My earliest memory of math is the homemade flashcards my mom made out of index cards to help me get faster with my addition and subtraction skills, and later my multiplication skills. Remember those sheets you would get in school that you had to try to get done in like five seconds or something dumb? I was slow and my mom wanted to help me get faster.
I hated those damn flashcards.
A few years later came fractions. If I thought I hated those flashcards, then fractions were straight up devil’s work.
Looking back, I blame the way math was taught, but that’s a whole different post. The fact was that math was hard for me, but I didn’t want to fail. And my parents didn’t want me to either.
Fast-forward to nightly math homework starting in middle school with all the equations and fractions. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with my head in my hands. Whoever had those textbooks in the years after me will probably find small wrinkled spots throughout the pages where my frustrated tears landed.
My mom, while naturally a numbers person (she’s an accountant), is more of a number organizer than a math person. My dad, on the other hand, has worked with fractions his whole life. He worked for Herman Miller–an office furniture giant–as a model maker. He and his team made the first prototypes (and following models) of what the designers dreamed up. Fractions were pretty much second-nature to him.
But he didn’t attempt to re-teach me fractions. Instead, he re-read the math problem with me. Thought about it and then said to me, “Think about it, Kate. Think about it.”
He wasn’t trying to get out of helping me, but he wanted me to really try before I gave up. He knew that I read the problem, got overwhelmed, and shut down. He wanted me to try to get it before declaring it impossible. Ninety-five percent of the time, that phrase was all it took for me to at least understand what the question was asking me. Often I still needed his help for how to set up the equation (especially if it involved fractions), but that simple phrase, “think about it,” was really telling me, “you can do this. I know you can, Kate.”
This past fall, while discussing the accomplishments of my brothers and I in high school, college, and career, my dad said, “You weren’t the most naturally gifted of the three of you, but you were the hardest working.”
I smiled and nodded. All three of us did quite well for ourselves academically. Their stories are not mine to tell, but I can say we all graduated high school with decent to excellent grades and GPAs, and we all got into the universities of our choice.
What we did to get there, stay there (some of us), and beyond wasn’t so much a reflection on who was the smartest, my dad pointed out. And success wasn’t determined by anything other than what you wanted to do with your life and whether you worked to achieve it.
You weren’t the most naturally gifted of the three of you, but you were the hardest working.
I spent a few days pondering these words.
It’s not really fun to be called “not the most naturally talented” even if you know that what the speaker was saying wasn’t meant to be a put-down.
I knew my dad was trying to compliment me, but I kept turning the words over in my head for another week until the night of my dad’s retirement celebration and dinner.
I’m going to confess something here. Even though my dad was retiring after 40+ years of working for the same company, I never thought about how this event was a big deal. The thing is, my dad is probably one of the most humble people to walk this earth. He just says “thanks” or shrugs it off if you tell him he did something amazing. So because he didn’t make a big deal about the event, I guess I forgot to too.
Then people he worked with started getting up and talking about how hardworking he is. They said phrases like, “Tom would say ‘yes’ to anything and then figure out how to make it work,” “Tom taught me that with hard work, you can do anything,” and “Tom is probably the hardest working person I have ever worked with.”
It’s one thing to know your dad believes in hard work, it’s another to listen to people talk about it and gush about how much they have learned from working with him.
That night I realized that my dad taught me about hard work too, and when he told me I was the hardest working of all three of his kids, it was one of the biggest compliments he could give. I didn’t just rely on my natural abilities (of which I had few), I decided I wanted to do well, and I did it.
“Think about it, Kate,” became my motto to myself through college when my dad wasn’t there to stand over my shoulder while I did homework or had to make a choice about going to class or sleeping in.
It became ingrained in my problem-solving and trouble-shooting when lesson planning, figuring out behavior plans, writing grad school papers, and even deciding what is the next best step for my career.
My dad’s words made a much bigger impact than just figuring out fractions, which if we are being honest here, I still have problems with, those words became how I navigate life.
Happy 65th birthday, Dad. I love you and I hope I can teach Eddie, Charlie, and Alice all to “think about it.”