“Of Human Bondage” and its trove of… parenting wisdom?

One reads the classics because

Actually, I won’t presume to know why anyone else reads a classic novel.*

Having long since passed the stage of life wherein, to quote the Indigo Girls song “Closer to Fine:”

…I went to see the doctor of philosophy
With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee
He never did marry or see a B-grade movie
He graded my performance, he said he could see through me
I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind
Got my paper and I was free

Very much in spite of much of the bureaucratic process we call schooling, but with deep regard for the great investment of time and energy—of inestimable value!—into the bettering of my mind by more than my fair share of gifted teachers, I remain a student, if not a scholar, and a committed autodidact.

For this reason—and because I suffer from an oscillation between stultifying malaise and desperate, yearning agitation when I don’t have a good book at hand, preferably with a few more queued upI read and re-read the classics.

book novel Of Human Bondage coverLast month, I embarked upon the reading of W. Somerset Maugham‘s hefty tome, Of Human Bondage.

The wholly inadequate summary of the novel in the library catalogue says:

“The story of a deformed youth whose handicap causes loneliness.”

I would laugh if such a shallow skimming over of the depth of this story didn’t leave me wanting to sob. It’s almost a caricature of the isolation and lack of understanding that torments Phillip, Of Human Bondage‘s orphaned protagonist, during his youth.

With little interest in literary criticism, let me come directly to what moved me so deeply as I worked my way—slowly, because it deserved thorough attention—through this weighty novel:

Phillip needed a caregiver.

He really could have used a mother. He flailed because being orphaned left him to learn for himself what most of us are taught by even mediocre parents.

He was born with a less than stellar internal compass for interpreting the giving and receiving of any kind of love. He wasn’t what we might call today a “people person.” He was one of those kids who most need explicit help to interpret the social world, and take a full role within it.

Reading Of Human Bondage made the importance of the part I can play in my sons’ lives more unequivocal to me than ever before. I should be mature enough not to doubt it; I remain insecure enough that I do.

I’m grateful that I didn’t read Maugham’s masterpiece as a student.

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Poring over pre-algebra textbooks to appease my non-math anxiety

I read six math textbooks yesterday from cover to cover, and I perused at least half a dozen more.

Math books textbook Laundry

Observe that the clean laundry was folded onto one of the stacks of textbooks, because it had to be done, but there was no energy left to move any of these objects elsewhere around the house

Why would I do such a thing? It’s because I’m feeling unprepared for pre-algebra. That’s making me anxious.

Wait, what?!?

I’ve said it before, but I’ve also learned that I must repeat it: I’m a lady who is good at math.

And, I’m going on about that again because I’m undertaking something new.  My current anxiety hinges on my ability to impart my knowledge of, and suitable appreciation for, the application of math… to someone else’s child.

A friend and her daughter are going to learn at home this year, like DS1 and I (and millions of other American kids) do. In addition to offering general advice, and pointing my friend toward excellent textbooks and home school collaboratives, I’ve agreed to help the girl by teaching Pre-Algebra.

As usual, when my friend floated this idea a year ago, I enthusiastically agreed. I offered encouragement, pointed out the pitfalls of which I’m aware, and sent her a steady stream of supporting research for whatever it was we talked about while all of this was theoretical.

It’s pretty fair to call me an enthusiast. In what area of interest? Well, whatever might be my fascination of the moment. I’m a serial enthusiast, and my intellectual appetite often exceeds my physical stamina.

Also, I work a project until I’m thoroughly exhausted; then I walk away* depleted. And I do walk away. It’s common for me to return to areas of interest after these desertions, but I don’t take them all up again.

My interest in a subject rarely subsides, but my activity in that given area rarely draws a shallow curve or a sensible straight line of steady progress. Jagged peaks and desolate valleys do a better job of depicting my levels of effort over time.

You can see it on my blog. I’ve considered composing posts and spacing them out on a sensible schedule of distributed areas of interest, but… I don’t really want to. Because, when I’m obsessed with camping equipment, or studying German, or maximizing minivan efficiency for a road trip, or the vital importance of true mastery of algebraic concepts, that is what I want to talk about, almost exclusively

until the next month, when I move on to the next thing. It’s fair to describe me as somewhat obsessive. I also accept the label of dilettante.

Which brings me back around to what I’ve done. I’ve hitched a young lady’s wagon to my erratic star, and it’s making me nervous.

I’m not a math teacher. I’m only marginally reliable. What have I done?

And yet…

…my young friend, whom I’ll call The Scholar, is exhibiting patterns I expected from the story I heard about her school experience. I gave her a series of pre- and post-tests from my various textbooks, and here’s what I uncovered:

  • She sees a novel problem, and she’s inclined to shut down. She sees each one as an opportunity to be judged a failure, not a chance to learn a new way to answer her own questions in the future.
  • She was given rules to memorize for calculating answers, but no explanation for why such rules work (or has no recollection of the explanations.) Math is a set of magical black boxes she’s supposed to carry around forever, weighing her down instead of providing tools she can use to accomplish much more with less effort.
  • She asks me if her answer is “bad.” She means, “incorrect,” but her feelings are out of alignment with the scale of the mistake.

When The Scholar asked if her math was “bad,” I pointed out that she wasn’t spitting on babies and kicking puppies. Making a mistake means she didn’t know what to do, or she didn’t do it right all the way to the logical conclusion. Incorrect? Yes. In pre-algebra, we are actively seeking convergent answers! But this is not a moral failing.

Life is full of emotionally fraught situations that put us through a wringer. Math isn’t one of them. Either we know how to proceed, or we learn—or look up—what to do. This should actually be a carefree process in the realm of feelings. This is purely intellectual.

The bad feelings here are a result of prior training. I think this is what happens when math is taught by someone with a phobia who doesn’t love, or at least appreciate, the subject.

So I’m not a math teacher, but I’m going to take a swing at this. Based upon the evidence I’ve gathered from my sheaf of pre-tests, my influence is likely improve the situation. It’s possible that it already has.

You see, one instruction I’d given The Scholar was to please indicate near each test section any strong reactions provoked by the content. A lot of those she recorded were negative. But a few problems were annotated, “fun!” That’s heartening to see, and it surprised her mom.

It’s been a long time since The Scholar enjoyed any element of her math education. We’re definitely going to include some of these “fun” puzzles in her upcoming assignments. All computational skills practice will benefit her. Puzzles and well-designed apps can offer her skills practice with less pain.

I could go on at even greater length about the positive qualities of the math curricula I’ve been perusing. As you can see from my photos, we own more than one set of elementary texts. I couldn’t even lay hands upon DS1‘s pre-algebra book (publisher Art of Problem Solving‘s Prealgebra) for my photo shoot. He and his grandfather were still busy with it and couldn’t be bothered to give it up on my (frivolous) account.

Math books textbook Life of Fred

Life of Fred

For a child who’s learned to hate math, I can’t recommend strongly enough a perusal of Life of Fred (Stanley Schmidt’s utterly unconventional collection) and/or the comic-book formatted Beast Academy series (another contribution from Art of Problem Solving.)

Math books textbook BA

Beast Academy

It doesn’t matter if the stated age range is “beneath you.” These books are fun to read, and I’d guess even most educated adults would learn something new about a subject they consider mastered by spending time with them. I did.

Upon reflection, I’m really grateful that my latest project will give me another turn through the workaday skills of pre-algebraic math, and in the company of a bright and unconventional kid like The Scholar.

I think we’re going to have a lot of fun.


*Perhaps sometimes better described as: I fall down and lie at rest and let the subject move away on its own.