Virtue & Mischief: It’s in there somewhere


Weekday evenings in the Swensen household are a chaotic combination of assessing how each person’s day has gone as we consume dinner under tight time constraints, readying for a practice or extracurricular activity (hereinafter “PEA,” for short) of some sort, snacking, traveling to said PEA, engaging in said PEA, driving back from said PEA, more snacking, completing homework, final round of snacking, preparing for bed, hastily cleaning every room in the house from schmutz and detritus related to incessant snacking, talking and praying together before saying goodnight, and—finally—lights out.

I’m not entirely sure how it’s come about, but over time Krista and I have developed a fairly consistently applied division of labor with regard to assisting Luke and Abby with their homework (Daniel is home-schooled and done with his work by the time the other two amigos return in the mid-afternoon). I usually help Luke and she usually helps Abby. Perhaps this arrangement developed because of the combination of personalities involved: Abby and I tend to be more easygoing about homework, more laissez-faire, less particular. Krista and Luke, by contrast, are more exacting, independent, and intense. If I helped Abby I’m not sure if she’d ever get assignments done on time or do them to the best of her ability; if Krista helped Luke we might well be scraping one or the other of them off the wall at the end of each evening’s battle over every division problem or reading assignment.

In any event, my responsibilities with Luke typically amount to hectoring him into putting down his Rubik’s cube (his mastery over this novelty puzzle is a little freaky; he recently researched online multiple methods of solving it utilizing lengthy and complicated “algorithms” and has memorized them) and coming to the playroom to get started, checking his math, and—occasionally—reading a book with him and asking questions to test whether he’s comprehended the material thoroughly. I must add that it’s been a totally unexpected and new pleasure watching him practice his trumpet this year, perhaps especially because I never learned to read music or play an instrument myself. I spy on him through a window on our porch.

He is a picture of concentration and extreme effort, gazing intently at his sheet of music (which, because we have no music stand, he must perch carefully on a rocking chair pulled up to his knees), carefully moving the first, second, and third finger buttons up and down as demanded, and puffing into his mouthpiece in short, determined bursts. Once in a while he plows through an entire tune without any major gaffes and the hard-won satisfaction is evident on his face. Awesome stuff, that.

Meanwhile, Abby and Krista are usually upstairs tackling Algebra. This is very much in Krista’s wheelhouse. She loves algebra and is excellent at it. Abby, on the other hand, grudgingly accepts that God, for reasons she’ll never grasp or appreciate, created algebra and ordained that it is a discipline that eighth-graders in Greenville, Ohio, in the school year of our Lord, 2015-2016, must study. Krista cannot understand why certain elements of algebra are apparently counterintuitive to Abby and Abby cannot see why Krista cares so darned much. At the conclusion of these sometimes boisterous sessions, to the credit of both of them, Abby usually “gets” what she’s supposed to “get” and Krista offers Abby the plaudits she deserves for her effort.

I very much admire Abby’s accomplishments in this arena, as I do Luke’s with his trumpet. Whatever success she achieves in math is because she’s put in considerable time and hard work. Still, I’ve noticed that she has acquired an odd and potentially debilitating dependence on her calculator while plunging into her math work. I speculate that this has something to do with her discovery that answers to very basic factual questions can be acquired by “chatting” with Siri on my Ipod. These two friends, Abby and Siri, recently experienced a disjointed and unintentionally comical exchange:

“Siri,” Abby asked, “how do you spell vacuum?”

“Why are you cursing at me?!” Siri retorted stupidly.

Sad to say, Abby’s reliance on hand-held technology continues unabated, notwithstanding this striking exhibition of its limitations.

“Abby, here’s a practice problem I made up for you to see if you understand what you’re supposed to do on these kinds of problems,” Krista told her one evening. “Take a look and solve for X.”

“What?! What? I don’t get it. What am I supposed to do?” Abby asked with equal parts confusion, desperation and incredulity.

“Just calm down. Take a look and solve for X,” Krista repeated.

Abby grabbed her calculator and looked at it. She turned it on.

“Abby,” Krista gently remonstrated, “slow down. Examine the problem carefully and just solve for X.”

“But mom!” she sputtered, grabbing and waving the TI-whatever calculator, “I have to use this! I have to!” She ogled her blessed device and concluded, “I know the answer is in there somewhere!”

By Tim Swensen

Timothy Swensen is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at [email protected]. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.

No posts to display