Just for fun, I recently asked several people if they knew the meaning of the phrase, “the three Rs.” Most gave me blank looks. A few remembered that it refers to “readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmetic,'” and one sang the old song about school days perfectly. I couldn’t have sung the verses, but the chorus has stayed with me for decades, evoking not only my own early classrooms, but also the wonderful one-room schoolhouses still standing across the country:
School days, school days,
Dear old golden rule days.
‘Readin’ and ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic,
Taught to the tune of a hick’ry stick.
You were my queen in calico,
I was your bashful barefoot beau,
And you wrote on my slate,
‘I love you, Joe,’
When we were a couple of kids.
Given that the song was written in 1907, the words of the second stanza seem remarkably modern:
‘Member the hill, Nellie Darling,
And the oak tree that grew on its brow?
They’ve built forty stories
Upon that old hill,
And the oak tree’s an old chestnut now.
‘Member the meadows so green, dear,
So fragrant with clover and maize,
Into new city lots
And apartment block plots,
They’ve torn them all up since those days.
Unfortunately, skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic have degraded over the years as surely as that old oak. School buildings may be fancier now, but I’d willingly bet that graduates of the Bichet schoolhouse shown above could hold their own against many of today’s students, particularly when it comes to the basics.
I will admit that, during my own primary school years, I loved reading and ‘riting, but ‘rithmetic was the bane of my existence. Eventually I learned to add, subtract, multiply, and divide, but by that time I was old enough to be faced with accursed, anxiety-producing word problems. For example:
Devon is going to make 3 shelves for her father. He has a piece of lumber 12 feet long. She wants the top shelf to be half a foot shorter than the middle shelf, and the bottom shelf to be half a foot shorter than twice the length of the top shelf. How long will each shelf be if she uses the entire 12 feet of wood?
Faced with something like that, I’d wonder why Devon didn’t just go to the store and buy some shelves, saving herself the aggravation of all that calculating.
In truth, I wasn’t being practical. I was exhibiting behavior typical of what’s come to be called a math-phobic: stymied as much by my conviction that I couldn’t ‘do math’ as I was by the equations themselves.
There always have been teachers able to recognize and cope with the condition, even though I wasn’t lucky enough to have one during my school years. When I read about Michael Gallin, a high school math teacher in the Bronx, I envied his students, and wondered how differently my relationship to math might have evolved had I been in his classroom.
In an especially interesting article about his approach published in the Washington Post he say of his students, “They are afraid of being wrong, and that fear of being wrong cripples them.”
I might have used ‘paralyzes’ rather than ‘cripples,’ but the dynamic he describes is familiar. Eventually, it was sailing that overcame my paralysis. Forced by my sailing instructor to learn navigation as well as knot-tying and engine-bleeding, the revelations came swiftly. That speed-time-distance formula? Algebra. Triangulation as a means of determining position? Geometry. It all was so useful, and best of all, it was understandable.
In time, thanks to math-savvy friends who actually enjoy playing with numbers, I began to understand that math not only could be useful, it could be fun. When one of them passed on a little gem of a puzzle to me recently, my first amazement was that I could do the mathematical calculations and arrive at the answer.
The twist, of course, was that the formula also could be expressed in the form of a limerick. For once, figuring out the words was harder than doing the math. Once I was given a clue — read the first three numbers not as numerals, but as descriptions of ‘things’ — it got easier, and the limerick began to emerge.
If you’re inclined to give it a try, I’ll give you a couple of clues. The limerick begins with “A dozen” and ends with the phrase “and not a bit more.” Once you click on the solution, it’s unbelievably obvious, even though it takes some creativity to get there. Have fun!