Thursday, December 06, 2012

Because I Said So: Blood pressure numbers go up with math homework

A couple of years ago I started going for regular checkups with our family doctor. There, among a maze of beige hallways, waiting rooms, exam rooms and bathrooms, various fluids are extracted, body parts are handled and questions are asked. It's like some sort of safe and sterile torture chamber with a copay.

That said, I'd rather go through having blood drawn and urinate in a cup once a day rather than deal with homework time around this house. There are some kids who take to it easily and urgently, almost aggressively. And then there are others who need ... prodding. The first graders at Richland Elementary School are given a packet of homework to be completed by week's end. That makes for a busy Thursday evening. The idea, of course, is to do a little each night, but a little each night would, indeed, cause my blood pressure to skyrocket dangerously.

She's a smart little girl, my first grader, and Procrastination is her favorite subject. It's difficult for me to be too upset by this, however, because the idea for today's Because I Said So column on the misery that is first-grade homework, came to me as I begrudgingly sat down to write the column at the last minute.

Don't get me wrong, I love writing for a living. It's just that I hate writing for a living. Eudora Welty said, "I like to have written." Being finished with writing is the greatest feeling in the world as is, I'm sure, being finished with homework. The trick is to get to that point, to pull yourself (and your first-grader ... or third-grader ... or sixth-grader) up over that mountain of textbooks, worksheets, pencil shavings and projects, to the other side. That's the side where serenity lives, the side where my blood pressure dips down to a normal, healthy measure.

Please enjoy this week's Because I Said So column:
The hardest thing about kids: Math homework
A word to the wise today for new parents out there: Take your eyes off your sleeping baby just long enough to read this column. She'll be fine; they rarely up and roll out of a crib or burst into flames. And she'll still be just as precious when you return,
What you should know is that there is a time coming that will make you forget who that sparkling newborn come forth to brighten your lives ever was. My fellow veteran parents know what it is and I apologize now for any post-traumatic stress you may suffer when I tell these new mothers about the mother of all headaches: a first-grader's homework.

Is there anything more dispiriting, more threatening to our blood pressure, than sitting at the dining room table trying to induce a 6-year-old to focus — please focus! — on this next math problem? The induction of labor might be a more pleasant experience.

Walking? Piece of cake. Talking? It's only natural (though be aware that once it starts, it will not stop). Learning to ride a bike? The worst you might end up with is a broken bone, and it won't be yours. Even the teens and puberty, driver's license and prom have nothing on that half-hour … hour? … You'll lose all track of time trying to teach your child about time.

The table, normally the site of tranquil family dinners, becomes a battleground, the only weapons a stubby pencil, wrinkled worksheet and a fleeting grasp of the most basic in mathematic fundamentals. I point, again, at the problem at hand and read it aloud to my daughter. She's there with me, physically, but her mind is across the house with her siblings, or in a pineapple under the sea.

When I finish reading, she looks up as though surprised to find me there, and then she answers: "Four?" No. "Eight?" No. "Three." An exasperated look. "Two. Twelve. Four?" When it becomes too much, when the intensity over these integers becomes more than I can bear, the answer is, at long last, shouted: "Five! It's five!"

And then we both just sit and stare at each other because, once again, it's I who blurted it out.

Our homework session ends when I stand to leave the room as she writes an "S" in the wrong blank.

I love my daughter. Perhaps I don't say that enough in this space. I love all of my children just as much as you new parents cherish that ball of drool and gas sleeping in its crib beside you (I know you haven't even left the nursery), but this one might not be cut out for academics. She's more Frankenstein than Einstein these days.

But we're working on it together, and throughout first grade I expect her grades to rise as steadily and as high as my systolic pressure.

Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook:

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