February 8, 2010

Who invented Algebra, Mom?” my son asked, frustrated.

My mouth said “I don’t know, honey. Let’s find out,” but my mind was saying “Probably some twisted soul with too much time on his hands.”

Every day he sits at the kitchen table trying to make sense out of all the different algebra rules. Why, when multiplying variables, do you add the exponents, but when you are adding variables, you don’t?

My only explanation is that it’s a rule. You have to follow it, because if you don’t the exponent police will come and put you in polynomial prison.

I dread it when he asks for help. I’m a writer for goodness sake! Ask me about prepositional phrases! I haven’t used Algebra in 30 years! The only good reason I can think of as to why you would want to hone your skills in Pythagorean Theorem is so that one day you can help your kid with his Algebra homework. After all, he may one day be struck with the life-long ambition to solve quadratic equations. Then you’d be sorry, huh?

However, since I did not foresee that possibility, I am now able to merely interpret the directions and try to find the answer online. If we find the answer, maybe we can work backward from there to determine how it was solved.

Then we’ll have the problem and the solution. All that’s left is all that pesky stuff in between: The variables.

Word problems are the worst. If there are 5 times as many girls on the playground as there are boys and they all have red and green balls. How many balls does each have? Well, let’s see. Barring any perverted interpretations of this problem, which would be too easy of an answer, we’d need to consider many possibilities. First of all, what grade are they in? Are there bullies in the class? If there is, then he has most of the balls…. Unless, of course, he throws them at someone. So does the variable b= balls or bullies? See, this is where I get confused.

Lord help us if there is a fraction involved. It just throws everything off.

It’s much easier to show the blank stare that I’m seeing in my head then to try to work through the problem and show my son how very ignorant I actually am.

“Go ask your father. He’ll know what to do.” The man has numbers dancing through his head all day long. In fact, they probably dance in formation, and stack up and multiply themselves while he is shaving.

You can ask me what a preposition, a prepositional phrase, and the object of the preposition is and I can talk to you with authority on those and an impressive assortment of other English-related topics. My brilliance would be quite apparent at that point. But numbers? Forget it.

Eventually, my vanity over not letting my son know about how stupid I am is overcome by my guilt in leading him down an algebraic primrose path that leads straight to a quadratic nightmare.

Finally, I say to him, “If you want to pass the test, go ask your dad. My brain hurts.”

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