the common denominator…

He sat at the kitchen table, head in hands, moaning. Even as a very young child, Chet always reacted to stressful moments of “I have no idea” in this same way. From across the room I called out cautiously, “Everything ok? You need help?” He lifted his head, his big almond eyes cresting with tears but his voice angry, “Yes. I hate this. I don’t know how to do this.”

Chet’s only been in a “real” school for a couple of months and inevitably he’s encountering concepts we had not covered in homeschooling or concepts we covered and he didn’t really imbibe. In any case, his frustration was clear. I admit, I was reluctant to jump in too quickly. Math was never something I was able to imbibe with any consistency. My brain just didn’t drink it in, oil and water…I wasn’t sure I’d be of much help.

When I looked at his paper I saw that he had completed a good portion of the problems but the “puzzle” he was meant to solve with the answers made no sense. His approach was off. He had to erase it all and start again. This news was greeted with renewed moaning, his head returning to his hands.

“You have to start with the greatest common denominator,” I said, “you have to figure out where these two guys meet, where they intersect, what they have in common. It’s like right now they don’t speak the same language.” I pointed to the fractions, stunned, frankly, that I even remembered how to add them at all. “They’re Republicans and Democrats trying to have a conversation about policy or freedom or social programming. They can’t even come together to figure out what they have together until they know what they have in common. See?”

I’d like to say at this point that perhaps he looked up at me with a wide, innocent 12 year old gaze of admiration, a moment of recognition, of “getting it” on several deep levels all at once but that’d be overstating it. What really happened is that he nodded, picked up his eraser and began the messy process of beginning again. “I think I remember this a little” he said with some reluctant resilience. I leaned over his shoulder and watched for a minute or two while he worked, blowing away the random bits of graphite and rubber eraser from his page, noticing the traces left on the page of past mistakes, making room for new attempts, for the pursuit of the common denominator.

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One thought on “the common denominator…

  1. Remember that time I was going to be your kids’ live-in math tutor? I’m not sure if those were the terms exactly, but I like it. Best of luck to him finding the metaphorical common denominator, by the way.

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