Column: With Dad, things just don't add up


When my third-grade daughter spun away and sighed, it was a sign that I’d failed.

Nothing new there — with parenthood, failure germinates like mold in a sauna — except that this deficiency involved a new subject.

I’d been trying to help with math homework in a workbook mistakenly titled “Simple Solutions.” Math and simplicity are natural pairs in the same way that fingernails belong in a milkshake. She requested to no avail that I verify her answer.

If posed with the option of solving some math or sprinting head-first into the grille of a Peterbilt, I’m strapping a skillet on my head and saying an Our Father. There’s a reason, you know, why Satan is represented by a series of numbers.

“Dad, you should know this stuff,” she shamed me. “I mean, it’s called ‘Simple Solutions.’”

Yes, dear. Maybe if you’re 9. But I have not studied mathematics since passing the one and only math course required to earn a degree in journalism. It’s been a few years; determining the exact number involves subtraction and I don’t do that.

The question in question is what math people call “writing to explain,” which at least offers some vestige of hope in that the answers involves using words. For someone who writes, therein rests the only consolation.

Zoe added 403 and 968 in her head. She got the exact sum correctly and quickly. Explain how you think she did this.

Wait, what?

First, I can’t add those numbers quickly in my head. Second, if Zoe can quickly add those numbers in her head and nail the correct answer, I do not like Zoe.

I think the answer is 1,371. My daughter can figure that out, probably with that long, classic system of writing down the numbers and carrying over and whatnot. But how would she know what Zoe knows based merely on the fact that Zoe’s hurried estimation turned into a perfect prognostication?

“Dad, what do I write?” she asked.

My suggestion: Zoe got lucky.

That’s a creative answer at the minimum and I value imagination over numeration. Walt Disney built an empire because he invented a talking mouse, not because he was really good at adding. I’m an adult and the only math I need to know is how to balance a checkbook. For that, I rely on Texas Instruments.

Long division is too long and the square root of 64 is not important unless children grow up to regularly play trivia or, of course, go to Zoe’s for a sleepover. In the case of the latter, my children will return the favor and explain to Zoe that the best math involves two scoops of ice cream plus 16 Thin Mints.

There are 16 Thin Mints in a sleeve. Two sleeves in a box. We bought six boxes. That’s 192 cookies. There, mathematics at work.

Too bad Girl Scout cookies don’t make anyone smarter.

Because I can’t, as “Simple Solutions” has instructed, compare each quotient to its dividend. First, I don’t know which is the quotient and which is the dividend. Embarrassing enough on its own. But there’s more.

Make a general statement about dividends and quotients for whole numbers.

This one is yours, kid. I’ll grab another sleeve and show myself to the door.

The answer, I was told from a reliable source — my daughter’s godmother is a teacher and is thereby ordered by the covenant of the Catholic Church to provide counsel in cases of imminent peril and parental inability — is that the dividend is always greater than or equal to the divisor.

Who said anything about a divisor? Damn you, Zoe.

My wife and I decided long ago that while I can offer help with English, science and social studies homework, the math is hers. Some part of her — a part I am fine with never actually getting to know — actually enjoys math. Good times and bad. Sickness and health. Math and English.

Without math, I might have been the valedictorian. With it, I earned enough C’s to float an aircraft carrier. Yet I actually scored higher on the math portion of the SAT than I managed on the English section.

Jason quickly and correctly earned a substantial amount of points on the math-related SAT questions. Explain how you think he did this.

He got lucky.

Jason Recker is the news editor at The Herald. He still has the graphing calculator he used in high school. His email is

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