I'm a math moron. No, really, you don't understand—I'm a math moron.

Humiliating myself for fun and profit.
Nov. 14 2006 5:46 PM

The Math Moron

I can barely add and subtract. Can I learn enough math in five months to help my fifth-grader with her homework?

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My biggest challenge was to stop counting on my fingers, a lifelong habit. I forced myself to keep my fingers still, thinking of Kumon as a sort of mental methadone. Just how far I had to go was apparent every Monday and Thursday afternoon, when I went to the Kumon center to do on-site drills. There were usually several dozen children there, who looked like they ranged in age from about 5 to 12, seated at two-person desks in neat rows. We either completed work packets checked by a group of young adults who sat in a bullpen in the middle of the room, or took tests that determined if we could move to the next level. One day, I got 100 percent on my subtraction drill, but my pride was tempered when I glanced over at the 10-year-old next to me to see she was dividing fractions. Another day I sat next to one of my daughter's classmates. "You're here, too?" he exclaimed, then burst out laughing, as if finding himself a character in one of those child-and-adult body-switching movies.

I usually parked my daughter in a small waiting area filled with parents at the front of the center while I did my drills. Often Shah went there to talk to the parents about their children's progress. About a month after I started Kumon, my daughter reported that she and Shah had a discussion about how I was doing. They agreed I was working hard, but that multiplication would be a big hurdle.

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That was true because I had only the sketchiest relationship with the multiplication tables. Now that I had it memorized through 10, it was liberating to know how much 8 x 7 was. But my homework, which I used to toss off in 10 minutes, was taking me an hour to complete. And because the computations were so much more complicated, I kept making stupid arithmetical errors (I multiplied 638 x 6 and got 3,548 instead of 3,828) and I regularly made 10 or more mistakes in a packet of 200 questions.

One night, my husband asked to see the packet I was working on.

He flipped the pages and asked, "This is hard for you?"

"Yes," I replied.

"Seriously?" he said, eyes widening. When I assured him it was, I realized I was looking at the face of a man staring into the evolutionary abyss. I could see he was regretting that he had allowed his DNA to be carried into the future merged with mine. Luckily, our daughter is good at math.

I finally graduated to Level D, multiplication of multiple-digit numbers and introduction of long division. Because of the laboriousness of the huge numbers one must calculate, Level D is known as Kumon's dropout level. Early on, I could see there would be trouble. I was supposed to be able to divide a single digit into a three-digit number—for example 777 ÷ 4—in my head. I simply couldn't do it, so I "cheated" by using a scratch pad.

A little while after that, I had my one brilliant math idea. Coming back to Washington from New York after a Slate meeting, I rode the train sitting next to my editor, David Plotz. At the beginning of this project, I established that David was a math whiz when I got him to tell me his SAT math score: a perfect 800. On the train, as I struggled over my homework, I suddenly realized I should make David do it. I handed him a packet, and within minutes, he was making the same groaning noises that emanated from my Kumon seatmates. "This is awful," he said as he tossed his finished packet back at me. But his agony was my ecstasy as I corrected his work and found he had gotten five wrong out of 200. That I was getting two to three times the error rate of a math genius made me feel wonderfully average.

David was right, Level D was awful. Since it took me several minutes to figure out a single problem, I was now spending two hours a night on each packet. The true misery in the Kumon method is that once I finished a packet, I was given it to do again.

With the new school year looming, I was increasingly worried I would never reach my goal. My daughter had already started on fractions and decimals, which were still as incomprehensible to me as Poincaré's conjecture. I discussed my distress with Shah, but she said doing the same problem multiple times was essential to mastering the material. I accept that this unshakable attachment to drills and repetition may be why the Japanese are better at math than Americans. But it may also be why the Japanese invented ritual seppuku.

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