What Kindergarten Homework Taught Me

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I’ve never been a math guy. Numbers scare me in the same way zombies do; both seem so foreign and lack even a hint of personality. Words can sing. Numbers just stand there mouthing. The unhealthy relationship I have with plusses and minuses does not apply to homework, however. At least not the kindergarten kind. Because even if 1 + 0 = ? is just as cold and emotionless as ay2 + by + 2a + c = 0, it is a little easier to figure out. But not to my son, who understands the concept of adding one thing to another one thing and getting two things about as well as I understand how to split the atom. Put all of that together, and you have a recipe for disaster when the two of us sit down to complete his assigned work.

Last night we sat at the kitchen table to tackle the beauty that is addition. Past practice has taught us that both patience and planning is key. Which is why I brought coffee, and he brought Kool-Aid and a Tootsie Pop. And erasers. A lot of erasers. “To cover up my wrongs,” he said. I sipped and he slurped as we began, choosing to concentrate on one question at a time rather than the fact that there were five of them. I used props—pennies, golf balls, and fingers—to illustrate the principles involved. He nodded in agreement without knowing exactly what he was agreeing to. Then I decided to try and speak on his level. “Can I have one of your cars?” I asked, pointing to the tiny pile of toys beside him. “Sure,” he said, pushing one over toward me. “Can I have another one?” “Why?” “Dunno. Just want one.” “But you have one already. If you get another one, you’ll have…” His eyes lit up: “Two!” “Yes!” I shouted. At that point things progressed much easier. The first three problems were solved in a flurry of seconds, one question after the other attacked and pummeled with an answer of exacting truth. And then? Done. “That’s awesome!” I told him. He smiles, though it’s a sheepish grin and not proud. And he may have held his head a bit higher, but his shoulders will still slumped. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “You got all of those right.” “I know, Dad.” “What’s the problem, then?” He shrugged. “I don’t know how I just did all that.” “You don’t?” “Nope.” He leaned closer to whisper in my ear a confidence he meant only for father and son. “I still don’t know what I’m doing.”

The words were coated with strawberry Kool-Aid and grape Tootsie Pop, but they would have been just as sweet without the added flavors. Out of the mouths of babes comes much truth, whether they understand it themselves or not. I’ve been a father to my daughter for eight years and to my son five. That’s thirteen years of experience all together. Not nearly as much as most, but more than some. I wouldn’t say I’ve been around the block, but I know where everything is. I’ve changed diapers and calmed tears. I’ve endured countless tantrums and endless nights of worry. I’ve laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe in, and I’ve cried so hard I couldn’t breathe out. And I’ve realized that while it’s true that you never truly know what love is until you have a child, it’s also true that you never truly know what fear is, too. But maybe most of all, I’ve learned that I both miserably fail and amazingly succeed at being a father. The strange thing is that my failures often come when I’m trying so hard to do what’s right, and my successes often come without knowing how they’ve been accomplished. Parenting is a lot like math. You have to learn a little at a time, and often even the simple stuff is hard. There’s a lot you don’t know and you’ll never know enough, but love makes a great eraser to cover up all the wrongs. “I gotta tell you something,” I said. I leaned over and whispered in his ear a confidence meant for every parent and child. “I still don’t know what I’m doing, either.” “What do we do then?” he asked. “How about we just figure it out together?” “Yes.” Yes.

Post written by Billy Coffey. Visit his blog at What I Learned Today.