April! What other month can inspire a spat that covers half a millennium? Geoffrey Chaucer kicked things off when he rhapsodized about April showers being a “sweet liquor.” (Okay, his actual words were “swich licour” but when I typed that my spell checker exploded. Not cool, Geoffrey Chaucer!) Five hundred and fifty years later, T.S. Eliot grumpily retorted that, “April is the cruelest month.”
All of which means, of course, that my older son, Ben, is way deep into his Brit Lit survey course at school.
My wife and I love this stuff. And is it any wonder? Dena and I met and fell in love over sonnets, blank verse, and iambic pentameter. In those days I was to Brit Lit what Arnold Schwarzenegger was to bodybuilding. My textual triceps were forged pillars of cold steel. My allegorical abs were a wekidd cith pocke. (That’s Chaucer for “wicked six pack,” y’all.) Dena swooned into the arms of this literary Lothario.
Time passed. We married, had children. My diet of erudite literature was replaced by a steady intake of Teletubbies, and I slowly went to seed. My metaphorical muscle turned to figurative flab. My poetic pectorals sagged into a bibliographic beer gut. I was fifty shades of decay.
As Ben progressed in school he brought home books I consider rites of passage. To Kill a Mockingbird, Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies. Each one represented a point along a path that not only traced a love of reading but that led me to the love of my life. I envied him the discoveries he would make along his own path.
But it was when Ben dove into Brit Lit that I finally realized what a canonical couch potato I had become. He’d turn from his study desk repeating a quote he’d found intriguing and I’d flare with recollection, “John Donne!”
“Not even British.”
“Lord Wilberforce Shelley!”
“Dad, I know that’s just a string of random names.”
Okay. So I needed to knock some rust off. A lot of rust. About a thousand years of rust. But it’s there, you see? The old spark is back. The rust might be thick, but there’s a small patch or two where the cold forged steel is trying to peek through.
And then, Dear Reader, there is math.
All that stuff I said about a path that traced a love of something and led to wonderful things? I was not talking about math. If I was once a Shakespearean stud, I have always been a numerical numbskull. I am not prevaricating or even embellishing when I say that my seventh-grade math project was a piece of poster board on which I’d scribbled a multiplication table. And that at the intersection of seven and six, it said forty-six. And that my grade on this project was a D-minus. (Which feels even worse than the F-plus I once received in metal shop, another one of my strong subjects.)
If I am just now, when Ben is in high school, entering into prime time for his English studies, he left my depth mathematically in the fourth grade. Why fourth grade? That is when I purchased a book called Homework Heroes to help me understand the long division Ben was learning. And failed to grasp it. That is when I did the walk of shame into Ben’s classroom as school was dismissing and sat meekly as his teacher taught it to me step by agonizing step.
Dena – may her exponents never decay – is equally comfortable in the world of allegory and the world of algebra. She has cheerfully assumed the role of math tutor when our boys’ homework has called for such help. So imagine my panic a few months ago when our younger son, Sam, got frustrated with his algebra homework and Dena was out of town. Sam tossed his pencil on the table and began muttering darkly about multi-step equations and fractional variables.
I don’t know what these words mean but as they left his lips, a distant peal of thunder sounded, and when I typed them into Google, my computer monitor spun around three times and spewed green bile.
And then, voila! My search returned a YouTube video, and afterwards – I actually made a suggestion that worked! Sam was able to continue on with his homework, and I puffed up like a popinjay. I called Dena. Four times. I posted on Facebook. I sent a letter to the editor. I hired a skywriter. I helped Sam! With algebra!
Sad little math man that I am, I mark that event as my greatest parenting moment of the past year.
But in the end, it doesn’t matter whether you are English Dude or Math Chick. You are always the parent, which means every day is a pop quiz. Sometimes you know the subject matter like the back of your hand, and sometimes you don’t even understand the questions. It doesn’t have to be about getting the right answer, but rather about remembering that your little professors are watching. So in parenting, as in school, the most important thing is to show your work.