One of my favorite stories about my father also happens to be an instructive moral tale about parenting.

After a stellar elementary school career, where my only shortcoming was my inability to grasp (literally and figuratively) the Palmer method of penmanship, I entered junior high and promptly began to fail math.

My parents ran their own business and were adept calculators. My sister was ringing up the cash register at age 10 and has since earned a master’s degree in business administration. Dad’s older brother was a physicist. The math gene missed me entirely.

Dad tried to help me with my homework, but threw up his hands and growled about the “new math” he’d never learned back in the 1940s. I didn’t know it at the time, but the “set theory” we were force-fed was a reaction to our space race with the Soviets.

We all needed to be brainiacs to win the Cold War. This, however, was not the way.

I was not the only one struggling with the new math. It was widely criticized by both parents and educators, and popped up regularly in the comedy and satire of the times.


On a website authored by one David Pleacher, I found this new math problem that zapped me back to the 7th grade and nearly gave me a coronary.

“A farmer exchanges a set P of potatoes with a set M of money.

“The cardinality of the set M is equal to $10 and each element of M is worth $1.

“Draw 10 big dots representing the elements of M.

“The set of production cost is composed of 2 big dots less than the set M.

“Represent C as a subset of M and give the answer to the question:


“What is the cardinality of the set of profits?”

The new math was ditched as I graduated from high school in the mid-1970s, but it was too late for me. I suffer post-traumatic stress disorder at the sight of word problems.

At the time, though, I was embarrassed by my failure to get a B in this class. I was at my most physically awkward and had a male teacher for the first time in my life. It seemed to me that Mr. M. spent way too much time helping the class beauties, to my detriment. That was the problem, I explained to Dad. Hadn’t I aced long division at the Village School?

The revelation raised his hackles, and he went off to do battle with Mr. M. I waited anxiously at home, biting my fingernails to the quick. But when he returned, he gave me a stern look and said, “You don’t understand this math.”

Since he didn’t understand it either, he bought a couple of books so I could help myself. I somehow made it through that year and the next, and went on to algebra and geometry in high school.

This kind of clear-eyed parental involvement is missing in many children’s lives. I’m glad my parents did not hover over me like today’s “helicopter” moms and dads. They just wanted me to go to school every day, get As and Bs and stay clear of detention hall. The latter was not a problem as I was terminally shy.


At the same time, they always went to open house, gave me rides to and from school activities and local libraries, provided me with materials and a place to study, and assumed I would do well and go to college. Our house was filled with books.

My parents supported me. They didn’t neglect my needs or prop me up.

When the topic of school reform is discussed, parents are rarely mentioned.

Yet any educator will agree that parents are essential to children’s success. Nowadays, though, parents who make excuses for their kids’ laziness, bad behavior or poor grades are just as unhelpful as those who can’t be bothered to get up in the morning to make sure their children are properly dressed and eat a good breakfast.

Which brings me to Gov. Paul LePage’s “report cards” for Maine schools. Of course the most affluent Maine communities received the top grades. Money always helps. The parents in these communities also are more likely to be college-educated, and know how to work the system.

If Jonathan IV can’t pass the calculus he needs to get into a pre-med program, they’ll hire a tutor. If Johnny is a total goof-off, he’ll probably go to prep school for a year to get his act in shape.


As an educator myself, I have seen a few students do well without parental support. A very few.

Schoolwork can’t be your first priority if you have to babysit younger siblings, share an apartment with six people and have no place to study; if your parent uses drugs or drinks to excess or has an untreated mental illness; or if you are homeless.

I appreciate my clean, cozy, safe house. I thank God daily for the parents and childhood he gave me.

Leaving home life, socioeconomic status and parental involvement out of his grading system earns LePage a solid “F” from me.

Liz Soares welcomes e-mail at [email protected]

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