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Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? A Parent's Tale

Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? A Parent's Tale

To answer simply: nope, says this Brooklyn mom. This is how her son’s math homework became a family problem to be solved (or not). 


I don’t usually help Primo with his homework. Not because I have a philosophy against it or anything. The longer I parent three kids, the more I see my carefully constructed philosophies, the ones I’m really very fond of, go by the wayside. Life sends Philosophy to the chopping block.

The reason I don’t usually help Primo with his homework is that he typically doesn’t need it. He’s a self-starter, and he’s really good about tackling his homework solo. This is one of several reasons I don’t sell him to the gypsies.

But occasionally he encounters a problem that stumps him, and then he comes to me. Unfortunately, now that he’s in fifth grade, I am finding that I can’t always help. While I am well-educated and of reasonable intelligence, I do not belong to MENSA. Thus, I am not qualified to do fifth grade math.

Do you have a fifth-grader? Have you looked at their homework lately?

Holy mother of Euclidean geometry. It is hard.

Last week, Primo came over as I was working on my laptop and told me he needed help with math. “Let me see it,” I said, full of brio. (It feels good to show off your many years of education and experience to your children, to wow them with your intellect.)

Within five seconds, I was having heart palpitations.

“Wow,” I said. “This seems hard. But I’m sure it’s easier than it looks. Let’s just read it over again, nice and slow.”

We read: 

“There are 120 students in Granville Elementary School. 66 2/3% of them volunteered to help with the collection of cans for a food drive. How many students volunteered to help? Step 1: Change percentage to equivalent fraction. You know what to do.”

“Is this last part supposed to be a joke?” I asked my son. “Or are you actually supposed to know what to do here?”

“It’s not a joke, Mom,” he said. I could tell I was compromising my standing as Head Homework Helper.

What got me was the fraction inside the percentage. Is that even allowed? Can you even have a fraction of a percentage? I feel like such a thing will create a hole in the space-time continuum. It’s just not natural. So my first piece of advice was to ignore the percentage sign. To aid in this endeavor, I crossed it out.

“What are you doing?” Primo asked.

“It’s just making things too complicated, so let’s get rid of it,” I advised. “Just for now.”

“You can’t do that,” he protested.

“Are you sure?” I asked, genuinely. “Because it would make the problem a lot easier. Let’s just try it like that.”

We did it my way, which totally altered the question being asked and made it utterly impossible to arrive at the right answer, in the process robbing my son of the chance to practice the skills allegedly learned in school.

We couldn’t solve it my way either.

Who remembers how to find a fraction of something, or a percentage, much less both at once? Not me. So I did what people do in 2015 do to learn stuff. I Googled “How to calculate percentages.” Then I Googled “How to solve a fraction.” But we still couldn’t get an answer that made sense.

We moved over to scrap paper, on which we employed renegade strategies. At one point, I got really excited, sure that I’d cracked the problem wide open. I felt like Albert freaking Einstein. My paper was filled with wild mathematical equations, numbers crossed out, division symbols and parentheses and fractions being cross-multiplied.

“THIS IS IT!” I yelled. “We’ve got it now!” The answer I got was 3,876. “I think that’s right,” I told Primo.

“Mom,” he said, “how could 3,876 be 662/3 % of 120? How could 3,876 kids help with a food drive?”

“You’re very smart,” I told him, realizing that I was really more like Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind—at the end, after he’s gone loco.

That was about when David came home. “DADDY!” Primo shouted.

“Thank God,” I said.  

He looked at the problem and the first thing he asked was why the percentage symbol was crossed out.

“I didn’t like it,” I said.

“Move over,” he said. A half hour later, David had gotten us nowhere.

“I’ll write a note and tell your teacher that we don’t get it,” I said, “Just leave it unfinished.”

“No!” my son protested, a chip off the old stubborn block. “We have to figure it out.”

So I took things to the next level: I called my father. He was my go-to when I was in school, and he loves math. It’s been years since he was a deus ex machina for someone’s pre-cal problem set and, frankly, he’s missed it. 

As expected, Babbo saved the day. He knew just what to do and he explained it clearly. We had an answer that made sense. Sweet victory.

Until Primo’s teacher corrected his homework and we found out the answer was wrong.

Honestly, I can’t say I care at all. That’s what teachers are for.


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Author: Nicole C. Kear is the Brooklyn blogger behind and author of Now I See You (St. Martin’s). See More

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