Word Problems

If a train leaves Toledo at 4pm going 78 miles an hour….

In the words of a colleague of mine, “worst thing I ever read.”


Word problems were the bane of my existence K-12. First, I never cared how many apples Suzy had over Johnny and I certainly didn’t care when the train from Toledo and the train from Cleveland might meet. Nothing about it ever made sense to me.

When it came to me and math, the struggle was real.

My favorite author (and Curly Girl’s namesake) Madeleine L’ Engle once wrote (paraphrasing here) that she fought mightily against math until she realized and acquiesced to the truth about math as she understood it–an “agreed upon fiction” that makes life easier for everyone.


Because (again, L’ Engle), if you have 0 apples, and you multiply that by 3, then of course, you still have 0 apples. But if you have 3 apples, and multiply that by 0, then why do you not still have 3 apples? Where’d they go? Nothingness? (She works this out beautifully, by the way, in her book The Other Side of the Sun, but I digress….)

Anyway, last night, it happened. The first math homework came home from 3rd grade.

6 word problems.

Y’all, I am 40 years old, and have not been in a math class for well over 20 years…and I swear to you my stomach twisted. And my heart rate went up. And you’d swear I’d suddenly turned 14 again, facing an hour of a-squared plus b-squared equals c-squared.

Good thing my kiddo is smarter and braver than her mama. And is showing quite an aptitude for math (for which I daily give thanks). She flew through the first 4 problems. The last 2 required “double subtraction”–at least that’s how I understood it. And Curly Girl couldn’t remember the way her teacher had taught her. So we reached an impasse. “No Mama, that’s not right!” “But sweetie it is the right answer….” “But that’s NOT how we did it in class!”

It seemed to me a perfect time to model asking for help. So we wrote a note to her teacher, and today her teacher sent one back, a wonderfully helpful, thoughtful one, showing two different options for solving those last two pesky problems.

Three things I’m thinking about after this whole scenario:

  • Freshman year of high school, my Algebra teacher said to me (in the midst of an after-school tutoring session), “You’re just never going to get this, are you?” What teacher says that? In fact, who says that to anyone? At all? For whatever reason? It immediately squelches creativity, initiative and desire. It dampens the spirit. And in my case, it set up a solid mental road block when it came to math.
  • CG’s teacher’s response to us included two different ways to solve the problem. I cannot tell you how much I appreciated this. Not only was it helpful to me, but, big picture, it is such an important lesson–there is, almost always, more than one way to go about doing things. Alternative solutions. Variables. Things that play to your strengths and things that don’t when you are confronted with a situation.  I once heard someone say, “Math is life. Life is math.” I’m not willing to totally swallow that line of thought, but today, because of a 3rd grade teacher’s illustrations on two different ways a math problem could be solved, I can taste a little of what it means.
  • I work in development now. Which means lots of fund-raising. Which means I read budgets. And run numbers. And look at spreadsheets. And calculate “How far to goal?” in my head. Which is to say clearly I am capable of dealing with numbers, even if it isn’t my favorite thing. What if somewhere along the way of high school, someone had said that–“You’re capable,” instead of, “You’re just never going to get this.”

Look, we all have our strengths and weaknesses. And we are, ultimately, responsible our own selves for how we do or don’t use those strengths and weaknesses, how we do or don’t develop and hone them. And sooner or later, a girl’s gotta let go of an impatient and frustrated teacher who made a thoughtless comment one afternoon. Also, I will always choose writing a paper/a letter/brochure copy over running a set of numbers.

But in between that with which we’re comfortable about ourselves and that with which we are not lies such tremendous potential for growth. Such possibility. Such vast landscape for learning something new and discovering parts of ourselves we never knew existed.

Our individual sum total–it is so much more than we generally add it up to be. 

5 thoughts on “Word Problems

  1. Wonderful as always! Algebra was always another uninhabitable planet for me. Thank goodness that I excelled at reading. I loved being a school media specialist and bringing students joy by sharing books. Today I am blessed to work at the public library and I get to continue to share my love of books and reading. You and Curly Girl will be fine with Math and what a great teacher!


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