By Mordechai Schmutter
It’s almost September, and I’m sure all of you kids are excited to go back to school. “Finally,” right? It’s about time.
OK, so maybe that’s not what you’re thinking. Even kids who do well in school don’t really want to be there. There’s nothing in life that you want to do 300 days in a row, let alone sit on a hard chair and be forced to memorize how many times 8 goes into 56. Hasn’t this teacher ever heard of calculators? When am I ever going to have to use this stuff in the adult world? When am I ever going to have to write, in paragraph form, what I did over the summer? Or write in script? I have never seen a single book written in script in my entire life. And every form that my parents fill out says, “PLEASE PRINT.”
But I’m here to tell you today that you’re wrong. Everyone needs to go to school, so they can learn the four Rs (reading, riting, rithmetic, and spelling), as well as anything else the teachers deem necessary. For example, every once in a while, my wife gets it into her head that we should sit down and make a budget. So first we add up all of our regular expenses. Then we add up our different sources of income. Then we compare the two numbers, and we realize that our expenses are way more than our income. But until we sat down and did the math, we were somehow sliding by every month. So I’m pretty sure that the math they taught us in school is wrong and that sometimes it’s just better not to use it.
In general, though, most of the things you learn in school are useful in real life, just maybe not in the ways you might think. I’ve taken the time to come up with several examples, because, as a teacher who spends countless hours every year arguing with his students about just this question, I find that I can never come up with answers on the spot.
Division. Comes in handy a lot, if you’re a parent. Let’s say you’re divvying up a package of Sour Stix for Shabbos party, and your kids, of course, will not let you rest (very important on Shabbos) unless you give them all exactly the same “much.” (As opposed to a different much.) If one kid gets even a single inch more than the others, you will never hear the end of it. Five months from now you’ll be giving out Sour Stix again, and one of your kids will pipe up, “Yeah, but Heshy should get a shorter piece, because remember last time he got a longer one?” And of course you don’t have a calculator available, because it’s Shabbos, and you’re not about to sit down on Friday afternoon and figure out how many inches of stickiness you’re going to give each kid. But if we teach our kids about division, maybe they’ll have something else going on in their heads so they won’t keep information like this stewing for five months. Especially since, as soon as you go up for a nap, they’re all going to sneak more Sour Stix anyway. But also, if you learn division, you can split them all up evenly, by which I mean give each kid three pieces and say that the rest are for Mommy.
Long division. For people with 11 kids or more.
Fractions. Come in handy when you’re yelling at your husband: “I don’t believe you just ate ¾ of the pie! I haven’t even put it in the oven yet!” It’s also pretty useful for when you’re disciplining your kids but haven’t come up with a creative punishment yet, so you’re trying to push things off in the hopes that they’ll get their act together: “All right, that’s it. I’m counting. 1 . . . 2 . . . 2½ … 2¾ . . . 2⅞ . . . I’m almost up to three . . . 2 and 15/16 . . .”
Percents. Like fractions, percents are useful primarily for communicating loudly with your spouse. (“You know, sometimes I feel like I do 90 percent of the work around here!”) They also come in handy when you’re telling people how sure you are about something. Statistically (like 99% of the time), you are like 99.99999% sure of things, although, as far as how sure you actually are, every 9 you add to the end takes off about five percent, because if you were really that sure, you wouldn’t waste so much time adding nines.
Grammar. Unlike math, which is all about yelling at your family, grammar is about promoting shalom bayis. Let’s say your wife is making a small cake for Pesach, and the recipe calls for 36 eggs. So she wants you to buy three containers of a dozen eggs (as opposed to the containers that contain a half-dozen eggs), and she writes on your shopping list, “three dozen-containers of eggs.” Now if she puts the hyphen in the wrong place, or if you never learned to read hyphens, then you will end up buying three-dozen containers of eggs, or 432 eggs, which is enough for almost the entire Pesach. The only issue is that you don’t know where to put them. So your wife tells you to order two hundred-cubic-foot refrigerators, and because you never learned to read hyphens, you buy two-hundred cubic-foot refrigerators, each of which will fit maybe one carton of eggs, if you bend it right.
Geography. Comes in handy when you’re playing Jewish Geography. That way, you don’t say things like, “You’re from New York? Do you know the Cohens?” As if the entire New York is one small village where everyone lives in a circle around City Hall and knows each other by first names and helps each other raise barns every other Sunday. Knowing geography also comes in handy when you’re trying to escape persecution.
Science projects. Teach you that if you build something yourself, it’s not going to work. This is very handy if you grow up to own a home, and everything you install yourself looks like it was put up by accident.
Physics. Comes in handy when you’re trying to rid your kids of their illogical fears, such as getting sucked down the drain of the bathtub, or that a monster will single them out of millions of kids, scale the outside wall of the house, and cram himself into their closet that is so full that you can’t even get it closed when there’s no monster in there. Learning physics might also stop them from throwing objects in the general direction of the garbage and expecting it to go around walls and through the lid to get in there, and trying to pour an entire half-gallon of milk into an 8-ounce cup and continuing to attempt this even after the cup has already started running over.
Word problems. Kids hate word problems.
“You have 20 apples. Chaim takes 8 apples, and Moishy takes 6 apples . . .”
Wait. Why am I friends with these people?
It grinds the entire math page to a halt.
“This other person you don’t know has a math problem. Do you want to help him out?”
No! I’m nine years old! This is really not my problem.
“Baruch’s wife wants him to paint his living room pink, because she thinks it will go with the drapes. Baruch has no idea why he’s even agreeing to this, but if he doesn’t, his wife is once again going to give him a hard time about his drum set. So he gets to work. His living room is 10 feet high and 15 feet long, but one end is 13 feet wide while the other is 9 feet wide. How long is it going to take Baruch to realize that he’s standing in the paint?”
Look, I don’t need to know his whole life story. Can’t you just give me the numbers?
But the truth is that, in the real world, every problem is a word problem. No one just hands you numbers and not tell you what they are. Except maybe your wife.
“Plug these into the calculator: 500, 600, 450 . . .”
“What are these?”
“Okay, I’m sorry I asked.”
Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of three books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com.