No, I can’t help with your math homework

For all the parents out there trying to home school their kids as we shelter in place during the Covid 19 quarantine, my heart goes out to you! I really feel like us moms of teens dodged a bullet with the online schooling process. Which we deserve because teens are HARD. Don’t even get me started. This post was originally (with a little physics overlay I added in September) from the days when we had more to do with the kid’s homework, and we were just at the point when we were realizing maybe we truly weren’t up to the task

These days, I’m reminded of the many times that math homework proved to be the absolute end of my belief that good things exist in the world. It doesn’t happen so much any more, mostly because my kids are pretty self-sufficient at this point. Or because they know that my left eyeball starts twitching when they ask for math help.

But one new wrinkle has emerged. At my kids go high school, the science curriculum starts with Physics. Which is basically mathematical ways to solve science-type problems with rules (so many rules) that seem always to be in dispute. Plus some kinds of superscript and subscript squiggles. I don’t know why, but just looking at those makes it hard for me to catch my breath.

I was asked to “check over” someone’s summer homework the other day (OK, it was after dark the night before this assignment was due). We started with a video about significant figures, which it turned out was not a movie about overlooked women mathematicians at NASA. That was “Hidden Figures.” We got about three Octavia-Spencer-free minutes into this thing and my daughter said “Mom! Are you OK?” My hand was over my chest and I was gasping.

They were measuring something that was clearly four centimeters long and just saying it was 3.099 centimeters long or something for some reason and then there were the rules about non zero numbers to the left, and to the right but only at the end and then and . . . . can I just take a minute here? Because I can’t breathe.

Frankly, in the end, my older student, more savvy in the ways of how to submit this type of homework (you get three tries and there is a way to easily copy your right answers into the next try) was of the most help. I just poured a glass of rosé and wished for the easier times I wrote about a few years ago, which you can read after this artful picture that makes math seem so harmless.


I’m not saying we are bad at math in this house, but I do employ two tutors.

Things started off okay. I mean, there was that one time that my oldest was put into remedial math and I thanked her teacher for insuring that she grows up to be a failed celebrity stylist with a coke habit. But after that, one of the kids even qualified for the gifted program at school in math. And those Starbucks gift cards were still in my drawer, so I knew this was truly a merit-based placement.

But then came “new math.” Is it new math? New new math (but not old math)? I called it Singapore Math in front of one of the tutors the other day and she quickly said “Math in Focus,” in a way that made me feel like I made an ethnic slur or something. True story: one of the kids’ math teachers straight up went to Singapore to learn this stuff and began wearing those pajama outfits and triangle hats around town.

The point is, everything went pear shaped after that.* No one could understand what exactly was going on. I had reports from the kids that the teachers were convening mid-class with questions about how to teach lessons. I don’t blame them. I have on several occasions been completely undone by math homework. Just the thought of finding the greatest common factor or least common multiple (Is it the same??!?) gives me agita.

It would be one thing if I could just show them how I did it, but that’s all over now. There are venn diagrams, and buckets and SO. MANY. WORD. PROBLEMS.

It’s not just me, the other night as I was putting one kid to bed, I could clearly hear my husband shout whispering “negative and negative makes a positive. A POSITIVE. It doesn’t matter why!!!”

I would like to be more sanguine about things. Something about math just riles us all up. I am pretty sure that the lesson one kid is learning from math homework is to yell loudly and annoyingly in the manner of whale speak from “Finding Nemo” until someone tells you whether 31 is a prime number.

Math homework plus parents who are equal parts old and tired multiplied by hungry children equals our house around dinner time. Solve that for x!**

*In this instance, pear shaped is a term that means something has gone, perhaps, horribly wrong and was maybe originated in the Royal Air Force. This use is mostly limited to the UK and other areas where people have cool accents like Australia, but I first heard it in The Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (best of the movie franchise). Which proves I am better at vocabulary, googling, pop culture references and ranking stuff than helping with math homework.

** This is a made up math problem with no actual answer because: math.