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Front Porch: A cry for more story problems

Sat., Dec. 3, 2011, midnight

Some things don’t add up. Such as, how a journalism major and an English major could meet and marry, then have three mathematical kids. What are the odds? Actually, I don’t care to figure them because I’ve filled my quota of math-based conversations lately.

My 10-year-old, Ian, for example, recently expounded at length about multiples. I nodded and made encouraging noises. Then my eyes wandered back to my book. Though I’m a lover of language, he was using words that had different definitions than my mental dictionary. He wasn’t talking about twins and triplets.

This kind of miscommunication is a common problem in our home. To me, prime is the best or highest quality, as in a good grade of meat. To my kids, it’s a type of number. Prime numbers, I assume, are the best numbers.

Math changes the meaning of many other words. A root, I say, is the part of the tree that grows underground. A log is what you call that tree after it falls in the forest. They look at me like I’m going off on a tangent, though apparently that doesn’t just mean taking the conversation down a rabbit trail.

So, when Ian finished talking about multiples, I said, “You like math, don’t you?”

He smiled wide and nodded, his eyes shining with knowledge. I suggested he talk to his older siblings. He deserves to share his enthusiasm with someone who relates. During a road trip, for example, Emily and Isaac don’t have to ask when we’ll arrive at our destination. It’s much worse. They can figure the time based on our projected mileage and how fast we’re traveling, for fun.

When Emily was about 8 I realized the depth of her love for numbers during a philosophical conversation about heaven. “Mama, do you think there’ll be hard math in heaven?” she asked.

Startled, I replied with a question. “Would you like that?” I bit back the obvious answer that hard math is saved for hell. She sighed and said, “yes.” Unfortunately, her longing for challenging math often went unrequited. Though she enjoyed school and adored her teachers, math class offered only brief bits of satisfaction – when she spotted a mistake in the curriculum.

As a parent, I felt powerless to help Emily reach her mathematical potential. I was the 10th-grader who counted the days until I completed algebra and could study interesting subjects like psychology and debate. That was a long time ago.

So, I turned to the source of my kids’ math genes – their grandpa. My dad was a software engineer and math major who’d been handy for homework help during my childhood. He happily tried to give Emily a little piece of heaven on earth by buying Mathmania books for her to work through over summer breaks.

This helped, but Emily still yearned to learn challenging math at school, a situation that’s rarely possible when teachers are forced to aim instruction at the bulk of the students, to the largest common denominator. While we understood this problem, we wished there was a solution that would work for our child, as well as the other students.

In seventh-grade Emily finally got that opportunity. She’d always had good teachers, but for the first time she had a teacher with the ability, resources and passion to feed her hunger for harder math. He stretched and pushed her with calculations and concepts that made her work and wonder. And his efforts were heavenly enough to hold her until high school, when she could take as hard a math class as she wanted. I’m thankful for teachers like Mr. Powell. If he were a number, he’d be the best kind, a prime number.

Reach Spokane Valley resident Jill Barville by e-mail at 

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