Math for dumb bunnies

By Mel Grossman

Happy days are here again! Just as the kids universally looked forward to summer’s arrival not so many weeks ago, Mom’s now look forward to Fall and the blessed ringing of the school bell. Matter of fact even most kids, as

I recall, are usually anxious to get back to the order and discipline of the classroom. There is just so much summer any of us can stand, and that probably goes for most all barefoot boys (and girls) with cheeks of tan.

One Mother that I knew particularly well, in fact, intimately, was a young teacher in an early 1900’s one-room rural school house up around Paris, Ohio. She, and many of her fellow teachers in Ohio, came out of Kent Normal School (now Kent State) when Kent Hall was the only building on campus, the administration building was a tent, and the student body numbered at best in the hundreds, if that. Many graduates eventually headed out into Ohio’s rural classrooms as “school marms”.

Most of you reading this column are no old enough to be aware of the little white, one-room school houses of that era; perhaps even received your early education in one. Inside, a teacher’s desk at the front, maybe a blackboard, a wood-burning pot-bellied stove, and usually eight rows of desks, each representing grade levels one through eight. Outside, an outhouse or privy, and farm land. Both building and curriculum were pretty simple. Teachers at that time taught every subject to all grades, and more often than not on a one-on-one basis. The curriculum included reading, writing, arithmetic, history, and geography.

This particular teacher loved mathematics even if she had trouble at home teaching her own son ‘thought problems.’ Remember those? “If one train leaves New York traveling west at an average speed of 45 mph, and another leaves Chicago at 50 miles an hour heading east on the same track, will the scrambled eggs and bacon served in the dining car still be hot when the two trains collide?” My answer was always the same, no matter the problem: “Duh, I don’t know.” The teacher’s standard reply: “Why you dumb bunny! Don’t you see … da dah da dah.” No. I didn’t see, and still don’t. To this day hanging on my den wall is my personal, unequivocal mathematical creed: “I reserve the right to pass out in algebra class, because in real life there is no such thing as algebra.”

Meantime, back to our favorite teacher who had even less success with the little farm boy in the second or third row of her one room school house to whom math was at best perplexing and “carrying numbers” was a foreign language. No matter how hard she tried, she could not get him to understand how to “carry” a number from one column and add it to the next column when totalling the numbers.

You know the drill: 4+5+6 = 15 … write down the 5 and “carry” the 1, and add it to the next column. If you don’t know what I’m talking about here, don’t worry about it; he sure as heck didn’t either. At any rate, the homework assignment for the next day was yet another set of those pesky ‘addition’ problems. Simple addition. Nothing requiring a slide rule. Even so, there was little hope that the lad would return in the morning with problems correctly solved. But, you never know …

Hosanna! And by golly! Next morning his neatly done homework was not only complete, but heavens-to-Betsy, it was perfect! Each and every problem solved correctly. By some miracle, overnight, young Einstein had learned

to “carry” numbers. “How did you do that?” teacher asked, warmly yet suspiciously. He pointed to row 8 where his older sister was trying to hide behind her books. “She helped me,” he replied, with an honesty that only a child can muster. Teacher turned to the older sister, waving his homework in her direction, and in a somewhat accusatory tone said,: “Did you do these problems for him!?” The sister’s denial was immediate and emphatic: “No, no!” she cried. “Well,” countered the teacher, “he says you helped him. How did you help him?” The sister nervously swallowed and then answered: “I just told him: “You don’t ‘carry’ the numbers. You ‘tote’ ‘em.”

In my next column, we will tackle the English language, with emphasis on rural Ohio colloquial expressions. Til next time then class … tote on, y’all.

By Mel Grossman

Mel Grossman is a local resident and guest columnist.

Mel Grossman is a local resident and guest columnist.