Last night, my son asked me to quiz him in preparation for a geometry test. He handed me his notebook and pointed to the shapes and definitions he needed to memorize. Then he sat back, ready and waiting.

“Define a rhombus,” I said.

He quickly replied, “An equilateral quadrilateral!”

I looked at his notes where he had written “a parallelogram with four equal sides” in a messy scrawl and said, “Wrong!”

I handed the notebook back to him and suggested he review his notes before we tried again.

He took the notebook and looked at the definition and said, “Mom! That’s the same thing I just said. I’m right. I just used different words!”

He then explained why they were the same and I zoned out because math (in general) and geometry (specifically) have never been my strong suits. 

I remember, in high school, sitting at the dining room table with my father as he tried to help me with first algebra and then geometry. He was so patient, going over the same material time and time again as he tried to help me understand the concepts. I had no patience for him, however, and our homework sessions often ended with me crying and yelling, “You don’t know anything!”

When I sit with my son and try to help him with his math, just as my father helped me, there are times when he says to me in frustration, “You don’t know anything!” and I am tethered to the past. I can see the dynamics of parent and child played out anew.

I don’t take my son’s outbursts personally, having a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree gives me a certain amount of credibility with my kids. They think of me as someone who was a good student, as someone who is smart and accomplished. So I may not understand a rhombus but my son doesn’t make any sweeping generalizations about my intelligence.

But now, as an adult, I wonder if my comments hurt my father. He wanted to go to college but never had the opportunity. His parents died shortly after he got out of the Army and he took over the family business and then started a family of his own. When I was frustrated with him, I would think, “What could he possibly know about this?” because I thought education was the only hallmark of intelligence. If my comments stabbed at the old wound of a lost dream, he never let me know. He just took a deep breath, pointed the pencil at the problem and said, “Relax and try again.”

My father raised me to believe that I would go to college, that it was the only option for my future. He valued my academic achievements above all else and took pride in the fact that I graduated at the top of my class and went on to a good college. He didn’t live to see me graduate but, on that day, I thought of him and accepted my diploma for both of us.

I thought of him last night too as I struggled with the rhombus and quadrilaterals. If he could see me now, he would laugh that deep laugh that made his shoulders shake and he would tell me I deserve every tantrum over math my son throws at me. Karma.


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