The Not Exactly Complete Works of Peter Schulman

©2006, 2010 Peter Schulman
 
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Fifth Place

Chapter 2

“And goodnight to the old lady whispering ‘hush.’

“Good night stars.

“Goodnight air.

“Goodnight noises everywhere.”

I knew Justin was asleep. He would definitely have joined in with “hush,” had he been awake.

He was already past three, but I suspected I might have to keep reading him Goodnight Moon until he graduated high school.

I put down the book, turned out the light and headed to the kitchen where Nancy was studying at the table.

Earlier, she had told me she needed some help with Social Studies. In this particular case, she was having trouble remembering some names and dates.

I was tempted to tell Nancy that the reason she was having trouble was that nobody really ought to care, and names and dates were mostly irrelevant. What was important were the concepts of why things happened and the general time periods in which they happened, the flow of history. I was tempted, but I didn’t.

I remembered the math incident.

My younger brother Richard had a very unpleasant encounter with an algebra test. Actually, it was really an unpleasant encounter with an algebra teacher.

Richard had understood all the material covered in the test and used the concepts correctly except for the slight problem that he was careless with his arithmetic. Sometimes he would use the multiplication sign, but add the numbers. Sometimes he would subtract instead of divide.

All of the correct formulae and symbols were right there on his paper except for some of the final answers. And to this written proof of his understanding of the concepts, his teacher had affixed a red “55.”

Mom said Dad should do something. Dad said that Richard had to learn to be more careful.

I tried to explain to him what a complete understanding of the material Richard had shown. I passionately argued that the answers were of minimal importance compared to understanding in order to correctly lay out the problems.

Dad was unmoved. So I decided to visit Richard’s teacher on Parents’ Night.

I confidently strode into the correct room. After all, I was a senior. Richard was just a ninth grader. “I’m looking for the engineering teacher, Mr. Werth.”

“I’m Mr. Werth, but I’m the math teacher,” he said.

“No, that isn’t possible. I’m looking at this paper, and the engineering teacher marked many of these problems incorrect because the final numbers were wrong which, of course, is the correct approach in engineering. Do that kind of sloppy work and the bridge will fall down.

“But, if you were a math teacher, you would understand that the final answer is almost irrelevant. What is important is understanding the concepts and how to do the problems. I want to talk to the other Mr. Werth; the one who understands mathematics, not the guy who builds stuff.”

I had meant to focus him on what was important in math: understanding the concepts. I thought this approach would bring clarity.

He thought I was insulting him. He said as much to the principal, who demanded an apology on behalf of Mr. Werth the following day.

Rather than proffer the requested apology, I sought to elucidate.

“Look at this handout. Look at all these extraneous steps. No wonder this dufus can’t recognize when a test is done correctly, he doesn’t even understand the material himself.

“Math is about concepts, not answers. He thinks he’s teaching engineering. Look at these steps. They’re here because he doesn’t understand the basic concept that both sides of an equation --”

That was as much as I got to say. The principal was not concerned that fundamental principles of mathematics were not being taught correctly. And apparently, my attempt educate him on that point did not suffice for an apology in his opinion, because I was invited to spend the next week at home, rather than at school.

I may have been less than gracious in my acceptance of the principal’s judgment.

“If that’s the kind of stuff that’s being taught here, I’ll learn a lot more by not being here to have to listen to it.”

Mom and Dad disagreed with my approach, at great length and volume. They made their points with words like “grounded“ and “punished“ and phrases like “you can’t use the car for a month.”

As a result of this incident I learned that, for most teachers, understanding the material completely was absolutely irrelevant. What they wanted was to have the material spoon fed back to them in the format in which they understood it. They didn’t want a better way. They didn’t want a more efficient way. They wanted their way.

So I decided not to try to retrain Nancy’s teacher. I taught Nancy how to make up a silly story about the names and dates and details. Make up a silly, outrageous, inconsistent fantasy and it would be so memorable that any information you embedded in it would be unforgettable.

Harry didn’t need any help with his school work so I just let him tell me about what was going on in school and, to the extent he was willing to talk, his life.

Betty noticed all of this activity. It wasn’t anything unusual. I helped the kids whenever they needed it and, when I was home while they were up, I would visit if they didn’t need any help.

“Nice you could spend some time with them,” she said.

I could just leave it at that, but then you couldn’t possibly understand what was going on.

Her tone could have said she noticed but really didn’t much care what was going on.

It could have said this was because she was tired or she wasn’t interested in them or in me or she was so involved in her own thoughts she was just marking time by commenting on what she’d seen.

She could have used a tone that said she loved to see the interaction between me and our kids and it warmed her heart to see we had such a close relationship.

Or, though as I have indicated it would have been unjustified, her tone could have contained a tinge of sarcasm. Or, more subtly, irony, because the time spent with them was so unusual in her opinion.

Betty opted for irony.

I had no idea whether she cared how I interpreted it. Our relationship was not the same as it was when we got married. I chose to see her irony and raise it.

“Yes, I really enjoy it. Don’t you?”

 

 

  Chapter 1  

  Chapter 2  

  Chapter 3  

  Chapter 4  

  Chapter 5  

  Chapter 6  

  Chapter 7  

  Chapter 8  

  Chapter 9  

  Chapter 10  

  Chapter 11  

  Chapter 12  

  Chapter 13  

  Chapter 14  

  Chapter 15