The Long Way

everything I wanted was on back order


When Math is a Four-Letter Word

math photo

While discussing the challenges of raising children, a friend shared an apropos quote. “When kids are little, they have little problems. The bigger they get, the bigger their problems become.”

A somber example of this is the recent suicide of a Palo Alto high school teenager. In an article published November 12, 2014 (, the superintendent of our school district addressed the tragedy.

“The world is different for the student today than in the past, and the pressure to be ‘successful’ is growing as the competition to be the best at everything expands. It is our hope that by working together, we can help prevent tragedy from happening to another family,” wrote Constance Hubbard in My Word: Students need to know they are valued for who they are.

She continued, “Teenagers are developmentally prone to ups and downs that can result in extreme reactions. They are also sponges for the adult attitudes around them. We have to work together to help young people navigate the bumpy road of adolescence and make sure that we are communicating how much they are valued for who they are.”

As I read her eloquent words, my skin prickled.

In the space of two months my sixth-grade son has gone from being a happy confident kid to a sullen guy who slumps his shoulders and calls himself stupid. While I knew middle school was bound to be full of both perceived horrors as well as actual injustices, I did my best to prepare my twin boys for what might lie ahead. I read Wonder out loud to them at bedtime last year, and each devoured every book from the series of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. We watched age-appropriate movies about the angst and difficulties of adolescence, and we talked about how different middle school can feel after graduating from the safety net of elementary school.

What I didn’t count on, though, was the impact of academic stress. Why I didn’t entertain this, I can’t say. I suppose I thought good grades could easily be achieved through good study habits and decent time management. I thought I brought wonderful expertise from my own upbringing, where high marks were stressed and expected. Surely I’d received the right role modeling. But as every parent knows, our children are not ourselves. My son struggles mightily with math. Always has, and quite possibly always will. In his mind, math is the dirtiest four-letter word around.

My son progressed slowly but steadily with math in elementary school. His confidence was still buoyant; he could ultimately grasp concepts, sometimes it just took a little while. He knew he needed additional support but he didn’t call himself stupid, he rolled along trying his best, with his tutor and me cheering him on from the sidelines, emphasizing progress. Math wasn’t his favorite subject but he didn’t hate it. He was still open to learning, to mastering, to becoming more and more successful, as I assured him he would.

And then, sixth grade arrived.

Within the first week, I received an email from the teacher about my son’s incomplete homework. Since then, I guess you could say we correspond on a regular basis.

“I have seen an increase in student stress starting as early as third grade when a student is not identified as ‘gifted’ or chosen for an accelerated program,” Hubbard goes on to write in her article. “I saw a sixth-grader crying because she got a ‘C’ on a test, thinking it meant she would not get into a good college. In my years as a high school counselor, I had to remind students and parents to embrace who they were and work toward the person they wanted to be: that they were not defined by a grade-point average, or by a list of higher institutions of learning where they happened to be accepted. Ask any parent whose child is in distress, or anguish, or is suffering as to whether or not a good grade in math is what will make all the difference.”

Amen, Constance Hubbard, when are you free for coffee? My spirits rose when I read her words. Hooray, I thought, someone high up in the education chain gets it. My only critique is that her message is primarily directed to parents. What about teachers? Or what about those of us who are trying to reduce the stress rather than pile it on? I can be accused of many subpar parenting moments but demanding sky-high academic standards has never been part of my bailiwick. Not that my kids would agree.

As soon as the word math is even mentioned, my son stomps upstairs and throws himself onto his bed, smashing a pillow over his head, refusing to get up. When I recently delivered the bad news that his teacher said he’d need to retake a math test, he turned over, which fooled me for a moment. “Okay,” he said, looking at me levelly with clear eyes, “I have a plan.”

He had a plan? I had to give him kudos for that.

“I’ll go to the classroom, rip up the test and walk out.”

I let him stew for a while and then I sat next to him and told him how hard it’s been for me to get a book published, and that I’m coming around to the fact that I should abandon selling my memoir and write a whole other book, maybe a novel instead. “I try my best to follow the three P’s,” I said. “I try to be productive, positive and persistent, even though sometimes I just want to give up.”

He wrapped his thin little arms around my neck. “Yeah, maybe you should write something else. I heard it’s mainly famous people who get their autobiographies published.”

“Man, you’re a smart little booger,” I said, enjoying his embrace and our math-free conversation. “Any chance you’d want to help me write a book about an eleven-year-old?”

He paused for a minute and then he nodded, “I have an idea.” He grabbed my laptop and flipped it open, a wide smile spreading across his face. Oh, how I’d missed that smile. And then he began typing.

“It’s going to be about a boy who feels like a geek. He has a crush on a girl at school who is really popular.”

“That sounds great,” I said. “Does something unusual happen?”

“Well, the girl is actually a geek inside, even though she’s popular at school. At home she has a lab where she does experiments but no one except her family knows.”

As his slender fingers struck the keys, I recalled what his fifth grade teacher said during a conference last year. “He has good leadership skills and he’s very creative. Just keep supporting him in math.” She looked out the window of the classroom and then turned back to me with a gentle voice. “He’s going to be just fine, long term. More than fine.”

And that’s what I’m going for: the long term equation.


17 thoughts on “When Math is a Four-Letter Word

  1. Great post, Cynthia!
    Sixth grade is such a difficult year! Seventh grade is a little easier, but not much.
    You’ve captured it all … including the parent’s longing to make things better.
    Great post!

    • Thank you, Sunny! I keep telling him the first year of middle school is usually the hardest. We shall see. I really appreciate your support and readership :)

    • Sharon – Thanks for bring Cindy and her writings into my life. You’re parents must have been truly amazing people to have raised daughters with gifts, among others, as intelligent, caring, creative, sensitive, supportive and persistent women. Kudos to you all and thanks to Cindy for this amazing read.

  2. Middle school is such a tough time! You are such a loving and engaged parent, and that will help him get through the tough times and flourish. As a math tutor, I have seen that the kids who have to work hard from an early age develop great study skills- keep up the great work!

  3. Cindy: It has been a long time since I have been in a math class. I couldn’t pass high school math ever!!!!! I learned math and chemistry by cooking and gourmet I am. When I was in grade school, the teacher taught us cursive writing by having us listen to classical music. Go from lower case to upper to the William Tell Overture…Priceless! and I still maintain great penmanship and love of the classical music. Maybe the teachers could make it FUN. Harriet

    • Harriet, I can attest to your great penmanship from the incredible Christmas letters you write. When reading them, I can almost hear the strains of classical music you undoubtedly have on in the background. What wonderful insight you provide. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

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