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A Problem The Teacher Couldn’t Solve

Wed, 20 Sep 2023, 11:05 AM (-06:00) Creative Commons License

1. Meet the Teacher Night

Parents started coming into the classroom at 5:30. I showed them around the room, although there’s not much to see. We talked about the curriculum, although the notes are underwhelming. They signed in. Most hung around for five or ten minutes and then went to the next teacher.

One family came in with siblings. The mother wagged a finger at a younger one as he grabbed a marker and feigned writing on the whiteboard. I smiled at him.

“That’s ok,” I said. “Go ahead.”

I figured he’d draw pictures. Instead, he turned to me and said that he could give me a math problem I couldn’t solve. 

“Ok,” I said.

Math has never been a competition for me. I’ve always been most interested in organizing the work and been slow at the actual numbers. Indeed a first grade report card that I once saw safely archived in a folder my father kept in his file cabinet in the basement observed that “David is not good with his math facts.” But how can you deny a kid who’s excited about hard math problems?

“What’s the problem?” I asked him.

2. The Problem

The brother started writing numbers on the board — a multiplication problem. Then he turned and handed me the marker.

I rewrote his figures, lining up the places, drawing a straight black line underneath. I began multiplying and carrying digits. I intentionally did it quickly, speaking aloud to narrate what I was doing. As I went, I found myself writing carried digits on top of the carried digits from the last pass, but I kept on racing through until the problem was done.

“There,” I said, pointing to the number below the straight black line. I pushed the cap on the marker and set it down. “Let’s see if I got it right.”

The brother reached for his sister’s phone. I handed him a calculator which she helped him with. He punched in the numbers, and then he held up the result with a wide grin on his face.

The lights in the room flickered, and sparks fell from above. The ceiling began to race upwards and the walls press inwards, the room becoming a tiny square cylinder enclosing me. It was hot and smoke began streaming in through the door. The lights flashed again and then went out. The floor shook and a deep voice rumbled from the darkness overhead.

“Y o u    g o t    t h e    p r o b l e m    w r o n g . . .”

The brother jumped with glee. The parents said, “Ohh…”

3. The Morning After

The next morning some honors students came into my classroom. 

“Mr. Hasan,” they said. “Coach Henry says he solved a math problem that you couldn’t solve.”

The floor shook slightly. The booming voice echoed in my head.

“Y o u    g o t    t h e    p r o b l e m    w r o n g . . .”

“You know,” I said, “I think I know the problem he’s talking about.”

I walked to the board and wrote it out. 

“That’s the problem!” one of them said, evidently amazed that I was able to recall it exactly. (How could I not?) The booming voice echoed again.

“Y o u    g o t    t h e    p r o b l e m    w r o n g . . .”

“Yes,” I confessed. “I got it wrong.” It was pointless to explain that my carried digits got confused, so I just left it at that.

“Let me see if I can do it,” one of the students asked. She needed some help to remember such a rudimentary skill, but after a while she got it.

“Yep, that’s it,” I said. “That’s the problem I couldn’t solve last night.”

Coach Henry has good cause to gloat. But oh my gosh, what do those parents think!?

The floor shook one last time.

© jumpingfish by David Hasan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License