Sunday, May 10, 2009

Xeroxing my way to success

One year when I was in grade school, we had a series of speed-based math tests. We worked on these for weeks.

Every Monday we'd receive a new worksheet with a bunch of simple operations on it...on the order of 8+12=___, 17-9=__ and so on. The idea was for you to fill in the blanks and turn in your test as quickly as possible and the teacher evaluated how fast you were. I remember the teacher making a big deal out of this.

We'd keep the same worksheet for a week, retrying it daily. Although I was good at schoolwork in general, I had a lot of trouble with this task, and my dad decided to help out. The outcome probably motivated him to avoid helping me with homework thereafter.

Initially, the helping seemed to go well. I got a new test on Monday, I brought it home, Dad contributed his help, and by Friday I was the fastest in the class. As I recall it, I was a lot faster than anyone else. I was the star student.

But on the following Monday we got a new test and I was among the slowest again. I remember this really bothering my teacher, and embarrassing me, and boy was I sensitive to embarrassment.

I knew what the problem was the whole time, though I felt unable to tell anyone about it. Back then, access to photocopy machines was rare, but my dad worked for Xerox. So when I brought home a new worksheet, we carefully whited out the answers and then he made copies and I worked them at home repeatedly, with him timing me, until I was fast.

Like the famous counting horse, Clever Hans, I knew what results were wanted and I gave them, but there was a communication problem: I wasn't really solving the problems. I was memorizing the answers. So I climbed to the top of the heap fast, but when the teacher switched worksheets, I was thrown right back to the bottom.

I know we figured this out as a family. I don't remember what happened after that. But it was pretty embarrassing.

What strikes me about this is how I was unable to talk about this. I mean, I know I knew something was wrong. I knew I was supposed to actually work the problems. I guess I thought I'd get in trouble if I talked about it. And the way we were studying the problems, by running through the worksheets with a stopwatch, seemed to naturally lead to memorization -- I've always been good at that sort of memorization, anyway.


  1. I read this and think to my self, "Man, that teacher was lazy and stupid."

  2. You are supposed to memorize simple math facts, but you memorized the tests instead. The teacher definitely had her methodology wrong :)