The Magic Number


    My 10-year-old son runs from math like it's wielding a machete and wearing a goalie mask. And I wasn't so different when I was a kid. 


    When it comes to math, my 10-year-old doesn't just roll his eyes or whine. To Maxon, math isn't harmless like an annoying little brother. Math is dangerous. Math is a monster. Maxon runs from math like it's wielding a machete and wearing a goalie mask.

    Over this past school year his math phobia intensified, hitting its zenith this summer as we struggle to help him complete the math packet that was sent home with him at the end of fourth grade.

    When he and his brother sit down at the breakfast table with the packets, 7-year-old Ezra takes his problems one at a time, absently chewing on a piece of toast as he works. Maxon pounds on the packet with his fist, digs the heels of his hands into his eyes, stiffens his body, fixes his stare on the page, gnashes his teeth — the struggle in his head visible behind his reddening face.

    Once his brain sets in this "I can't" concrete, no logic, promises of treats or punishments, reasoning or coddling will crack it. He just has to go through the episode, eventually calm down, and try again.

    Two times out of three, we get a repeat episode. I feel powerless and frustrated for him, but I do understand. It's not that he isn't capable of working a problem, it's that he doesn’t think he's capable of working a problem. Somewhere along the way, he lost his confidence in math completely.

    I wasn't so different.

    I had my own fear of math, tiptoeing around it most of my life. Unlike words, which I could manipulate and re-invent and add and subtract and multiply and divide with ease, numbers flew at me from the page like a colony of bats. In our house, my husband heads up the math department, handling Maxon during a math crisis.  

    Last week during vacation, when Michael headed back to the city for the day to take a few meetings and bring Ezra to a pitching clinic, he left me with the parting words, "Make sure Maxon does his flash cards, and at least one page of the math packet."

    I got right to it, because nothing says summer fun like multiplication problems and anxiety attacks. 

    The two math-phobes faced off on the sofa and went through the multiplication flash cards. It took fewer than three questions to stimulate Maxon's panicked flight response. I put down the offending card (8×7) before any blood vessels exploded and told him we would take a break. He went to his bedroom, and I opened my computer and typed in "Multiplication Rock."

    When I was a girl facing a fragrant mimeograph of purple multiplication problems, I had a catalog of songs in my head to use as a reference because I was addicted to Saturday morning cartoons and the School House Rock! shorts that aired between shows. If I was at my desk staring down 8×7, I just sang the melancholy "Figure Eight" song in my head until I got to 7×8. 

    One times eight is two times four, and four times four is two times eight. If you skate upon thin ice, you would be wise, if you thought twice.

    It's an emotional song. 

    So I played Maxon the songs, from "My Hero Zero" to "Little Twelvetoes." I sat on the sofa with my book (Outlander. Digging it), listening, getting weepy.  

    A man and a woman had a little baby. Yes they did. Now there's three in the family. 

    After I wiped away my tears-o-nostalgia, Maxon came back to the sofa to go through the flash cards again. He did so calmly, and with more right answers.

    Every day for the rest of the vacation, he and his brother looked at the "Multiplication Rock" video. Afterward, we went through the flash cards at least twice. He stopped having math crises. He gave more right answers.

    Do I think he is over his math phobia? Not entirely. There's more work to do this school year. But when it comes to multiplication, he now has more confidence. Math has ceased to be a big monster, shrinking into the form of an annoying little brother — one who sings "3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 21, 24, 27, 30" all afternoon. 

    And that's the magic number.