I’m No Expert

I am writing this post within arm’s reach of my daughter.  It is a beautiful Friday, which her daddy has unexpectedly taken off work.  He’s outside with a bonfire, her brothers are riding around in their battery operated jeep; there are trees to be climbed and chickens to be played with, and public school friends due to show up on our front porch any moment now, looking to spend extra time playing with Lotus, thanks to a half day of school.

Yet here she is, inside.  And so here I am as well, within arm’s reach.

The thing that’s keeping her inside on a day like this is the only force in the entire world that could possibly keep my nature loving, chicken whispering, social butterfly daughter inside:  math.

Specifically, long division.

Super specifically, a long division assignment that she’s refused to finish for the past three days.

Over these past three days, my emotions and responses have run the full spectrum-  patience, compassion, anger, sorrow, guilt, hysterics, wailing and gnashing of teeth, etc. etc.  None of it has any positive effect on the girl.  Her world has now been stripped down to the dining room table, those 20 division problems, and the most exotic examples of work avoidance I’ve ever seen a human being devise for herself (did you know you could construct a 3D castle out of rolled up pieces of Kleenex and parts of your math book cover?  I didn’t).

Having been a horrifically stubborn mathematician myself, I’ve tried all the things I think would have worked with me:  various ways of explaining the concept, offers of reduced assignment if certain time requirements were met, positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, tough love, isolation, insanely supportive cheering when a single problem is finished, abject begging, etc. etc.

Yet here we are on day three, with a quarter of the assignment still unfinished.

I had to leave the House of Division and Stubborn Nine Year Olds this morning to go to an OB appointment.  The doctor’s office is out of the valley I live in, and while I was driving over the mountain, I had a revelation.  I remembered Simcha Fisher’s fabulous opening to her essay in Style, Sex & Substance (which, if you’re wondering if you should pony up the money to buy, the answer is a unreserved yes!) and the whole thing made a sort of amusing, cosmic sense to me.  Fisher writes:

I have nine kids.  You may think that’s why I’m writing the chapter on motherhood- because I’m such an expert.  It’s true- just as the kid who had to keep repeating third grade is an expert on third grade.  Some people just need extra time to get the basics down.

I actually started to chuckle at this point.  The whole math drama was as much about Lotus as it was about me.  Lotus is stubbornly refusing to learn that every life has long division that has to be slogged through, and the more you drag out the slogging, the harder it gets to reach the other side.  Even though she can smell the bonfire through the open windows, and hear her brothers’ laughter and see the chickens as they come up to the deck and tap on the glass with their beaks, she still won’t commit that act of will which would turn her considerable intelligence to the math problems and just finish them.

For my part, I get two things out of this.  The first, more obvious one, is the responsibilities my station in life calls me to do that I put off.  The house that needs to be cleaned, the grocery shopping that needs to be done, the chores that, like Lotus and long division, I know perfectly well how to do, but choose to put off and put off, making myself more and more miserable in the process.  And just like the whole family is affected by Lotus’ refusal to finish her math, so they are when I don’t complete my duties.

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Cari Donaldson


Cari Donaldson lives on a New England farm with her high school sweetheart, their six kids, and a menagerie of animals of varying usefulness. She is the author of Pope Awesome and Other Stories, and has a weekly podcast about homesteading at ghostfawnpodcast.com

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  • Mary Kate Dempsey

    Beautiful, Cari. Simple, yet theologically “it”. Thank you.

  • I LOVED reading this Cari.  I love math, so I don’t quite *get* the math-hating part, but if I substitute math with history or philosophy, then I am so feeling her pain.  And right now I need to go glue my third grader’s portuguese farm animals onto the poster board..that I keep putting off…and off…

  • I love this post.  And I have a 9 year old pencil-between-the-toes math avoider, too.  And I have similar glass-throwing desires.  Your insight is really going to help me next week.  I can feel it!