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A numbers game

The day I have been dreading for the past six years finally arrived. Reviewing A’s math homework, I found a series of problems that he answered incorrectly and clearly did not understand.

I had to explain math to my fifth-grader.First of all, let’s just pause for a moment to send up a great, big, giant hallelujah that it took this long. Let’s also appreciate the fact that instead of turning on his usual belligerent, preteen attitude, A was as shocked by this development as I was, and politely asked me to help him.With a dual degree in biology and history, and a love of reading and writing, there is very little about my kids’ homework that intimidates me. There is one subject, however, that scares me to death, and that is math. The night before my senior calculus final, I ended up in the emergency room with an acute case of hives. The doctors attributed it to stress. I was literally allergic to math.For you to really appreciate the magnitude of this situation, let’s backtrack to my elementary school days. I developed my initial aversion to math in second grade, when we had these little pink, green, orange and blue folders. Each folder was a different test: one each for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, and they were timed quizzes.I knew my math facts, but those folders and that time limit terrified me. You never knew when they were coming. You could be having the most glorious day full of language arts and science, and boom! That folder landed on your desk.In third grade, we had to stand up at the teacher’s desk and recite our multiplication and division facts out loud, to the teacher, in front of the whole class. If you were caught using your fingers to count or took too long to spit out the answer, it was game over. Looking back now, I can clearly see that what I’ve thought was a lifelong hatred of math really started over an acute case of performance anxiety.After barely scraping through high school math, I vowed to never take another math class as long as I lived. However, I had to take an advanced physics course to meet my college course requirements. The difference between “regular” physics and “advanced” was that in “regular” physics, the professors gave you the formulas and you applied them. In “advanced,” you had to mathematically derive the formulas. Talk about panic inducing! A funny thing happened, though: a light bulb went on, both literally and figuratively.As I learned about force, mass, acceleration, magnetism and electricity, math suddenly took on real, tangible forms and became something I could see in action.Math finally made a little sense to me. It was too late in my academic career to grow to love math, but at least I started to understand and appreciate its role in the universe.When my friends’ children started going to school, I started hearing about “new” math. The old performance anxiety started to flare.As the kids started school, I was relieved that they were still required to memorize their math facts.However, as their homework started to come home, I realized that there was something fundamentally different going on with how they were learning math. For one thing, early addition and subtraction lessons came with a container full of little bricks. I was shocked to find out that my kids could use these things to set up the problems. They were encouraged to use things like their fingers, buttons or other small objects. 2+2=4 makes a lot more sense when you can see two small brick piles turn into one big one.As I flipped through their math books, I thrilled to see that they were being taught many of the mechanisms I had developed on my own to get myself through those hideous recitations of math facts.One of the most illuminating moments in math homework came when A, as a first-grader, had to solve the problem 3+3+3. “Mom,” he said, “It’s 3, 3 times. That’s 9. So, 3 times 3 is 9 and that is why they are called times tables.”So, for him, multiplication became an extension of addition, which he already understood quite well. No fear, no paranoia, no sinking feeling in his stomach when his turn came to do timed times table quizzes.It turns out that fifth-grade A was stumped by multiplying and dividing decimals by powers of 10. When he asked me to explain it to him, I could feel my palms start to sweat.I wanted to freak out and tell him to ask Dad, but instead, I gathered a few visual aids and went back to some of the basic math tenets that he already knew, and within a few minutes, he was zipping that decimal point back and forth with no issues. This was a minor speed bump for him, and honestly, if he were left to his own devices, eventually, he would have figured it out.But, deep down inside of me, the latent third-grader stepped up to the podium with pride and belted out some times tables.Liz Pinkey is a contributing writer to the Times News. Her column appears weekly in our Saturday feature section.