Woster: Keeping the mind sharp with math


Due to the pandemic, I’ve been trying to help our granddaughter check math assignments after she has finished them.

Two things about that: First, back in March when the COVID-19 virus became an actual thing in this country, I never figured I’d still be writing “due to the pandemic’’ in October. I figured the virus, like so many others, would sweep through and then fade until next time. Instead, it’s running stronger than ever. Second, at this stage of life I never figured I’d be doing anything with basic mathematics, much less trying to remember enough from 65 years ago to help with anyone’s homework.

Yet, here I am, reading story problems and encountering integers and complex fractions and quotients and reciprocals. I’m embarrassed at how much I’ve forgotten. I’m also frightened at how many times I have to read over an explanation in one of the textbooks to comprehend what I’m seeing on the worksheets. I probably should sign up for one of those senior citizen catch-up courses offered by groups like AARP and others as a way to keep us older folks’ minds sharp.

It wasn’t always this way. I was pretty good at arithmetic in grade school, and competent in math, algebra and geometry in high school. Of course, I had some great teachers who guided me. They made sure I mastered the basics. They showed me how to build on yesterday’s lesson to solve today’s assignment. Teachers like Howard Elrod taught me that math isn’t hard. It’s demanding. A person must keep up with each lesson. Failing to understand today’s lesson makes tomorrow’s lesson incomprehensible. Genius skills would help, I’m sure, but patience and perseverance are essential.

I’m pretty sure Mr. Elrod taught every major math-related class I took through four years of high school. He could be a stern taskmaster and he sometimes was a little gruff. He knew his stuff, though, and he knew how to convey the subject in ways his students could understand. He taught physics and chemistry, too. I took both of those courses from him, and it wasn’t until college that I understood how much I’d learned. My first year of college, I got into an honors chemistry course at Creighton, assigned there because I’d been valedictorian in high school. The first semester, seriously, was a review of stuff Mr. Elrod had taught us in high school.


I didn’t take math at Creighton. When I transferred to South Dakota State after one year, I had to take a bunch of placement tests, the same ones incoming freshmen took, I think. Well, the math test I took was basic stuff. About halfway through, a guy next to me said these things didn’t matter, so why didn’t we ditch them and head downtown. We did, turning in half-finished papers. Didn’t matter, right? Actually, we both got placed in the lowest-level math course the school offered. Turned out the tests mattered. I got a decent grade on the course, but the whole semester I wished I’d finished the placement test.

That was maybe the last time I used theoretical math. My kids came along for some kind of new math. I didn’t have a clue how problems got worked out. I usually could get the right answers. I just couldn’t show how I got there. After that, as a news reporter, I used a calculator most of the time to decipher campaign finance reports and agency budgets and tax packages.

Then the pandemic blew into town. The granddaughter has Type 1 diabetes, so in August her folks opted for online learning, at least to start the year. She does much of her daily work at our kitchen table, Zooming in for classes, trading message with teachers, doing workbook assignments and sending in photos of the results, things like that. It’s kind of impressive how they are making it work. I’m sure, though, she’d rather be with her friends in class than stuck at our table.

And I’m certain she’d prefer to have her work checked by someone who has opened a math book in the last half century. Due to the pandemic, she’s stuck with me for now.

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