The sounds of the game in the head set didn’t mask Mom’s footsteps in the hall. Her steps stopped at my bedroom door and I hit the computer key that brought up the screen with my Algebra homework. She knocked as she barged into my room, polite and rude at the same time.
“Cliff? How’s your homework going?”. She asked
“I’m working on it.” I looked intently at the screen with my hands on the key board hoping she’d leave.
“Hon, that’s looks like the same equation that was there an hour ago. Having trouble?” She pried.
“Ughhh!” I thought. “Mom why do I have to figure this out when a cheap calculator or computer can do it for me? I’ll never use it.”. I tried to sound reasonable and calm, expecting an argument.
“Because you will need it in life.”. She answered.
“Got her!” I thought, slightly irritated by her answer. “When do you ever use Algebra?”.
She laughed just a little, cleared some of the clothes off the corner of my bed and sat down. “All the time.”.
I looked at Mom. Had I heard, that right? Mom was usually honest. This sounded like a lie and she didn’t like lies even little ones, but I wasn’t going to call her on it. “Ok, when will I ever need Algebra in real life? It’s useless.”.
“Right now it seems useless. That’s because of the way it’s taught. The way algebra is taught is kind of like handing a kid a loaded gun.”. She answered.
“You and Dad told me to never pick up a loaded gun so does that mean I don’t have to do this homework?”. I got her!
“No dear you have to do the home work.” She said. With an expression that almost screamed; “I should have expected that.” she said; “What I meant is Algebra is a useful tool and it's important to know how to use it correctly. It will help you get a head in life. There is no way to justify that from the way it is taught.”.
I tried to look like I cared, that usually keeps me from being hollered at when I disagree with what an adult is saying. Mom knew it when she saw it.
“Look say you’re the owner or manager of a company and you have an order for so many widgets.”. She grabbed a paper off my desk and wrote:
6a + 3B + 8C = D
“Look familiar?”. Without waiting for an answer, she said; “Now a is the number of employees you will need to produce one widget, B is equal to the time it will take those employees to produce one widget, C is equal to the number of thingies that it will take to make one widget. D is the number of widgets produced and you need to have 9 widgets by Friday.”. She looked up at me and said; "Seriously. If you understand this and know how to use it effectively you can become the manager or owner of the company instead of being the one there pushing a broom or making the widgets.". It was an ok argument but I still wasn’t convinced. A cheap calculator could do this and it would not take me long to program it to get the answer. She tried again.
“Hon, in the short term I don’t care if the answer you get is: red fish times happy. The right answer is not what is important. It is not really what you are being tested on or not what you should be tested on.”.
I just sat there and looked at her. That made no sense at all. If I got the right answer who cared how I got it?
“What is important is the equation. If you can’t build the equation correctly, you can’t program it into the computer or calculator and get the answer you need. The ability to understand, build and use equations is what you should be tested on. You are not being taught practical applications of algebra, how to apply it. It’s not just for CEOs. It’s used in evaluating what’s important in life: contracts, purchases, building, budgeting… all sorts of things.”. She paused and left the room to let me think about it.
P.S. verbal assistance from the younger generation was provided.