Whiteboard, Part 1
When it comes to math, I had two teachers that really formed my entire approach.
The first was Mr. Pike in middle school. He was funny and clever, and loved puzzles. He was always challenging us, forcing us to stretch our problem-solving skills, then asking us if we were sure about our answers. I can’t count the number of times he smiled at me and asked “Bet your life on it?”
The other was Mr. Lagarde. He was the high school teacher everyone was afraid of, the one who was completely unyielding when it came to math. As far as he was concerned, there was never a reason to be wrong in math. If you didn’t get the right answer, it was because you messed up. There was no room for “I forgot” or “I got confused.”
Earlier this year, the kids had some questions with their math homework, and when I sat down to work with them, I found myself huddling over pieces of lined notebook paper, squinting at faint pencil scratches.
So I put a whiteboard up in the kitchen.
It was an instant success. We use it to work math problems, draw silly cartoons, and write to-do lists.
A couple months ago, after a weekend of helping one son with algebra, I wrote an incredibly long problem on the whiteboard and tossed the dry erase marker to him.
“Go for it.”
His mouth actually dropped open. “It’s too big.”
In my head, I could see Mr. Pike standing tall at the blackboard, his lips curved into a little grin. I felt my own mouth smile. “It’s nothing you can’t do,” I said, repeating my teacher’s words from over thirty years ago. “You know how to do every piece of this problem.”
“But Dad!” my son said, “My teacher doesn’t make us do this!”
My smile faded as I flashed back to high school Calculus with Mr. Lagarde. “Your teacher isn’t here,” I said. “I am.”
“It’s not – ” he started.
“You can do this,” I interrupted. “Just take a look. Is it a linear function?”
“I don’t know!”
“Sure you do,” I said. “Just remember your tools. Do you see any exponents? Is x multiplied by itself?”
He examined the formula. “It’s linear.”
“How do you eat an elephant?” I asked.
He sighed and picked up a marker. “One bite at a time.”
Five minutes later, he’d completed the problem. “There,” he said. “That’s it.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Bet your life on it?”
He examined it again. “This is right!”
I nodded. “Yep. You did it.”
“That’s right,” he said, still hot about being made to do the work. “I did it. Not we. You didn’t help at all.”
I laughed and gave him a high five. “You’re a genius.”
He was right, though. I hadn’t helped at all. It had all been Mr. Pike and Mr. Lagarde.