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?

(Continued from Page 2)

Desperate, I tried to farm out my homework. I gave my daughter a packet, explaining it was good for her to practice her math over the summer. She did 20 problems, then handed it back to me, saying, "Mom, this is your responsibility!"

So, I started cheating. Sometimes I would use my calculator to help me figure out the interim steps in a division problem. Sometimes I would do half a packet, and if I got it 90 percent right, I would copy down the answers for the rest. I felt no guilt. Without this aid, I would be finishing Level D about the same time the last Enron executive gets released from jail.

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Then, at the end of July, Shah told me it was time for me to take the placement exam again to see how far I'd progressed. With the test in front of me, I started sweating, and my brain began buzzing, but I forced myself to calm down and keep my fingers still. Most of the problems seemed easy now, although I realized all my "shortcuts" had left me weak in long division. There were no red marks this time—I had gotten 100 percent right! This triumph was tempered by the fact that the test was so simple it only showed that I was capable of doing third-grade math.

And now I was finally moving into fractions. When I looked at 32/56 I could see instantly it could be reduced to 4/7—something I didn't know before I started Kumon. But since I quickly got the concept of reducing fractions and changing mixed numbers into improper fractions, I rebelled at the idea that I would spend weeks doing drills on this. Then Shah left Kumon, and I appealed to the new instructor, Brian Rottkamp, for relief. He reluctantly agreed that since I wasn't the typical Kumon student, once I understood a concept, I could move forward without repeating packets.

I raced through Level E, which involves adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing fractions and introduces decimals. Now I was doing problems, such as 1 3/8 - 0.375, that I don't remember ever being able to do in my life. But I barely passed the Level E test: While I understood how to solve the problems, my mathematical skills were so weak that I made numerous sloppy errors. Then I had a setback. My daughter's school notified me that they were going to move her up a math level when school began. Although she would be in fifth grade, she would be doing sixth-grade math. Sure, I was proud of her, but she was ruining my plan. Kumon's Level F was sixth grade, and I had only a month to pass it—and even if I did, I wouldn't be ahead of her.

Level F required doing strings of calculations with fractions and decimals, for example: (3 1/6 - 1 19/24) ÷ (4 3/4 - 0.9). Having to solve such problems made me rethink my whole desire to be able to help my daughter with her homework. Phrases such as, "Hey, kiddo, do it yourself!" and, "If you don't understand something, ask your teacher," formed in my mind.

With only weeks left, I browbeat Rottkamp into letting me take the Level F test even before I had worked my way through the homework. I flunked. So, I went back and did some more packets, then took it again. I flunked. Again I went home to do more drills. Finally, it was my last day at Kumon, and my last chance to pass sixth-grade math. The test consisted of 50 problems that had to be completed in 25 minutes. With all my drilling, I now knew how to solve the problems, which was itself a sort of miracle. But as I watched the clock, I realized there was no way I could do them all in the allotted time. I put my pencil down exactly 25 minutes later. I had answered only 22 questions, which meant I had flunked again. Rottkamp decided to correct my test, just to see how I did on the questions I was able to answer. I got 18 right, which wasn't terrible.

Rottkamp tried to buck me up, telling me that moving through five levels in five months was impressive. And it would have been impressive if my age were a single digit number. As I gathered up my belongings, he offered one last consolation. "Given that you only spent 15 minutes on the test, you didn't do too badly," he said.

"What do you mean I only spent 15 minutes?" I asked.

He said I marked my start time as 5:19 and my end time at 5:34—15 minutes.

I knew I started at 5:19 and ended at 5:34. But I had calculated that to be 25 minutes. I sat there, stunned. Maybe I had a tumor, maybe I had a genetic mutation, maybe my daughter was right—I was hopeless.

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