to recognize patterns.

"I look for sixes and fours, eights and threes," he explains.

A few days before the tournament, it's only natural that Robby has a mild case of nerves. He's a little worried about having to deal with fractions in the fifth-sixth grade division.

"I haven't learned them this year, but Matt and Sandy help me," he says.

Matt, a sophomore at Cardinal Gibbons High School, is too old to compete, but he's a tournament veteran. Starting in fourth grade, he participated for five years straight, making the finals three times before winning the top award two years ago.

Their knack for the 24 Challenge aside, the Sweets are normal kids.

Robby plays soccer and baseball on teams his father coaches, is captain of the safety patrol at school and wants to be a first-grade teacher. Sandy plays soccer, baby-sits and loves to shop. Matt's aim is to open a restaurant. Dewey wants to be a police officer.

"The last name describes them," says Brenda Johnson, a teacher at Violetville who has known the Sweets since Dewey, now a Cardinal Gibbons senior, was in kindergarten. "They are absolutely the sweetest children. Very interested in school, very interested in learning, well-mannered, great sportsmanship."

By the time father David Sweet arrives home with Sandy from a soccer game, the informal family competition has become somewhat stiffer.

Robby has 47 points to Matt's 54. Dewey, claiming he hasn't played much since eighth grade, has 12.

David Sweet, who has a degree in accounting but works in insurance, grins when he talks about his children's mathematical agility.

"They're just quick," he says.

"Or," offers a modest Robby, "maybe we just went through the box a million times and memorized them."

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