My dad was a pretty good dad. He was above average in many things. He taught his children some very positive values. He introduced and nurtured (among other things) our interest in reading, skiing, nature, music.
Some things, however, were beyond him.
I can’t figure out whether he was not effective as a math tutor or whether I was a hopeless student. Perhaps it was a bit of both.
My father contended that math was “easy”. No opinion here. “Either you know it, or you don’t!” he said. His was a stark world of such absolutisms. A product of the great depression and the second world war, his world view was unquestionable. Poverty-bad. Nazis-bad. He was an aeronautical engineer, and he knew his stuff. He laid out how to solve the problems I was struggling with in tenth grade. It made perfect sense to him, but might as well have been Sanskrit to me. As I reminisce right now, I wonder if I just feigned ignorance hoping that he would solve my problems for me. He solved many many other problems as they arose. I leaned pretty heavily on his example and his advice in most things. No such luck. He expected me to know the rules that governed how to get the “right” answer. All I saw was a bunch of seemingly arbitrary rules that, if followed, gave some other seemingly arbitrary number. The exercise had zero meaning to me. I had to do it because society demands it for high school matriculation. It was like a punch line to a joke that went over my head.
One of the defences that I cultivated as a kid with dyslexia was to make jokes and absurd statements to deflect from the fear of it being discovered that I’m not as clever as I thought I was. I couldn’t use this diversionary tactic with my father. He knew I was fudging. I quickly depleted his (admittedly small) supply of patience until it deteriorated to the point of us yelling at each other and his ordering me to not leave my room until it was done. He said I could “take your time, but the longer it takes, the more things you will miss.”
He checked in on my progress after a half hour or so. I was miserable. Sensing that he needed a different approach, he thought he’d cheer me up with a relevant story from his experience. He was calm. Probably bolstered by a glass of Sherry. He asked me to guess what his math mark was in University. My dad studied engineering at McGill University (interrupted by WWII). I guessed wrongly that he got 90. We tried again several more times and I continually guessed wrong. He finally just told me. Not boastfully or bragging, but just matter-of-factly. “100%. Either you know it, or you don’t”. I was incredulous. I had never had 100% in anything. Not even close. The closest thing I ever had to a perfect score was my batting average in little league baseball. I hit .000 which is perfectly dreadful. It is essentially what a dead person could do. I was on a par with corpses. My dad was on a par with the Gods…..
He told me that when he enlisted in the Air Force, they looked at his math scores and wanted to send him to navigator school. My dad refused. He made the case for becoming a pilot and the recruiting officer relented. Dad had argued that “you want the really smart ones controlling the aircraft”.
His pep talk had the reverse effect on me from his intended result. I thought “how could you compete with that?….I give up!” I knew I was smart about a lot of things, but I was entirely prepared to not do math! I would not compete with perfect.
I flunked. Plan F.
I had to repeat math the next year (plan B) as it was still compulsory to matriculate. I could not avoid it. Fortunately my new teacher was Mr. Hayes. He was funny. He was patient, he made math at least bearable. He would stand by the board and flip his chalk while instructing or fielding questions. There was rhythm there. There was humour, there was absurdity. He never once dropped the chalk either. Mr. Hayes motivated me to just do the work and follow the guidelines.
I am pretty sure Mr. Hayes did not get 100% in math. He probably didn’t get anything close to that in pedagogy either. I don’t know much about him, really. I have thought about him about as infrequently as I have the same math that I have never used.
If my father were still alive today, this would be his 100th birthday. He missed it by 18 years. As much as I miss my father, I am glad he didn’t make it to 100. He would have been insufferable.
“100. Either you get there, or you don’t!”