It All Adds Up

  Mrs S married Mr S primarily for his mathematical abilities.  So many people focus on emotional compatibility, or shared interests, or looks, or wealth. Mrs S was mostly thinking about the children’s homework. When they met on the platform of Shadwell station in south London, on the 31st May, 2003, Mrs S noticed Mr S’s rower’s physique right away, but it wasn’t until she found out about the Cambridge maths degree and masters in particle physics that she started to take him seriously. You see, Mrs S crashed out of math in high school as soon as quadratic equations came up. Could there be a more pointless form of torture? She felt betrayed by imaginary numbers, as most of the numbers she’d been using in math since about eighth grade had been imaginary, and she thought it was unsporting to introduce rules about how and when she was allowed to use them. It was her imagination, wasn’t it?  Apparently not. So, after scraping an unimpressive C in Algebra 2, Mrs S dropped math, and was so happy to do so that she was only mildly offended by the fact that her Algebra teacher was also exultant. Tactless, that. The only pang of regret Mrs S ever felt was five years later, sitting her GREs (standardised graduate school aptitude tests) when it took her six consecutive questions to remember what to do with negative exponents. This wouldn’t have been a problem were it not for the fact that the test was set in a computer format that didn’t allow you to go back to change your answers, and selected your next question based on your performance thus far. So once it was revealed that Mrs S’s knowledge of negative exponents would require a negative exponent to accurately quantify, she was doomed to have no other type of question ever again. But even these pangs were shortlived, as it turns out PhD programs in philosophy, even good ones, don’t care all that much about mathematical aptitude if you have good scores in verbal reasoning and logic. 

 So, since she was fifteen, Mrs S had known that if there was to be any mathematical talent in her future family, she would have to marry it. The education of her future children depended on it. After they finish fractions, decimals and basic geometry Mrs S will be useless at helping with math homework, after all. This is what made Mr S such a perfect prospect. And before you start feeling too sorry for him, you should also know that he is of such a disposition that, far from being disappointed or insulted, having a woman fall for him because of his numerical brilliance was likely the fulfillment of a youthful fantasy…or would have been if he were given to fantasies. But despite his wife’s lack of numerical comprehension Mr S does fine out of the deal, really, at least Mrs S thinks so: she does cook nearly every night.  (On the downside, Mr S is continually annoyed by Mrs S’s failure to say “maths,” as he thinks is proper, but Mrs S maintains that as she has nightmares about math, then the pluralisation of her nemesis would only make matters worse.)

Now, twelve years after that fateful meeting in Shadwell, and nine years after they were married, Mr and Mrs S have three children. At two, four and six, they are obviously much too young to be bringing home anything so frightening as algebra (Mrs S avoids even contemplating the eventuality of calculus), but Mrs S is already relieved that she can pass off anything complex and numerical to her husband. R, the eldest, is only six, but it is already obvious that he has his father’s mathy streak.  He sometimes asks for daddy to teach him “some fun, really hard maths” instead of having a bedtime story, which is all the more surprising because he loves books. 

The only issue there has been with R’s math progress to date is that he is skeptical of his need to memorise his math facts because he is “really good at estimating.” The problem Mrs S has found with winning this argument is that R isn’t wrong: he is excellent at estimating. Of course, in primary school they expect precision. It doesn’t matter if R can tell instantly that 23+46 is about 70 if he stubbornly refuses to memorise 8+5=13. Nonetheless, he enjoys learning math with his father. His retention isn’t perfect, but he does follow as it’s being explained to him. They’ve covered fractions, percentages, basic statistics, square and triangular numbers, simple geometry like perimeter and area, and different strategies for adding and subtracting large numbers. These topics are by no means beyond Mrs S’s abilities, but given that R is only six, and things can only get more difficult, Mrs S is very relieved that she snagged a mathematical husband.

C, aged four, is a different beast all together. She usually remembers that 20 comes after 19, but occasionally she still thinks it’s 19, 91, 92, 93… Sometimes she understands how to add one.  And sometimes she doesn’t. Mrs S taught her to add up on her fingers, which worked until they got to five plus one:


 “Hold up five fingers. Now hold up one more. How many do you have?”


“No, count ALL your fingers.”


“No, sorry: count the five fingers and the extra one.  How many?”

With furrowed brow, C looked at her hands, counted the five fingers on one hand, then looked at the single finger on the other hand.  “One.” she said again. 

Mrs S smiled and managed not to laugh.  She didn’t want C to think she was making fun of her when all she was doing was remembering.  “We’ll do some more math after lunch,” she promised, speculating that they might have better luck with counting beads or beans than fingers.  

Lunch was leftover pasta, and Mrs S put it into the microwave to warm up and went to grate some fresh cheese.  Suddenly C was very upset:

“Mommy! Mommy! The microwave is broken! The numbers are going backwards!” 

Mrs S glanced over just to make sure that was the only purported problem with the appliance. “They always go backwards. When they get to zero it will beep,” she assured her daughter.

“But they’re counting all wrong!” C cried indignantly.

“No, they’re just counting down. You learned to do that in school. Remember?” Mrs S said.

C sighed and nodded. “Yes, but I thought it was ridiculous.”

Mrs S was once again incredibly grateful for her husband, because someday someone might have to explain negative exponents to C, and it certainly isn’t going to be Mrs S.

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